Thursday, October 3, 2013
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar talks Dwight Howard
By Henry Abbott
This is an interesting and strong criticism, which points out an important issue in how we assess players.
As a baseline: Let us all agree Kareem is right. Dwight Howard has flaws that are fairly easy to spot. That's the simple part.
The much more interesting part, however, is that Howard is among the NBA's most effective players despite these flaws. Riddle me that!
As Abdul-Jabbar’s, or any other critics’, arguments become more convincing, the mystery of Howard’s wonderful results on the court becomes more exciting:
- Since 2005, Howard's teams have consistently outplayed the opposition with Howard on the court, usually by a significant margin. Beginning in 2007-08, his plus/minus numbers on the season, per NBA.com/stats, were +5.9, +7.0, +7.5 and +6.4. These are rare numbers. The Lakers and Howard had horrible 2012-13 seasons, but the team was +1.8 with Howard on the court.
- Howard joined the league out of high school, can't hit free throws worth a darn and has one of the most criticized offensive games in the league. Yet, the lowest true shooting percentage of his career was 56.5 percent -- and he has often been much better than that, including an entire season at an incredible 63 percent. For fun and comparison, the player with the most polished offensive game -- Kobe Bryant -- has only surpassed 56.5 percent in three of his 17 seasons. Howard has a career playoff true shooting percentage of 62 percent.
- Howard has won plenty in the playoffs, and once led Jameer Nelson, Hedo Turkoglu and company to the 2009 NBA Finals, while anchoring the offense and defense.
In other words, what's wrong with Howard is pretty easy to spot. He looks clumsy with the ball, basically. He makes mistakes. What's more interesting and important, however, is what's right, because clearly it's something. These aren't cutesy stats, and they aren't cherry-picked from a month here or there. Nearly a decade of efficiently turning possessions into points, playing league-leading defense and outscoring the opposition is exactly how you win games. That is value.
This reminds me of the kinds of things people said about young LeBron James. He was doing so many things so well while leading bad teams deep into the playoffs year after year. And one of the most common lines of conversation was, oddly, what he couldn't do. I believe that's born in part because of the incredible bodies James and Howard have. They are both enormously tall, quick and nimble, and covered in muscles. It's almost unfair.
Abdul-Jabbar made a historic career not out of a body that wasn't nearly as imposing as Howard's, but with the honing of likely the most unstoppable scoring move ever, the skyhook. Abdul-Jabbar sees Howard's body a little like Michael Jordan sees LeBron's body. I imagine both thinking, essentially: "Imagine what I could do with that." The natural conclusion of that line of thinking is that Dwight and LeBron are disappointments, and when you look for evidence, it's on video.
He isn't doing what we want him to do. He's not perfect, even though his body is.
Also, it's very hard to both know what's wrong with something and declare it the best; it's just against human nature. But that doesn't mean it can't still be true. Usain Bolt can let up in the final 10 yards (horrible strategy!) and still be way faster than anybody else in the world. Annoying, but true.
And all that talk of shortcomings in regard to Howard, Bolt or James is also another way of saying they could be so much better.
LeBron made a few tweaks to his always-excellent game, and now he's the undisputed best player in the game.
Abdul-Jabbar's talk of Howard's flaws may be on the money. But we must take all that knowing that Howard's seldom-discussed strengths, whatever they may be, have consistently overwhelmed those flaws. And maybe he could be much better, which could certainly be seen as bad news for the Howard camp, for the Rockets and for anyone who believes in his future.
But couldn't it also be good news?