How to win with Dwight Howard

Not since Shaquille O'Neal's heyday has the fantasy world seen a player as divisive as Dwight Howard. His value is constantly (and viciously) debated in fantasy circles. Some love him, while others will flat-out refuse to draft him due to the fact that he can single-handedly destroy your team's free throw percentage. Shooting just 59.4 percent from the line on a league-high 10.7 attempts per game, Howard was without a doubt fantasy's worst free throw shooter in 2008-09.

You'll notice that Howard ranks eighth in our preseason rankings. These rankings are based on our preseason projections that were then fed into the Player Rater. Depending on who you talk to, having Dwight at No. 8 is either just right or way too high. Other sites likely will have him ranked lower. In fact, he'll probably range anywhere from a high of 8 to a low of 30 (and yes, I have seen him ranked that low). That's quite a discrepancy for a player of Howard's talent. There's even some dissension among the writers here at ESPN.com. In those late-September rankings, Keith Lipscomb put Howard eighth, I have him ninth and Eric Karabell has him 19th.

Clearly there is quite a bit of debate surrounding Howard's fantasy value, just as there was with Shaq back in the day. Rankings, however, can be fairly overrated. Sure, rankings can give you a good idea of a player's value in a vacuum. But we don't play in a vacuum, and in fantasy hoops, a player's value should always be relative to the strengths and weaknesses of your team. My Draft-Day Manifesto covers this idea in depth, but the key for the purposes of this column is that an elite player like Howard can be more or less valuable depending on your strategy and how well you build your roster around him.

That said, one could easily make the case that Howard is a top-5 fantasy player if, and only if, the strategy is right. At the same time, selecting Howard could be disastrous if done without a solid game plan. So how do we devise a plan to win with Howard? Let's find out.

Howard's true dominance revealed

Before we get into the specifics of the strategy, I want to explain just how dominant Howard is in almost every category other than free throw percentage. If these numbers don't sell you on why you can overlook his free throw shooting woes and still win, nothing will. Also, this will help give you an idea of what categories we're going to be looking to build upon during the draft.

Points: Among eligible players, only two managed to average 20 points and 10 rebounds in 2008-09. Chris Bosh was one (22.7, 10.0); Dwight Howard was the other (20.6, 13.8). Tim Duncan and Yao Ming were close, and Al Jefferson would have if he hadn't missed 32 games with a knee injury. That's only five players, folks, and one of those players (Yao) will miss the entire 2009-10 season.

Rebounds: Howard led the league in rebounds by a healthy margin. The next closest was Troy Murphy (11.8), two rebounds per game behind. Roto leaguers will be happy to know that Howard totaled 1,093 boards on the season, 142 more than the next closest competitor, David Lee. Also of note, only five players pulled down 800 or more rebounds in 2008-09.

Blocks: By far the fantasy game's most elusive category, and Howard led the league by a wide margin (2.9 per game). No one else was even close. His 231 swats on the season were 56 more than second-place Chris Andersen's 175. Howard was one of five players to average at least 2.0 blocks for the season, and two of those players were barely fantasy worthy because of their lack of contributions in any other category (Andersen and Ronny Turiaf).

Steals: Howard averaged a steal per game in 2008-09 (rounding up his 0.97 per game), which is fairly pedestrian overall, but fantastic for a big man. Consider that only five players averaged at least eight boards and one steal per game and only three managed to average a steal and 1.5 blocks last season.

Field goal percentage: Howard was one of seven players to connect on at least 50 percent of his shots while also attempting at least 950 shots from the floor. Of course, among those same players, Howard's .572 percentage was the highest. I would argue that Pau Gasol's .567 on 1,045 shots is slightly more valuable, but Gasol might be the only player in the league who can best Howard in this fantasy category.

About that free throw percentage …

All of those impressive numbers might look tempting, but what about Dwight's free throw percentage? We've already noted that, thanks to his poor percentage and high number of attempts, Howard is by far the fantasy game's worst contributor in this area. With 849 free throws on the season, he attempted 78 more than the next closest contender, Dwyane Wade. He was also one of only three players to attempt 400 or more free throws and shoot worse than 70 percent (Shaquille O'Neal and Tim Duncan). I don't think I need to sell you on how bad this actually is, do I? But, even with all of that, not all is lost when it comes to Howard and your free throw percentage.

First off, he's not Shaq, or what Shaq used to be. Shaq's free throw percentage during his prime routinely sat in the low-to-mid 50s. Multiple times he shot below 50 percent during his career while leading the league in attempts. Howard isn't even close to that level of stink; he has never shot worse than 58.6 percent during his five-year career. So it's not like we're forced into punting the free throw category when we decide to take Howard (as you'll see later).

Second, Howard actually has the potential to shoot better than 60 percent from the line. He shot 63.6 percent in 228 attempts during last season's playoff run (23 games) and he actually doesn't have terrible form from the line. He gets solid backspin on the ball and there's a nice arc when he puts it up. With that said, there's certainly some potential here -- unlike O'Neal, who threw line drives up there and never really had the potential to shoot better.

Still, since we have four straight years of data with sub-60 percent shooting, fantasy owners shouldn't bank on an improvement in 2009-10. Let's assume, then, that Howard is going to match his free throw shooting from a season ago. Where does that leave us in the grand scheme of things?

Avg. Free Throw Percentage, By Ranking
15 Select Standard Leagues, Past 3 Years

The league free throw percentage in 2008-09 was .771. But last season was a bit of an anomaly for free throw shooters. In fact, last season's league average was the best we've seen this decade. The league average typically stands at around 75 percent, and there's normally not much deviation from that number from year-to-year. Realistically, we should expect the league to come back down in line with the historical data in 2009-10.

To help give you an idea of where you want to stand in the free throw percentage category, I compiled data from 15 real fantasy leagues over the past three seasons (this helps account for the anomaly last season). The leagues used in the study were standard ESPN 10-team roto leagues. The results are shown on the left.

According to the data, if you want to finish in the top three in your league in FT percentage, you better assemble a team that can shoot better than 78 percent. And if you want to finish in the middle of that pack, you'll need a team that shoots around 77 percent from the line. Is this even possible if you select Howard in the early going? Sure it is. But do we really want to sell out just to finish in the middle of the pack in FT percentage? The answer may be different depending on if you're playing in a roto or head-to-head (H2H) format.

Roto strategy

To punt or not to punt, that is the question. For the uninitiated, punting a category in fantasy sports is a strategy in which an owner completely ignores a particular category while focusing on building up strengths in the rest of the categories. It's a strategy that can work, but only if it's done right. When we get to the H2H section, I'll discuss this more. For now, I want to focus on drafting Howard but not punting, because the prevailing theory is that it cannot be done successfully. This is simply not true.

In order to make it happen, you'll need to surround him with players who not only shoot a high percentage but also help you cover your bases in the big picture (remember the Manifesto). It's not the easiest thing in the world, but it can be done. Before we look at specific players, it's important to note that when we draft Howard, we're not looking to finish in the top three in FT percentage. Rather, we're trying to finish middle of the pack; somewhere around 76-77 percent will do just fine given how dominant you'll already be in the rest of the categories.

You'll need to find one or preferably two free throw shooting specialists who not only will shoot a high percentage but also will get to the line at a high clip. I can't stress the importance of attempts enough, particularly in roto formats. In order to balance out Howard's heavily weighted FT percentage, you'll need a few other guys who are heavily weighted themselves. Let's see how this works in practice.

When healthy, Kevin Martin is one of the league's best free throw shooters. He knocks them down at an 86.7 percent clip and gets to the line 10.3 times per game. Let's see what happens when you take season averages and pair him with Howard:

Howard: 6.4 free throws made (FTM), 10.7 free throws attempted (FTA)
Martin: 9.0 FTM, 10.3 FTA

Total: 15.4 FTM, 21.0 FTA = .733 percentage

By adding Martin, your team free throw percentage would stand at 73.3 percent. As you can see, the sheer power of Martin's attempts already gives you a somewhat respectable percentage to work with. It's not great, but we can work with that, right?

Now, let's add another quality free throw shooter to the mix to see what happens. And let's call that player David West:

Howard: 6.4 FTM, 10.7 FTA
Martin: 9.0 FTM, 10.3 FTA
West: 4.8 FTM, 5.5 FTA
Total: 20.2 FTM, 26.5 FTA = .762 percentage

Now we're talking, right? Taking a look back at the average league data above, these three players would have you ranked right around seventh in your league's FT percentage category, and right within striking distance of the middle of the pack. And that's all we're really trying to do here. Fill out the rest of your roster with players who can hit at least 77 percent of their free throws and you'll do just fine.

The key, however, is getting that one stud from the free throw line like Kevin Martin. And in roto leagues, it's important for that one stud to stay healthy because we're talking totals and not averages in roto formats. There aren't many out there who can be found outside the first round (assuming Howard is your first-round pick), so pay close attention to the following list:

Kevin Martin: 86.7 percent, 10.3 attempts
Devin Harris: 82.0 percent, 8.8 attempts
Corey Maggette: 82.4 percent, 8.1 attempts
Chris Bosh: 81.7 percent, 8.0 attempts (side note: this would be perfect if you have the last pick of the first round. Howard and Bosh back to back!)
Amare Stoudemire: 83.5 percent, 7.3 attempts (ditto)
Carmelo Anthony: 79.3 percent, 7.1 attempts
Paul Pierce: 83.0 percent, 6.8 attempts
Brandon Roy: 82.4 percent, 6.5 attempts
Richard Jefferson: 80.5 percent, 6.2 attempts

Other FT percentage studs outside of the first round: Stephen Jackson, Chauncey Billups, Caron Butler, David West, Jamal Crawford, Russell Westbrook, Vince Carter, Hedo Turkoglu, Andre Miller, Michael Redd, Gilbert Arenas.

If you aren't punting, you really need to sell out to get yourself at least two players from the list above. The nice thing about the list is that all of these players can help you in other categories. It's not like you're grabbing only one-category specialists here. That way you can ensure that you're still covering all your categorical needs.

The biggest challenge, therefore, will be finding big men who complement Howard's strengths and shoot well from the line. The problem is, there aren't many of them, as big men are notorious for their lack of touch at the stripe. Remember, we're looking to assemble a team of players that all shoot better than 77 percent from the line. For big men, we can probably live with 73 percent or greater as long as we get some guards who shoot higher than 80-81 percent. With that said, here are the big men you should be looking at on draft day. Again, we're looking only at players who can realistically be found outside of the first round based on our current average draft positions:

Late-first/early-second round: Al Jefferson (.738), Bosh (.817), Stoudemire (.835), Gasol (78.1). (Another side note: I believe this to be the best strategy for winning with Howard in roto leagues. Draft him in the first, then follow that up with another dominant big man who can hit his free throws.

Second and third rounds: Kevin Garnett (.841), David West (.884), Troy Murphy (.826).

Fourth and fifth rounds: Elton Brand (.736 career), Brook Lopez (.793), Gerald Wallace (.804), Antawn Jamison (.754).

Sixth and seventh rounds: Mehmet Okur (.817), LaMarcus Aldridge (.781), Tyrus Thomas (.783).

Others: Kevin Love (.789), Luis Scola (.765), David Lee (.755), Rasheed Wallace (.772), Zydrunas Ilgauskas (.799), Jermaine O'Neal (.788).

Notice that you don't see players like Tim Duncan, Emeka Okafor or Andris Biedrins on this list. If we're not punting, we simply cannot afford to take another player who is a major drain on the free throw percentage category. Still, there are plenty of big-men options available to choose from. You just have to pick wisely.

Executing the strategy

Now that we've gone through a whole bunch of players, let's see what it looks like in practice. Here's a sample draft for those in roto leagues. The rules are simple: I'm assuming that we have a late first-round selection where we'll take Howard. I'll then select one player from each round -- who will realistically be available -- and assemble a team that can compete in free throw percentage while staying balanced across the board. To do this, I'm using our latest average draft position (ADP) numbers:

Round 1: Dwight Howard
Round 2: Pau Gasol
Round 3: Devin Harris
Round 4: Brook Lopez
Round 5: Russell Westbrook
Round 6: O.J. Mayo
Round 7: Andre Miller
Round 8: Luis Scola
Round 9: J.R. Smith
Round 10: Mike Conley
Round 11: Jamal Crawford
Round 12: Wilson Chandler
Round 13: Aaron Brooks

Now, I realize that this is just one scenario, but this sort of exercise can unfold in many different ways. There are plenty of options available in each round that can give you a well-rounded squad while still keeping you competitive in the free throw percentage category. Granted, the ADP data likely will change during the next month, so we'll have to revisit this at a later date, but it still gives you a pretty good idea of how to work this strategy.

Based on last season's data, the team assembled above would finish the year with a free throw percentage close to 78 percent, good enough for you to finish around fourth in your league in the category. Not too bad, huh?

One important note before we continue: As I was going through this exercise, I realized just how important it is to pair Howard with big men who hit their free throws early in the draft. There simply aren't many big men who can complement him while keeping things respectable from the line. The best way to do this, therefore, is to jump on these big men early and then load up on point guards and swingmen in the middle and late rounds.

Of course, this isn't the only way to win with Howard in a roto league. You can always attempt to punt the free throw category and load up everywhere else. If you want to go that route, be sure to read the "Art of Punting" section below.

Head-to-head strategy: The art of punting

In H2H formats, Howard becomes a much more attractive player. Remember, in H2H play, you need to win only one more category than your opponent. So losing one category on a consistent basis isn't a big deal, especially when you are winning points, rebounds, blocks and field goal percentage every week. In fact, I am so high on Howard in H2H formats that I would even draft him as early as fifth or sixth overall.

That said, there really is only one clear choice when developing a strategy around Dwight in H2H. Punting is the way to go. But when you punt, you better make sure that you are stacked enough in your strengths that you win them each and every week. The best way to do this with Howard is to focus most of your energy on his best categories: points, rebounds, blocks, field goal percentage and steals. You'll also want to go heavy on point guards who rack up assists and steals, and swingmen who can hit 3-pointers, so that you can win the assist or 3-point category from time to time.

Top 50 on Player Rater, 2008-09
Discounting Free Throw Percentage

When you punt the free throw category, you'll want to re-evaluate players who are highly ranked based on the strength of their free throw shooting. What we're doing here is putting our blinders on and taking the free throw line out of the equation. Would Kevin Martin still be a fourth-rounder if he didn't shoot close to 87 percent on 10.3 attempts from the line? Probably not. Part of what makes Martin such a great fantasy commodity is his efficiency from the line. Owners know that, and they draft him accordingly. But if you're punting, you have to take into account that his free throw shooting is worthless to you and your strategy. So while Martin is primed to put up big numbers from the line and will help you in other categories, you shouldn't find him on any roster alongside Howard when the punting strategy is employed. The value just isn't there to select him in the fourth round. Of course, this isn't to say that you shouldn't draft Martin if he falls. Just that you probably won't have the opportunity to draft him because he'll likely be gone by the time the value is right for you and your strategy.

On the flip side, you'll likely be able to find some solid players in the bargain bin if you are ignoring free throw percentage. Take Emeka Okafor, for instance. He is devalued in the fantasy game, largely because of his poor free throw percentage. According to our ADP numbers, Okafor can be found mostly in the seventh round in fantasy drafts. But for those who are ignoring the FT percentage category, Okafor is more like a fourth- or fifth-round value. Of course, those of us who are punting won't have to reach that high for him. Why would we? The thing is, Okafor is much more valuable for our strategy than he is to the other owners in the league. Let your league continue to think that and scoop him up at a discount (for you) in the sixth or early seventh round.

The fantasy landscape looks a lot different when you ignore the free throw percentage category. You'll need to break most of your preconceived notions about player rankings in order to find the right values on draft day. The nice part about this is that your rankings will look a lot different than the rest of your league and you should be able to get your target players more often than not.

To give you an idea of just how different player values might look when you take away the FT percentage category, I went through last season's Player Rater and ran the numbers again, but eliminated FT percentage as a contributing category. As you see on the right, this drastically changes the values of certain players.

Disclaimer: These rankings are based on last season's numbers only. Do not go into your draft with this list because you likely will fail miserably. The new rankings are only meant to give you a good idea of some players that you should move up slightly or down slightly in your personal rankings if you are drafting Howard and using the punting strategy.

You'll notice that Howard ranks second on this list. That is not a surprise given how dominant he is just about everywhere else. What is surprising, however, is how much more valuable guys like Shaquille O'Neal, Andre Iguodala, Tim Duncan, Emeka Okafor, Rajon Rondo, Josh Smith, Andris Biedrins and Lamar Odom become. How about how far Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Durant, Danny Granger, Steve Nash, Deron Williams, Mo Williams and Chauncey Billups fall?

So if someone wants to take Chauncey Billups in the third round, let them. He's much more valuable to them at that spot than he is to you. Instead, grab Rondo a little later when the value is right for you. It's important to note, however, that we have to be careful not to outsmart ourselves here. We're not avoiding all players who shoot well from the free throw line. Remember, Chauncey is still a great fantasy player regardless of his percentage from the stripe. If he slips a little too far on draft day, you'd be doing yourself a disservice if you didn't scoop him up.

Final thoughts

This may seem like a lot of work for just one player, maybe too much work. But Howard is dominant enough that the extra time and effort will be worth it in the end. Trust me, you don't want to go into the draft and find yourself selecting Howard without a plan in place. I've been there and done that … and I've lost. So if you're going to draft Howard, take the extra hour or two to come up with a game plan.

Brian McKitish is a fantasy basketball analyst for ESPN.com. He can be reached at bmckitish@yahoo.com.