Making the case for Dwight Howard.
That's a sentence I didn't believe I would ever type, speak, or even think. To be clear, I still don't think he's the best fit for Portland but to play devil's advocate I wanted to take a look at the dark side and see what Howard really had to offer.
For those who aren't aware, Dwight Howard was first mate to James Harden's captain as they "teamed" up to run their ship, the S.S. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, aka the Houston Rockets, aground. Together they took a team from the Western Conference Finals last season to a team that needed the ball to bounce their way on the last day of the season to make it into the NBA Playoffs with a 41-41 record.
That level of collapse, the ineptitude, the toxicity of the situation - it points to Howard and Harden almost exclusively as the culprits for their downfall. For Howard this isn't so much becoming a trend as the expected outcome. Ever since the awkward press conference in Orlando it's been assumed that Howard has some issues as it pertains to ego, legacy, and his perceived standing in the league.
If one were to look over the past six years of Howard's career, they would see three teams that have been torn to shreds from the inside out. The Orlando Magic have been mired in obscurity since he left them. Howard's arrival in Los Angeles, where he joined Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant, signaled the beginning of the end for the purple and gold. Now it appears his time in Houston is done.
Clearly, this isn't making a great case for Dwight Howard. Let's try this instead:
Dwight Howard took the 2008-09 Orlando Magic to the NBA Finals. In every year since then he has shot 57 percent or better from the field. He's averaged 10.5 or more total rebounds per game. Regardless of his team, he's put up a positive DBPM (Defensive Box Plus/Minus) and with the exception of the 2014-15 season, has had Win Shares greater than 6.6 every year since.
So basically, regardless of the team or who's around him, the man still scores and does so efficiently. He stills pulls down rebounds at an elite level, and even when all but two players on his team sport a negative DBPM he still stands out as a defensive player.
If one were to look at his per game numbers, one might assume Howard's a one-dimensional player - someone who occasionally makes a shot or two but isn't fed the ball all that often and isn't necessarily relied on to generate a ton of offense. For the 2015-16 season, that would be dead right.
This past year, Howard rolled to the rim and received the pass 91 times in 71 games. Clint Capela had 101 such possessions this year for the Rockets. By comparison, Karl Anthony-Towns had 358 rim runs this year. Howard was fed a few post-ups per game, getting 297 opportunities in 71 games (basically four post-ups per game). Take those post-up chances and where he featured as the roll man and combined they don't come close to Harden's possessions in the pick-and-roll alone (606 possessions).
Howard attempted 8.5 shots per game last year. The only time he took less? His rookie season. For all of the negativity that surrounded Houston's season, you can't blame Howard as the one who was chucking up shots all night long. Heck, the shots he did get up his finished at a 62 percent clip!
For those who like to go with more of an eye test, how about a quick video edit of Howard in action:
The first two edits show how devastatingly effective Howard can be in the pick-and-roll as the roll man. Remember, the Rockets got him the ball a little more than once per game in this instance. Once. Per. Game. For this? Howard violates statutes in 37 states on the first dunk - you're telling me that isn't an efficient way to get points?
Step back and imagine Damian Lillard or CJ McCollum running the pick-and-roll - which they ran a combined 1,457 times this season - with Dwight Howard instead of Mason Plumlee. Now wipe that smile off your face because it hasn't happened yet. Regardless of how you feel about Howard, the attention he demands off the roll isn't something the Blazers have had in any real capacity since Rasheed Wallace.
Yes, LaMarcus was fantastic in the pick-and-roll - particularly the pop - but he was not a threat to roll to the rim and dunk on an entire group of five at once. That is something totally unto itself. Howard, even at 30 years old, still possesses elite level athleticism that dictates teams pay him serious attention anytime he starts moving that 6-foot-10, 275-pound body through the lane.
Let's for a second take a look at how Howard and Mason Plumlee stack up. No one is going to make an argument that Plumlee is in the category of Howard as a player or athlete. But it's important to look at how much of an impact someone of Howard's caliber could have on the Blazers both offensively and defensively.
Plumlee ranked in the 46th percentile at 0.98 PPP (Points Per Possession) as the roll man out of the pick-and-roll this past year. Howard came in at the 71st percentile at 1.10 PPP. In 71 total post-ups, Mason Plumlee managed 0.87 PPP during the regular season. Howard, in 297 post-ups, averaged slightly less at 0.82 PPP falling in at the 46th percentile.
That doesn't really tell us anymore than we would expect. Dwight is pretty darn good rolling to the rim, and clearly he's an option to get the ball down to in the post when you need some points. He's also a clear upgrade over Plumlee in both areas. As a roll man, we've already seen what Howard can do. The fact that you can actually post Howard up as a legitimate option puts him miles ahead of where Plumlee currently is in his developmental cycle.
How about defensively?
When guarding the roll man, Plumlee ranked in the bottom third of the league giving up 1.01 PPP. While Howard - who played behind arguably the laziest defender in the league - put up a somewhat respectable 0.94 PPP when picking up the roll man.
While the big man game isn't what is once was, teams that have the option to throw it down to an effective low post scorer did so with impunity this past year against Portland. Plumlee gave up an atrocious 1.03 PPP in the post, hovering slightly above the 15th percentile. Meanwhile, Howard is over here sporting a 0.82 PPP allowed in the post. That's a stark contrast, and a near 20 percent improvement per possession.
So offensively, Howard is clearly the better option. He presents a real threat rolling to the rim, and offers some semblance of a post game as another weapon that could be utilized by the offensively gifted and creative coach, Terry Stotts.
On the defensive side of the ball, Howard covers up some of the nastiness that was prevalent this past year for Portland: pick-and-roll defense and post-up defense. Throw in that Howard offers elite level rebounding and shot blocking and, as expected, Howard is a clear, huge upgrade over Plumlee.
This isn't meant to paint Plumlee as a terrible player. This is only to show that Howard can cover up for some of the nasty deficiencies that currently exist in his game.
Now, let's address some of the other negatives that typically get tagged onto Howard. One of which makes no sense - he doesn't "hustle." Howard finished in the top 10 last year in both put-back possessions and points. Meaning he chases down offensive rebounds like a junkyard dog.
Defensive rebounds are no different, as Howard finished No. 5 in the league in defensive rebound percentage at 29.3 percent. Howard also finished No. 10 in the league in blocks per game. I can't remember the last time a guy who doesn't hustle ended the season as one of the best all-around rebounders and shot blockers in the entire league.
Another bugaboo that has been associated with Howard has been that he's injury prone. In Howard's 12 years of service, he's played fewer than 71 games exactly twice. The 2011-12 season when he played 54 games and the 2014-15 season when he played 41 games are the only times Howard missed more than 11 games in a season. For a high usage big, missing 10-ish games or less per season is absolutely fantastic.
Howard is clearly a massive upgrade at the center position for the Portland Trail Blazers. Matching his game, running the pick-and-roll and feeding him in the post seems like, on the surface, something that could easily be integrated into the "Stottsfense" seamlessly.
The big question here becomes price. Howard currently has a player option that sits at over $23.2 million. In an attempt to rehabilitate some of his tarnished image, Howard granted an exclusive interview with ESPN writer Jackie MacMullan. In that interview he openly stated that he believes he's still a max-level player.
Howard ticks all the boxes that Blazers fans have been looking for - rim protector, pick-and-roll support on both ends of the floor, a legitimate third option on the offensive side, and a mobile defender to cover up some of the holes along the backcourt.
Does Dwight Howard bring enough to the table, offensively and defensively, to justify a price tag that will most certainly exceed $25 million per year?