Is Dwight Howard Undervalued?

J.M. Poulard —  August 15, 2012

The question posed in the title might seem utterly ridiculous given that it’s a widely accepted fact that the former Magic big man is the best center in the league and also perhaps arguably the second or third best player in the NBA.

Many will readily admit that he is the standard by which all active defensive players should be measured and that no one does a better job of fighting for position and tracking down rebounds during games in addition to his offensive responsibilities. Thus, Dwight Howard is an elite player; and once again, many are quite fine with this notion.

But here’s the problem: when it’s time to quantify that, he tends to get shortchanged. Sounds preposterous right? Well have a look at the MVP voting in the past few seasons and it paints a perfect picture of how undervalued the best center in the game is.

One can forgive the fact that Howard came up 7TH in voting for the 2011-12 season given the fact he missed a small chunk of the season and kind of turned off voters because of his trade demand — although one could argue that his request should in no way affect his candidacy — but what about his previous seasons?

He finished the 2010-11 regular season second in MVP votes to Derrick Rose, but one could make the case that he would have finished third if LeBron James wasn’t carrying a huge bull’s eye on his back that stemmed from the Decision and the Miami Heat welcome party.

The 2009-10 season saw D12 finish fourth in voting behind LeBron James (winner), Kevin Durant, and Kobe Bryant respectively.

And if we look back to the 2008-09 season, the former Defensive Player of the Year finished fourth again behind LeBron James (winner), Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade in that specific order.

This is not to say that Howard should have won the Maurice Podoloff trophy in three of the past four seasons, but perhaps he should have obtained more votes and finished higher than where he eventually landed. Granted, voting occasionally comes down to biases — a voter that resides on the east coast may have more chances to watch a player from the Eastern Conference than one in the Western Conference — as well as other subjective requirements that make it tough to accurately gauge who should win the Most Valuable Player award.

But in this case, the argument isn’t that Howard should have won, but rather that more consideration should have been thrown his way.

Normally, when voting for the award, it’s impossible not to look at the player’s production, his contribution to his team and obviously the team’s overall record. Typically, fans and voters alike look for a player to be one of the best in the league, to be dominant in games and to lead his team to somewhere along the lines of a top five record in the NBA. It’s not a perfect science, but this partly explains why LeBron James has won three out of the past four MVP trophies, and why Derrick Rose won the award at the conclusion of the 2010-11 season.

But if we look deeper, we’ll notice that Howard’s performance in the past four seasons was more than worthy of finishing in the top three in voting.

During the 2008-09 regular season, Howard led the league in rebounds per game and blocks per game all the while putting up 20.6 points per game for an Orlando Magic team that finished with an impressive 59-23 record (fourth best record in the league).

His brilliant defense combined with his presence on offense allowed an Orlando Magic team to not only have one of the best records in the league but also to make it all the way to the NBA Finals before falling at the hands of the Los Angeles Lakers.

Given that the Cleveland Cavaliers finished with a 66-17 record and that the Lakers finished with a 65-17 record, one can understand why LeBron James and Kobe Bryant finished first and second respectively in voting. Both were playing at the top of their games with teams that finished with the two best records in the league.

Mind you, the Miami Heat finished with a mediocre at best 43-39 record on the strength of Dwyane Wade’s superhuman performance that season as he finished second to LeBron James in player efficiency ranking thanks to his Jerry West-like statistical line of 30.2 points per game, 5 rebounds per game and 7.5 assists per game on 49.1 percent field goal shooting.

Clearly a case can be made that Wade’s impressive season could warrant supplanting Howard’s; but Dwight’s team won 16 more games and the current Lakers’ center was an overall plus-6.7 that season in terms of plus-minus rating (according to NBA.com’s advanced stats tool) whereas the player formerly known as Flash was a mere plus-0.3. Although D12 should have gotten the nod, one can understand why Wade got more votes given his great performance that season.

If we jump to the 2009-10 regular season, Howard somehow got lost in the shuffle and finished fourth in MVP voting. LeBron James won his second Maurice Podoloff award on the strength of his Cavaliers having the best record in the league all the while submitting the best PER in the NBA.

Kevin Durant finished second in the voting with the Oklahoma City Thunder going 50-32 and earning the eighth seed in the Western Conference playoffs. KD led the league in scoring that season and also submitted good rebounding numbers, which in the mind of many made him a stud that OKC could not do without. The Thunder forward finished the season with a plus-3.5 plus-minus rating, mind you his defense at the time needed some work.

The case for Durant was a relatively good one at the time it seemed, but sometimes the benefit of hindsight can help give some perspective. Kobe Bryant’s Los Angeles Lakers had the best third best record in the league while the Black Mamba played to his usual standards as he submitted a cool 27, 5 and 5 line for the season and enjoyed his last season as an at times elite level defender. His great defensive energy came in spurts during the regular season and showed up during the playoffs, but Bryant was clearly a top player in that season and perhaps should have finished higher than Durant in MVP voting given the multiple facets in which he affected games (scoring, playmaking and defense).

But one thing that is definitely clear is that Howard should have cruised to second place once all the votes had been accumulated at the end of the 2009-10 season. The perennial All-Star once again led the league in rebounds per game as well as blocks per game and provided his stellar brand of defense as usual and led the Orlando Magic to the second best record in the league. Much like he is today, he was a matchup nightmare and a player that often had to be doubled in order to limit the damage he did on the interior against opponents. And keep in mind, much like he had for most of his career, D12 appeared in all 82 regular season games and yet finished fourth in the voting.

In addition, one can easily make the claim that no one did more with less in terms of talent than both LeBron James and Dwight Howard during this stretch. Both players had to maximize the talent of those around them regardless of how poor it was and yet they respectively led their teams in 2010 to the two best records in the league despite glaring weaknesses on their squads as well as the fact that they constantly had to play at a high level for their teams to be competitive even against some of the weaker teams in the NBA. And somehow James was crowned as the most valuable player in basketball whereas Dwight was nothing more than afterthought.

Considering Dwight Howard’s level of production in recent seasons and the almost surreal level at which he defends, it seems awfully silly to sit here and regurgitate the fact that he has been at least for the past three or four seasons one of the three best players in the league and that his high level of play has not only kept the Magic contending for playoff appearances but also put them in the top echelon of teams judging by their overall record of 207-105 (66.4 percent winning percentage) in the last four seasons. And yet, it seems necessary to throw out reminders given that few seem to have recognized this.

Perhaps the issue is not Howard himself, but rather how fans, media members and other players view the league as a whole. Indeed, it’s easier to appreciate a perimeter player’s game given the beauty, grace, aesthetics and polish that one can directly see in it. Thus, watching the likes of LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant and Dwyane Wade operate on a basketball court is far more enjoyable for most than observing Dwight Howard battle on the block for post position, rebounding position and what have you. In addition, there is a stigma associated to centers, where more just seems to always be expected.

Consider this tidbit, in the last 20 NBA seasons, only three centers have been crowned as the league MVP (Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson and Shaquille O’Neal), with the most recent one getting awarded in the spring of 2000 (O’Neal).

It may not be fair, but in order for Howard to ever get great consideration for the prestigious individual honor, he may have to surpass the terrific level of play he has given fans and the league in recent seasons.

But there may be an ace in the hole for the former Olympian: should he produce at the same rate during the 2012-13 season that he has in the past and that the Los Angeles Lakers win somewhere between 60 and 69 games, voters might not be able to ignore D12 anymore considering that he would be doing it on a juggernaut and in a huge market.

I have this saying that I like to use: “win, lose or draw; everything is always bigger with the Lakers”.

And Dwight Howard might just be the one to prove it…

Statistical support provided by NBA.com


J.M. Poulard

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