It didn't take Dwight Howard too long to become an NBA superstar, but it's going to be a while before we actually figure out what his legacy will be.
D12 entered the league in 2004, when he was selected first overall by the Orlando Magic over Emeka Okafor, who I thought was the best player in the draft (well, that didn't work out). It took Howard a few years to acclimate himself with the NBA game (it's not too easy to go from playing 15-18 year old kids who probably won't play college basketball to playing grown men), but by his fourth year, he was more or less the player he is today, averaging 20.7 points, a league-leading 14.2 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per game.
In 2009, Howard led the Orlando Magic to the NBA Finals, and was named Defensive Player of the Year, which was the first of three consecutive DPOY awards.
We all know what happened from there. Howard continued to produce, he became more and more comfortable, he stole Shaq's Superman act and became more and more of a diva. He held Orlando hostage during the 2011-12 season before shockingly opting into the next year of his contract, only to force a trade to the Los Angeles Lakers in the summer of 2012 (a trade that the Magic got the best of, by the way).
After his lone, injury-riddled season with the Los Angeles Lakers, where a team with four Hall of Famers barely made the playoffs, Howard jetted for a Houston, where he teamed up with James Harden to create one of the league's best one-two punches.
We saw what happened the first year in Houston, and we know that Houston is 11-3 to start the season against mostly bottom-tier opponents. So far this year, Howard has been his normal self, averaging 18.8 points, 11.3 rebounds and 2.3 blocks, while shooting 58 percent from the field and a whopping 46 percent from the line.
Howard's missed the last few games with a strained knee, but when he's been in the games he's looked healthier than he did at any point during last year's regular season
So, where does Howard rank among the NBA's top centers? Personally, even though I'm a Rockets fan, I have him as the third best center in basketball, behind both Marc Gasol and Joakim Noah. To make it clear, I don't believe that replacing Howard with them in a one-for-one trade would necessarily make the Rockets better, as the team is constructed to have two self-sufficient scorers surrounded by three-point specialists which would negate the passing ability of both Noah and Gasol. What I am saying is that if I had to build a winner and could pick any center to anchor my team, I would pick Gasol and Noah (in that order) over Howard.
Here's how the NBA's three best 5's stack up in the gospel for inexperienced sports fans; stats:
DWS= Defensive Win Shares
OWS= Offensive Win Shares
WS= Win Shares
PER= Player Efficiency Rating
Howard: 18.8 points, 11.3 rebounds, 1.3 assists, .8 steals, 2.3 blocks, 3.3 turnovers, 58% FG, 46% FT, 26.4% USG, 20.1 PER, .2 OWS, .9 DWS. 1.1 WS
Gasol: 19.1 points, 7.8 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 1.3 steals, 1.5 blocks, 2.8 turnovers, 48% FG, 83% FT, 25.8% USG, 21.3 PER, .8 OWS, .9 DWS, 1.7 WS
Noah: 8.3 points, 9.5 rebounds, 4.4 assists, .6 steals, 1.3 blocks, 1.5 turnovers, 45% FG, 59% FT, 15% USG, 15.5 PER, .4 OWS, .5 DWS, .9 WS
Howard and Gasol are comparable statistically and Noah is nowhere near the offensive player that the other two are. However, basketball isn't solely about statistics (unless you're Wilt Chamberlain or Ricky Davis) and although we can draw conclusions from the data we have, numbers alone fail to paint an accurate picture. Yeah, if we were to cue up NBA 2k15, Howard's rating would be the best of these three, but that doesn't directly translate over to the court. Each of these guys brings something different to the table and each serves a different role for their team.
Gasol is an offensive facilitator, one of three main scorers (well, this year it's looking like four with Courtney Lee pouring in nearly 15 a night, but I don't think he can sustain that kind of production), and defensive backbone for the Memphis Grizzlies. Many of the team's sets are run through him, allowing him to turn and face from the elbow, either looking to facilitate or score.
He can also take smaller, weaker defenders down into the lane, as over half of his field goal attempts this season have been from inside 10 feet. There's absolutely no doubt that Gasol is the most valuable member of the Grizzlies, which was made evident by the team's 10-13 record without him, and 40-19 record with him last season (talk about Wins Above Replacement, eh? Kosta Koufas would probably be the perfect example of the imagined WAR substitute at center too).
Here's what I imagine Hubie Brown has to say about Gasol:
Well, here's a guy who's going to get you 18 points, eight boards, over 3 assists and 1 and a half blocks AND steals per game. He's an elite defender in this league, with a Defensive Player of the Year award under his belt. Okay. He's a solid rebounder who always finds himself in the right spot and is willing to fight for position every possession. Alright. And, offensively, he can do everything you'd want a big guy to do: he can post, face the basket, catch and shoot from up to 20 feet, play the two-man game and he's a magnificent passer. He is one of the premier players in the league today.
Psshhht, Hubie. He's still got it (he didn't really say any of that, but if you say it with a Hubie accent it sounds legit).
Noah's function for the Chicago Bulls is pretty unique. Last year's Defensive Player of the Year has a never-ending motor, and his passion and intensity are infectious. His offensive function is mostly limited to facilitating from the perimeter and/or screening and crashing the offensive boards, but he has no delusions about his role at that end of the floor; he always plays within himself.
Defensively, he's the team's anchor, playing the best pick and roll defense of any big man in the league, while protecting the lane (more so by moving his feet and getting in front of penetrating guards than raising up and blocking shots like D12) and owning the glass.
His leadership can't be understated, and although most fans want to quantify each characteristic (like the primal "he get steal, he good on defense" idea), you can give his leadership this number: 48. As in 48 wins in 2013-14 despite no depth, no D-Rose, no Luol Deng and Kirk Hinrich and D.J Augustin BOTH playing more than 29 minutes a game. If you tell me there's no validity to that number applying to Noah, then there is no pleasing you.
I will admit that Noah is my kind of guy, so I'm a little bit prejudiced in this comparison. I like fire, passion and tenacity. Howard is a big teddy bear and Noah is a rabid wolf. My belief that clumsy big men are rhythm killers in today's perimeter-oriented offenses also plays a big part in my opinion on Noah and Howard.
Unlike the other two, Howard's function on the Rockets is less clear. We know that he's the second-best offensive player on the team; we know that he's the only post player on the roster; we know that he's a defensive force, especially when it comes to rim protecting (although he doesn't like having to step away from the basket); we know that he's a top-tier rebounder; we know he's one of two guys on the team who can create his own shot consistently.
But with all those attributes, what does it add up to? Yeah, you could simply say he's one of the best back-to-the-basket big men in the game today, but how much does that mean in a league that's moving away from back-em-down bruisers?
I mean, defenders can take a charge on a post up nowadays; how often did you see that when centers reigned supreme and those little 6-foot pawns (guards) were begging for respect? Never. Now the tables have turned and the only thing left to do is adapt.
Howard, for all his physical gifts, is less evolved than both Gaosl and Noah, and less likely to be part of a winning team in the league's changing climate. Big guys who are simply stronger than almost everyone else or jump higher than everyone else are no longer the next big thing; now, they're lurking outside the top tier at their position (like Andre Drummond and DeAndre Jordan). Howard is a far superior player to both Jordan and Drummond, but the point is that you need some finesse and ball skills in today's game, even at the 5.
The truth of the matter is this: Until Howard develops both a killer instinct and a better feel for the game (two things that are nearly impossible to teach at the pro level, especially when you're as old as he is), he'll never be as successful as he should be.
Dwight was taught how to post up. He learned how to drop step and how to pin. He learned how to shoot over both shoulders, turning his hips on jump hooks and ripping the ball in front of him on face ups to create room. He learned how to set screens and open up to the basket afterwards, keeping the hedging defender on the wrong side of him.
He learned all of those things from his coaches, but on the court, coaches can't help you. They can't make him read the rotating help defender, allowing him to make the optimal pass, not just the open pass. They aren't in his ear in the post telling him which shoulder to go over and which move to use according to the way the defense is playing him and where he is on the court.
Most of all, no one can make Dwight smell blood. He simply isn't programmed the way Hakeem Olajuwon or Shaquille O'Neal were; he doesn't see Cole Aldrich step on the floor and decide "this guy's going back to the bench in two minutes with three fouls and I'm about to get a quick six points." He doesn't think like that, and even if he did, he doesn't have the on-court intelligence to get that done in any other way than calling for the ball on the block.
This lack of a killer instinct also works against him as a leader, as it's hard to feed off the energy of a guy who's always laughing and who points to the bench after getting a block while losing down the stretch of a game (which is an offense punishable by death in both San Antonio and Chicago, and I hear that Detroit is contemplating it as well).
Unfortunately for Rockets fans (like myself), Howard's deficiencies will probably make him an unfulfilled promise for the rest of his career.
And sadly, he'll never fully understand why.