Keep your eyes off the ball

July, 24, 2012
7/24/12
4:02
PM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
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Dwight Howard
Fernando Medina/NBAE/Getty Images
It's not a thing of beauty, but that doesn't mean Dwight Howard is ineffective.

Ethan Sherwood Strauss has written something amazing on HoopSpeak. On the one hand, it's insight into the Dwight Howard vs. Andrew Bynum debate, with several tactful turns of phrase.

It's also far more than that, pointing to something really important about how we watch basketball -- namely, watching the ball as it pings around the court can mislead you in predictable ways.

Ethan writes:
I often hear that Howard has “no offensive game” or “no post moves.” This is the kind of hyperbole that misleads not just because it is hyperbole, but because its spirit is wrong. Howard is a good offensive player; he’s not merely subsisting on alley oops and tip-ins.

Dwight’s footwork is fine, he can often freeze a guy with a rocker step and jaunt towards the rim. Back to the basket, Dwight likes to shade one way, and fluidly spin in the other direction, leaving his defender to watch the whirl. If you’re looking at Dwight’s feet, you won’t find his Achilles’ heel.

Flaws can be found in his handle, his court vision, and yes, his (free throw and otherwise) shooting. Fortunately for him, these flaws round out the least essential elements for a prototypical big man.

I don’t think the aforementioned flaws contribute much to the negative perception of Howard’s offense, with the exception of his shooting. But his problem is broader than an errant shot–it’s how bad it looks when the ball goes in. Dwight’s form is highly constrained, as though he’s trying to avoid an invisible barrier. Howard does not feel comfortable fully unfurling his lengthy arms, so he always appears to be pulling back from the ball, even as he pushes it.

This description is also applicable to Dwight’s hook shot, which can have the vertical trajectory of a floater. For whatever reason, Howard prefers to loft the ball rather than swing his arm towards the basket a la Kareem. This can give the visual impression that his made buckets are almost accidental, especially since Dwight pulls back from the ball at the last instant, like a batter checking a swing. It is hard for an observer to have confidence in such a method, even if the method is sound.

When Andrew Bynum takes a hook shot, his fully extended arm is grazing planets. The shot is blessed by a fluid, swinging, follow through. Bynum’s hand chases the ball towards its destination, making success seem quite intentional. When the twine flutters, Drew is still pointing in that direction. If you used CGI to make the ball invisible, Bynum would look like a wizard, casting a spell at the net. If you did the same with a Dwight shot, the swish might appear more coincidental than summoned.

Aside from free throws, there is nothing, nothing at all that Andrew Bynum does better than Dwight Howard. And yet, there is the sense that Bynum’s game is more refined.

Ethan opens his post with talk of beauty. Howard, he says, doesn't have the beauty to his game that Bynum does, and people love to see things that are pretty, and tend to overvalue them.

I'd add one more wrinkle: When most of us watch basketball, we watch the ball. That's normal -- that's where the action is -- especially if you're watching for entertainment, as opposed to scouting your next opponent.

But any scout will tell you us ball-watchers are poorly equipped to judge who is really playing well. I asked David Thorpe this morning for some examples of things you miss when just watching the ball and he asked "how many do you want?" Within seconds he was rattling off: What did the perimeter players do to get open? How are the bigs handling their crucial away-from-the-play duties? All the work that goes into offensive rebounding before the shot is even released.

I stopped him there, but he could have gone on.

The normal outcome of watching the ball, however, is to put a ton of stock in things people do with the ball, while crowding out the other things that go into wins.

The point of scouting staffs and advanced statistics is to note those other things. And if you're not paying attention to what advanced stats and scouting staffs have to say, and if you are judging the game based on what the guy with the ball does, then it is almost avoidable that you will overvalue scoring. (You can even see this in teams. The Knicks, for instance, have long paid a premium for scoring, while generally undervaluing other skills. It's a good bet James Dolan is a ball-watcher.)

Scoring's the main thing people do with the ball. People who do a lot of it will always have vehement fans in the stands. But are they actually helping their team with that scoring?

Depends how much it cost in lost opportunities. As a rookie, Derrick Rose scored a ton, but didn't help his team much 'cause he missed quite a bit, played so-so defense and didn't get to the line very often. To the naked eye, and by looking for great scoring moments, Rose played similarly last season. But to scouts and advanced stats, his game had progressed immensely -- now he is clearly helping his team, thanks to stuff that you might not notice just watching the ball.

Monta Ellis has long been polarizing for the same reasons: One of the best in the business at racking up dazzling memories for ball-watchers, and one of the worst in the business at helping his team score efficiently.

Andre Iguodala is the opposite: He is an all-star in terms of all the things he does all over the court. With the ball, he's so-so. Is it any wonder Philly fans have a hard time believing he's good?

This, to me, is what Howard has going on: He's a defense-first player who does unspectacular but efficient things on offense. He is among the best in the world at things that happen when he doesn't have the ball. But with the ball, he looks awkward. And so long as that's true, those who only watch the action where the ball is -- the majority of fans -- will always doubt.

Henry Abbott | email

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