Five minutes into last night’s Rockets-Magic game.
Dwight Howard caught the pass, jabbed left, dribbled right, spun right, ended up right in Samuel Dalembert’s teeth. The bastard child of a dunk and layup split the net above staggering Samuel’s head. Houston tried to immediately counter with a mad dash down the floor. Kevin Martin might have seen Dwight coming because he hoisted the layup so high above the rim. Howard viciously punched the offering as it hovered parallel to the top of the backboard square. He did this while in a 45 degree lean, looking something like a zooming Superman indeed.
In that moment, “Superman” made so much more sense as Dwight’s moniker than it ever did as Shaq’s. Superman is brawny, but also ubiquitously mobile. When I think, “Faster than a speeding bullet,” Shaquille O’Neal does not come to mind. But Dwight Howard moves as though asked by gun powder.
I especially enjoyed this loud end-to-end sequence because Howard can seem like a hidden superstar. People are naturally keyed on watching the ball, and Dwight gets rid of it in the time it takes a fuzzy camera shot to focus crisply. He sometimes shoots instantly upon catching an entry pass. Occasionally, he takes a dribble or two, but it is a true event to see Dwight exceed three floor thumps. This man can easily burn more clock doing his post-rebound elbow shimmy than he might on traditional post-ups.
Despite his ball brevity, he is the best center. And it isn’t even close. Howard’s nearest challenger may be Andrew Bynum, whom the Lakers would gladly swap for Dwight in a trade your fantasy commissioner (or real commissioner?) would veto. If you consider Tim Duncan a center, then Timmy provides nearly half of Dwight’s estimated wins. If you consider Al Horford a center, then he trails Howard 26.13 to 20.79 in last year’s PER rankings, while blocking only one shot per game. And if you consider Brook Lopez, your consideration is another overworked party in this compressed NBA season.
Howard obliterated would-be peers while standing only 6’ 9’’ in socks. Since he hails from the Shaq-Robinson-Chamberlain cannon of big man dominance, it is often forgotten that Dwight is average center height. Howard is the same height as Kevin Durant, and a full inch shorter than LaMarcus Aldridge. But D12 carries shoulder pads under his skin -- he’s a three-headed monster when I take my glasses off. Dwight’s imposing physique helps fuel a “dominance” aura, but quick-twitch athleticism does more to fuel his actual dominance. Faster than a speeding bullet.
While it is difficult to envision most NBA big men sprinting -- at least in scenarios where torch-bearing villagers aren’t chasing them -- Howard runs fluidly. While his predecessors would camp out and own a large swath of space, Dwight Howard rents timeshares all over the court. Though his ancestor is Shaquille O’Neal, Howard’s defensive game is just as close to Josh Smith’s.
The Magic center is superior, but few seem impressed. To some, Dwight Howard's success signifies how far the center position has fallen. DH lacks touch from anywhere he can't dunk from and he plays with mine-shaft court vision. It is easy to glance at Howard’s still rough offensive game and dismiss him as Wilt, the Stilted.
There is truth to the notion that big men aren't what they used to be. Compared to '90s centers, Howard is less visibly involved in his team’s offense. Below, I’ve listed some career-best usage percentage (percentage of a team's plays used by one player) years from notable bigs:
Patrick Ewing: 31.5, 95-96
David Robinson: 32.0, 93-94
Shaquille O’Neal: 32.9, 97-98
Hakeem Olajuwon: 31.9, 95-96
Rik Smits: 29.2, 97-98
Dwight Howard: 27.2, 10-11
So the best center of this generation, the one teams are ready to gut their rosters for, is less involved offensively than a healthy Rik Smits was. I think some would look at this and lament how we’ve lost our centers, how we’ve stopped making them like we stopped making quality cars, football stadiums, and every other pride signifier in this handbasket-to-hell nation.
I’ll disagree -- respectfully. We never stopped producing quality centers -- we just changed their environment. Back in the '90s, illegal defense rules allowed big men to work with some freedom. Re-appropriating from a piece I wrote on illegal defense’s impact:
These days, it’s commonly said that defenders should be connected “on a string,” their movements inextricably linked. A little over one decade ago, this wasn’t the case. Perimeter defenders were bound to whomever they guarded, and guard-defender units would orbit a dribbling post player like single electrons an atom’s periphery. If there was a “string,” then it connected man to marker.
Occasionally, the defender could break off to double-team this dribbling post player, but, that defensive player could only return to his original mark. Picture Reggie Miller racing over to harmlessly flail at a posting Patrick Ewing, then sprinting back to the three point line so as to cover an open John Starks. The lack of team-defense rotation made it relatively easy for post players to spot an open man (Hint: He’s from whence the double team came).
The allowance of zones shrunk a center’s offensive work space while expanding his defensive work space. Rules that “opened up the game” for current perimeter players, closed it for scoring bigs.
In these new environs, Dwight Howard represents the adaptability of Darwin's island finches. Offense Island made it dangerous for big men to get their points from plodding post play. So Dwight moves swiftly and treats the ball like a hand grenade. Defense Island implored big men to move on a string, mirroring the choreography of smaller, quicker players. So Dwight does this with aplomb while maintaining integrity as a shot blocker and rebounder.
Would it be nice if Dwight Howard added a feathery jumper or intricate post game? Sure, but those skills are ancillary to what makes him great in this particular environment. In the past, big men were defined by skills Dwight lacks. In the past, teams would have far rather had someone like Brook Lopez than someone like Joakim Noah or Tyson Chandler. If centers aren't what they used to be, it's because they're being what they need to be.
In today's NBA: If you're faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound...who cares if your fadeaway reeks?