TrueHoop: Orlando Magic

TrueHoop TV: Oladipo you don't know

October, 26, 2013
Gutierrez By Israel Gutierrez

Israel Gutierrez explains the Magic guard who might be the NBA's most interesting rookie.

5 Notes to Know: 2013 NBA Draft

June, 27, 2013
By ESPN Stats & Information
The 2013 NBA Draft begins Thursday night at 7 pm eastern at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, NY (Live on ESPN & WatchESPN). Let’s run through five notes to know before the action gets underway:

• The Cleveland Cavaliers have the first-overall pick for the fifth time in team history, tied with the Houston Rockets for most in the Common Draft Era (since 1966). It’s also the second time that the Cavs have held the No. 1 pick the last three years. The Elias Sports Bureau says they would be the fourth team to pick first overall twice in a three-year span, joining the Magic (1992 and 1993), the Rockets (1983 and 1984) and Trail Blazers (1972 and 1974).

• The Orlando Magic hold the second pick and they have had good luck with the organization’s five previous top-five selections. Three of them – Shaquille O'Neal, Chris Webber and Mike Miller – won Rookie of the Year, and three of them – O’Neal, Webber and Dwight Howard – have each been selected to at least five All-Star Games. Webber, of course, was selected first overall by the Magic in 1993 but traded to the Warriors on draft night.

• According to Elias, at least one son of a former NBA player has been selected in each of the last 11 drafts. Last year it was Austin Rivers, son of Doc, who was taken 10th overall by the Pelicans (then Hornets). Michigan’s Tim Hardaway Jr., son of Tim, is one player that would continue the streak should be selected in 2013.

• The Hawks, Cavaliers, Timberwolves, and Trail Blazers each have four selections in the 2013 draft, tied for most by any team. It’s the second straight year that Portland has four picks and it’s the third straight year with at least four picks for the Cavaliers. Conversely, the Warriors, Heat, and Raptors are the only three teams without a 2013 draft pick.

• Since the NBA draft lottery began in 1985, 13 of the 28 first-overall picks went on to win the Rookie of the Year Award, most recently Kyrie Irving for the Cavaliers in 2011-12. The last player selected first overall that won the Rookie of the Year Award and reached the postseason was Derrick Rose for the Bulls in 2008-09. The last player to do so and win a playoff series? Tim Duncan for the Spurs in 1997-98. Duncan is also the last player to win an NBA title with the team that selected him first overall.

How Lakers will feel Howard's impact

August, 10, 2012
By ESPN Stats & Info

Fernando Medina/NBAE/Getty ImagesPairing Kobe Bryant with Dwight Howard, the Lakers are poised to change the landscape of the NBA.
Dwight Howard is the newest member of the Los Angeles Lakers, having officially been traded from the Orlando Magic in a four-team deal. His impact on the Lakers is expected to be immense, but just how much better will they be after acquiring the NBA’s premier center?

According to AccuScore, the Lakers are expected to gain 6.3 wins with the addition of Howard, which in last year’s standings would have been good enough to vault them from the third seed in the Western Conference to the top spot. Adding Howard and Steve Nash to a lineup that already includes Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol gives L.A. a “Big Four” that will be as formidable as any the league has ever seen. With Nash and Howard, the Lakers now have the NBA leaders in points, rebounds, assists, blocks and free-throw percentage over the last seven seasons.

Howard could impact more than just the post for the Lakers. Among players that played at least 10 games last season, Orlando had five with a three-point percentage greater than 35 percent. On their current roster, the Lakers have just two such players: Nash and Steve Blake.

One question that could persist thoughout is this: How will Howard and Gasol coexist? While Gasol and Andrew Bynum, who was shipped to the Philadelphia 76ers as part of the trade, had a great deal of success playing together in the regular season over the past two years, it wasn’t the same story in the playoffs. The Lakers were actually outscored in the last two postseasons when Gasol and Bynum were on the court at the same time. L.A. sees Howard as an upgrade over Bynum – although their numbers were very similar last season – but the team’s ability to match up with smaller lineups could be an issue.

It comes as no surprise that losing Howard will be a serious blow to the Magic. After making the playoffs in each of the last six seasons, Orlando is likely to take a major step back after losing Howard and Jason Richardson and getting little in return in terms of impact players. AccuScore predicts the Magic to lose 15.2 wins this season without Howard and finish 14th in the East.

One look at how the Magic have performed with and without Howard on the floor tells the story. Over the last three seasons, the team outscored opponents by 7.9 points per 48 minutes with Howard on the court. When he was on the bench, Orlando was outscored by 2.7 points per 48 minutes.

The Denver Nuggets’ acquisition of Andre Iguodala as part of the Howard deal might fly under the radar, but his addition to the lineup should prove to be a major upgrade for the Nuggets, especially on the defensive side of the ball.

Andre Iguodala
The shipped-off Arron Afflalo is going to Orlando after allowing the third-most points per play among on-ball defenders last season, while Iguodala tied for 25th in the category. He’ll also provide scoring punch for the Nuggets, averaging 15.3 points for his career.

For more on what each team can expect after the blockbuster trade, click here.

Lin, Howard would be nice pick-and-roll duo

July, 18, 2012
By Micah Adams, ESPN Stats & Information

Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty ImagesWith Jeremy Lin now officially a member of the Rockets, is Dwight Howard next?
It’s official: Jeremy Lin is a Houston Rocket... but that doesn’t mean Rockets GM Daryl Morey is done wheeling and dealing. With Lin in the fold, how might he fit in a potential partnership with Houston’s other target, Dwight Howard?


In addition to being a defensive force, Howard is the best pick-and-roll finisher in the NBA. He averaged 1.38 points per play as the roll man on pick-and-rolls last season, best in the league among players with at least 35 plays.

On the surface, it might not appear Lin would be the ideal pick-and-roll point guard to pair with Howard. On all of his passes out of the pick-and-roll, Lin ranked in just the 40th percentile in points per play.

However, when going exclusively to the roll man, Lin ranked in the 72nd percentile (fifth of 35 point guards with 100 plays). That compares favorably to both Howard’s current and preferred point guards.

Orlando’s Jameer Nelson ranked 15th among that group of 35 point guards while the Nets’ Deron Williams came in at just 29th on points per play generated on passes to the roll man.


What about Lin playing off of Howard?
Dwight Howard
Despite missing 12 games, Howard still led the NBA with 181 passes to spot-up shooters last season and commanded a hard double-team 5.8 percent of the time he posted up.

Only Andrew Bynum and LaMarcus Aldridge were doubled more frequently so the ability to spot up, spread the floor and punish teams for doubling Howard is important when playing alongside the big fella. Unfortunately, this is not an area in which Lin excels.

Lin shot just 32.0 percent from the 3-point line and ranked in the 55th percentile in spot-up situations (0.94 points per play) last season. He ranked in the 43rd percentile in catch-and-shoot situations (0.86 points per play).


One of the keys to Lin’s success with the Knicks last season was his freedom to make plays. Of the 148 guards with at least 500 minutes last season, Lin’s usage rate of 27.4 ranked 10th. Some players he outranked? Chris Paul, Brandon Jennings and John Wall.

For comparison’s sake, Nelson’s usage rate has been under 23.0 in each of the past six seasons and Lin’s usage rate last season (27.4) would be the second-highest ever among Howard’s backcourt teammates.

The highest rate posted by any guard teammate of Howard’s was 28.4 by Steve Francis during Howard’s rookie campaign in 2004-05.

Despite all the success, plenty of mistakes came along with the freedom Lin enjoyed in New York. Lin averaged 4.7 turnovers per game as a starter, last among the 39 players who made at least 20 starts at the point last season.

Bobcats fighting odds in Lottery

May, 28, 2012
By ESPN Stats & Information
Wednesday's NBA Draft Lottery (ESPN, 8 ET) sees the Charlotte Bobcats with the best odds at acquiring the top selection (25.0 percent) after finishing 7-59 on the season. But the worst record hardly secures the top pick, as just last year the Cleveland Cavaliers won the Draft Lottery with only a 2.8 percent chance.

In addition, since the lottery moved to its present format in 1994, the team with (or tied for) the best odds has won just three of the 18 lotteries: Philadelphia 76ers in 1996 (Allen Iverson), Cavaliers in 2003 (LeBron James) and Orlando Magic in 2004 (Dwight Howard). By comparison, the teams with the third and fifth-best odds have won four times.

It is new territory for the Bobcats franchise. Since joining the NBA in 2004, Charlotte has never held the No. 1 overall pick, and the Bobcats highest selection was in 2004 when they picked Emeka Okafor No. 2 overall (the Bobcats originally had the No. 4 pick, but traded with the Los Angeles Clippers).

Ten current franchises have never made the No. 1 overall pick in an NBA draft since 1966 (start of common draft). Along with the Bobcats, the Phoenix Suns (0.6 percent chance) are the only other team in the 2012 lottery.

The Houston Rockets, meanwhile, have a 0.5 percent chance of winning the lottery, the third straight year they have held the worst odds. In addition, this is the fifth time in the last 12 years the Rockets have missed the playoffs despite having a winning record.

Looking ahead, since the start of the lottery in 1985, 13 of the 27 No. 1 overall picks have gone on to win the NBA Rookie of the Year Award, including 2011 No. 1 overall pick Kyrie Irving. In addition, since 1990, four overall No. 1 picks went on to win the Rookie of the Year award and make the postseason (Derrick Rose, Tim Duncan, Chris Webber and David Robinson).

Orlando's defense Magic under Van Gundy

May, 21, 2012
By ESPN Stats & Information
It will likely be argued that Stan Van Gundy is a product of his star players. After all, he has only coached teams that included either Dwyane Wade or Dwight Howard. And Howard especially anchored a defensive unit that, in the Van Gundy era, has certainly been one of the best in the league.

For four straight seasons, the Magic ranked in the top five in defensive efficiency -- including first in 2008-09 and second the following season.

Over the five season span that Van Gundy coached the team, the Magic ranked second-best in the league in defensive efficiency, second in defensive field goal percentage and first in points in the paint allowed.

All because of Dwight Howard, you say? Consider that in Howard's three seasons before Van Gundy became head coach, the team ranked 15th, 11th and seventh in those categories.

That could be a product of Howard simply coming into his own and developing into a dominant force as an NBA player. But though Howard reportedly wanted the coach out of town, Van Gundy leaves with several impressive items on his coaching resume.

He reached the playoffs in all five seasons with the Magic and racked up 31 playoff wins. That's more playoff wins than the franchise had in its previous 18 seasons of existence.

Since Van Gundy took over, he led the Magic to a better regular-season record than all but three teams. The only franchsies who were better are the Los Angeles Lakers, Boston Celtics and San Antonio Spurs.

He's not likely to get mentioned in the same breath as Phil Jackson when discussing the greatest NBA coaches, but there is something big that Stan Van Gundy and Jackson have in common: neither coached a losing season.

Jackson coached 20 seasons and never had a losing record, while Van Gundy's total was just eight seasons. Five with the Magic, three with the Heat. And yes, that includes the year with the Heat where Van Gundy was 11-10 before being replaced with Pat Riley.

But Elias tells us that Van Gundy is in rare company. Along with Jackson, the only others who coached at least eight seasons and never had a losing record are former Knicks coach Joe Lapchick and former 76ers coach Billy Cunningham. Both are in the Hall of Fame.

And Van Gundy's .641 career winning percentage puts him in another elevated group: coaches with a winning percentage that high who have coached at least 500 games. Counting Van Gundy, that group is only six members and includes Jackson, Gregg Popovich and Red Auerbach.

But since the 2009 NBA Finals appearance, Van Gundy's Magic teams just haven't had similar success. They had 13 playoff wins that year, beating LeBron James' Cleveland Cavaliers, the Celtics and the Philadelphia 76ers on their way to the Finals.

Since then, they've tallied just two series wins and been bounced by the Atlanta Hawks and Indiana Pacers in consecutive years.

Rust versus rest out West

May, 15, 2012
By Micah Adams, ESPN Stats & Information
Coming off a pair of 1st-Round sweeps, the Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs are each on the front end of series against teams coming off a seven-game series.

The Thunder had eight days off prior to their 29-point demolition of the Los Angeles Lakers (one day of rest) on Monday. The Spurs, who will have had seven days off, open their series Tuesday against the Los Angeles Clippers (one day of rest).

Is it possible for a team to have too much time off between series? At what point does "rest" lend itself to "rust"? If recent history is any indication, "rust" is overrated.

Over the last 15 seasons, teams with at least seven days off are now a perfect 6-0 against teams with just a single day to recover. What's shocking might not be the perfect 6-0 record, but the fact that the games haven't even been close.

The average margin of victory in those six games is nearly 25 points per game. The only one of those six games to be decided by single digits was Game 1 of last year's Western Conference Finals in which the Dallas Mavericks beat the Thunder by nine after leading by as many as 16 in the fourth quarter.

Just how important is that extra day of rest for the team with the quick turnaround? Whereas teams with a week off are perfect when their opponents have just a single day to recover, they are just 5-7 when their opponents have two or more days of rest while averaging 23.5 fewer points per game.

The Elias Sports Bureau tells us that over the last 10 years, there were six series played between one team coming off a sweep and the other off a seven-game series. Five of those six series were won by the team coming off the sweep, with the lone exception being the Orlando Magic's elimination of the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2009 Eastern Conference Finals.

Clippers-Spurs Key Notes

- The team that wins Game 1 of a seven-game series goes on to win 78.2 percent of the time (337-94, including the 1st Round this year).

- This is their first-ever meeting in the postseason.

- The Spurs are 26-2 at home against the Clippers since drafting Tim Duncan. The .929 win percentage is tied for their third-best at home against any team over that span (27-0 vs Golden State Warriors; 14-0 vs Atlanta Hawks).

- To say these teams have differing levels of success in the postseason would be a drastic understatement. Despite being in the NBA for six fewer seasons, the Spurs have more NBA titles (four) than the Clippers have series wins (three). The Spurs have more than four times as many series wins (34) as the Clippers have playoff appearances (eight).

- Much of the focus will be on the matchup between Chris Paul (third in MVP voting) and Tony Parker (fifth in MVP voting). The two have faced off seven times in the postseason, with Parker winning four times. Paul has enjoyed the statistical advantage, averaging 23.7 points per game and 10.7 assists per game (19.4 PPG, 5.7 APG for Parker).

Statistical support for this story given by

Outscoring opponents in the clutch

April, 17, 2012
By Henry Abbott, Trevor Ebaugh, Stats & Info
Mike Brown
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images
The last four years he has coached, Mike Brown's teams have led the league.

Basketball geekery has delved into crunch time in various ways.
  • First there was individual field goal percentage. That's where we learned that the players we thought owned crunch time (for instance Kobe Bryant and Chauncey Billups) actually miss a lot.
  • A year ago, we added something new, looking at team offenses. That's a more important measure, assuming you value wins more than highlights. Who cares who gets the bucket, so long as they're on your team? That's where we learned that most teams were about the same, with some exceptions, including Chris Paul's Hornets, which were amazing.

But all that is only part of the picture. Because as much as we love clutch buckets, clutch wins also have a ton to do with defense. If you're going to point to any team as elite in the clutch, that must be included, and now it is.

As John Hollinger has explained, a lot of what teams do in crunch time is likely random. Looking at tiny parts of games creates some wacky results without a lot of predictive value ... anyone who says they know a team will do well in crunch time is likely fibbing. All teams do both well and poorly at different times. But defense may be a bit of an exception. Teams do seem to play defense with a certain consistency late in games.

Using data from the last five years (current as of today), from games within five points in the final five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime, Trevor Ebaugh of ESPN Stats & Info. dug in and created this pretty Tableau table:

Some of what we noticed:
  • The Cavaliers of LeBron James and Mike Brown were unreal in crunch time, leading the league by a hefty margin for three straight years, with the best performances of any teams in the record. It's easy to see that LeBron James matters here -- once he left for Miami the Cavaliers’ plus/minus plummeted. The Cavs averaged plus-113 with James during those three seasons, and plus one in the two seasons since. Meanwhile, before James, the Heat weren't good in crunch time, but have since become very solid.
  • Mike Brown emerges as an interesting character in crunch time. With James in Cleveland three straight years, and now in Los Angeles after a year off, his teams led the league by this metric every year he has coached in the last half-decade. In this period, neither team has been as good with other coaches, either.
  • The Lakers have by far the best crunch time plus/minus this season (plus-79, the Pacers are second at plus-65). Pau Gasol (plus-78) has been their biggest individual star, followed closely by Andrew Bynum (plus-74). Kobe Bryant ranks third at plus-58. The Lakers achieved this number with the NBA's second-best clutch offense (behind the Magic) and the eighth-best defense.
  • Three teams have shone for five straight years: The Lakers, Celtics and Magic. The Nuggets are flirting with joining that club, too.
  • Superstars matter. Or, at least some do. LeBron James, Derrick Rose, Dirk Nowitzki, Kobe Bryant and Chris Paul almost always end the season positive in this regard -- the only exceptions are Paul and Nowitzki this year, which could still change. Other big names, like Kevin Durant, Tim Duncan, Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade have had more mixed results.
  • Good teams in general do well in crunch time. The top six teams in crunch time plus/minus this season have already locked up playoff spots, for instance (Lakers, Pacers, Hawks, Magic, Spurs and Bulls). But it's hardly a perfect correlation. In fact, surely a lot of what we're seeing in this chart appears to be simple randomness. The Pacers, terrible for a long time, are suddenly leaders. The Kings are excellent crunch time defenders this season. The Hawks are a solid team that is way better than solid late in games. And plenty of good teams -- the Sixers, the Knicks -- are pretty bad with the game on the line.
  • Over the past half-decade, just two teams, the Knicks and Timberwolves, haven't had a single season in positive territory.
  • The top ten late-game offensive teams this season are the Magic, Lakers, Grizzlies, Bulls, Hawks, Pacers, Rockets, Thunder, Spurs and Knicks.
  • The Pacers are by far this season's best defensive team late in close games. They are followed by the Hawks, Kings (!), Spurs, Heat, Magic, Bulls, Lakers, Thunder and Clippers.
  • The Dallas Mavericks have been very good for the last five years, but also have had the biggest drop-off in crunch time performance, from a league-leading plus-117 last season to an anemic minus-16 this season.
  • The Hawks have been good in crunch time for four straight years.
  • The Spurs and Thunder have been up and down.
  • The Houston Rockets (plus-31) and Memphis Grizzlies (plus-28) are the best crunch time teams this season that have yet to lock up a playoff spot. The Los Angeles Clippers (minus-9) are the only playoff team with a negative clutch plus/minus.

Mostly, this feels like it's the tip of the iceberg. There's a lot more to learn about all this, and one of the big questions on the horizon is something Bill James has wrestled with in baseball for quite some time: Is there such a thing as clutch time performers? Are there really players or teams who do better with the game on the line?

That's still not something we know. What we do know is that a lot of what we thought we knew was wrong.

Twitter reacts to Howard's decision

March, 15, 2012
Mason By Beckley Mason

Keys to Sunday's ABC doubleheader

February, 19, 2012
By Micah Adams, ESPN Stats & Information
Mavericks at Knicks – 1 ET on ABC
Despite Friday's loss to the New Orleans Hornets, it’s been a good two weeks for the New York Knicks, who have won seven of eight overall. And while Jeremy Lin has been the toast of New York City, he isn’t the only reason for the Knicks' recent success.

Over their past eight games, the Knicks rank second in the NBA in defensive efficiency, allowing just 93.7 points per 100 possessions. Prior to that, they ranked 11th in that same category.

Their game against the Dallas Mavericks represents the first test in a tough 14-game stretch in which the Knicks will play 11 games against teams with winning records.

Perhaps the biggest key to Sunday's game will be how the Mavericks defend what is suddenly the most pick-and-roll-dependent offense in the NBA.

Since Feb. 4, more than 27 percent of New York’s offensive possessions came via the pick-and-roll, according to video tracking by Synergy Sports. Over the course of the season, that would rank first in the NBA.

Lin in particular has leaned heavily on the pick-and-roll as nearly half of his offensive possessions have come as the P&R ball handler (see chart). Only Steve Nash runs a higher percentage of plays as the P&R ball handler.

Unfortunately for the Knicks, the Mavericks have the league’s top-ranked defense against the pick-and-roll ball handler, allowing just 0.65 points per play and holding opponents to 34 percent shooting.

Also, watch for whether Lin can limit the turnovers. Lin enters Sunday as the most turnover-prone P&R ball handler in the NBA, coughing it up on nearly 30 percent of his possessions. He will look to manage that number against a Mavericks defense which ranks second in the league in forcing turnovers when defending the pick-and-roll.

Magic at Heat - 3:30 ET on ABC
The second half of the ABC doubleheader pits the Orlando Magic at Miami Heat in their second meeting of the season. Orlando beat Miami 102-89 back on Feb. 8, behind a steady barrage of 3-pointers.

In that game, the Magic set a franchise record for 3-point attempts, finishing 17-for-42 from downtown, and actually attempted more 3-pointers than 2-pointers. In more than 16,000 regular-season games over the past 15 seasons, it was just the fifth time a team took more than half of its shots from beyond the arc.

That Orlando won while relying on its outside shooting is no surprise (see chart) -- 33 percent of the Magic’s total points this season have come from 3-pointers, the highest percentage in the NBA.

For Miami to avenge its loss, it will need to do a better job closing out on the Magic's shooters. In spot-up situations, Orlando ranks third in points per play (1.04) while its effective field goal percentage (53.2) ranks second.

Meanwhile, Miami ranks 23rd in defending spot-up situations while giving up a higher percentage of spot-up looks than any other team in the NBA.

The "I" in Knicks spells doom again

January, 21, 2012
By ESPN Stats & Information
The Milwaukee Bucks beat the New York Knicks who have now lost five straight games and stand at 6-9. Although Carmelo Anthony scored 35 points in the loss, the Knicks now stand at just 20-21 since trading for him last February.

A trend of leaning on Anthony in isolation continued against Milwaukee, as Anthony accounted for 15 of the Knicks’ 19 plays in isolation. On the season, the Knicks have ran a higher percentage of isolation plays than any other team, but are shooting just 29.3 percent on such plays, the worst in the NBA.

Brandon Jennings scored a season-high 36 points in the win, but did so without attempting a single free throw. He is the first player to score at least that many points without attempting a free throw since Jason Richardson in January 2008. Two of the three highest scoring games of his career have now come at Madison Square Garden, having hung 37 on March 25 of last season.

Dwight Howard had 21 points and 23 rebounds to lead the Orlando Magic over the Los Angeles Lakers 92-80. It was Howard’s fifth game with at least 20 points and 20 rebounds this season, more than the rest of the NBA combined. According to Elias, Howard is the first player since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1975-76 with at least 20 points and 20 rebounds in five of his team’s first 15 games of the season.

Although Kobe Bryant scored 30 points, the Lakers offense continues to struggle as they failed to top 100 points for the 10th straight game. That is tied for the second-longest such streak by the Lakers in the shot-clock era (since 1954-55).

Despite playing without Derrick Rose, the Chicago Bulls won 114-75, handing the Cleveland Cavaliers their worst home loss in franchise history. According to Elias, the 39-point margin of victory is the second-largest ever by the Bulls over the Cavaliers, trailing only a 121-80 result on December 22, 1970.

Chicago held Cleveland to just 30.3 percent shooting, the fifth-lowest allowed in a game this season. It was the fifth time this season the Bulls have held their opponent to under 35 percent shooting. The Lakers are the only other team with even three such games this season.

• The Philadelphia 76ers beat the Atlanta Hawks 90-76 to improve to 11-4, their best start since starting 11-4 in 2002-03.

• LaMarcus Aldrige had 33 points, 23 rebounds and five assists to lead the Portland Trail Blazers over the Toronto Raptors. He is only the sixth player in the last 25 seasons to reach those threshold in a single game and the first to do it since Kevin Garnett in 2003-04.

• The Detroit Pistons scored 81 points in a loss to the Memphis Grizzlies. It’s Pistons’ 16th straight game they have failed to score 100 points, their third-longest such streak in the shot-clock era.

Dwight Howard: Superman, Darwin finch

December, 27, 2011
Strauss By Ethan Sherwood Strauss
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?

Bench lifts Magic to force Game 6

April, 26, 2011
By ESPN Stats & Info
The Orlando Magic avoided elimination Tuesday with their 101-76 win against the Atlanta Hawks. Orlando has forced the series back to Atlanta, where the Magic have yet to win this season (0-4 during regular season and postseason combined).

After shooting playoff record-low 8.7 percent (2-for-23) from three-point range in Game 4, Orlando rebounded to shoot 42.3 percent (11-for-26) from long distance in Game 5.

Orlando won despite a quiet game from Dwight Howard, who tied a playoff career-low by attempting just four shots. He finished with 8 points and 8 rebounds after recording a 20-15 game in each of the first four games of this series. He sat out all but one minute of the fourth quarter.

The Magic overcame the slow night from Howard due in large part to the strong performance from their bench. After totaling 69 points in the first four games of the series, the Magic bench combined for 49 points in Game 5.

Meanwhile, the Hawks did not get a typical performance from their star bench player, Jamal Crawford (8 points). Crawford had scored at least 20 points off the bench in each of the first four games of the series.

Odds against the Magic still remain long, however. In NBA playoff history, just eight teams have come back from a 3-1 series deficit to win. The Magic franchise has never done it and the Hawks franchise has never allowed it.

In other Eastern Conference action on Tuesday, the Chicago Bulls enjoyed their first playoff series win since 2007 by closing out the Indiana Pacers. It’s just Chicago’s second playoff series win since the 1998 NBA Finals.

Derrick Rose's sprained left ankle didn't seem to hamper him. After shooting 6-for-22 from the field in the Bulls' Game 4 loss, he found his stroke in Game 5, scoring 25 points on 8-of-17 shooting.

In the first four games of the series, Rose shot just 29.7 percent from the field when being guarded by Paul George, but shot 66.7 percent from the field against him in Game 5. During the Bulls' decisive 21-8 run over the last 5:52 of the third quarter Tuesday, nine of Rose's 10 points came against George, all from three-point range.

Rose wasn't the only one feeling it from downtown. The Bulls set a franchise playoff record by making 14 three-pointers (previous high: 13), 11 of which came in the second half. The Bulls led at halftime for the first time in the series and never trailed, though at one point the Pacers closed within four points.

In an odd occurrence, noted three-point specialist Kyle Korver dunked in the game. A pretty rare sight -- he had one dunk the entire regular season.

The Pacers have not won a playoff series since 2005.

Balanced Nuggets continue to roll

March, 31, 2011
By ESPN Stats & Info
The Denver Nuggets won their fourth straight game Wednesday night as Ty Lawson led six Nuggets in double figures with 20 points. The win bumped the Nuggets to 13-4 since trading Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups to the New York Knicks on February 22, the first day after the All-Star break. Denver, in seventh place in the Western Conference at the All-Star break, has quietly climbed to fifth and is arguably playing its best post-break basketball since 2005, when the Nuggets led all teams with a 25-4 record in the second half of the season.

One key to the Nuggets second-half surge has been their ability to protect their home court. Denver is 9-0 at the Pepsi Center after the All-Star break and is outscoring its opponents by 19.7 points per game over that span. Earlier this month, the Nuggets became the first team in NBA history to record three straight home wins by 30 more or points.

They have now topped the 100-point mark in each of their last seven games at home (all wins). The only other teams to win seven straight home games while reaching triple digits in each this season are the San Antonio Spurs and the Los Angeles Lakers.

Hosting a 1st Round playoff series is not out of the question for the Nuggets, who trail the Oklahoma City Thunder by five games with eight games remaining in the race for the four-seed out West. Denver would need some help from Oklahoma City to catch the Thunder, but head-to-head matchups against Kevin Durant and crew on April 5 and April 8 could make things interesting.

Elsewhere in the NBA on Wednesday:

• The Atlanta Hawks knocked off the Orlando Magic by three in a meeting between teams likely to meet in the 1st Round of the Eastern Conference playoffs. The Hawks finish the season 3-1 vs the Magic, the first time they’ve won the season series vs Orlando since 2006-07.

• The Miami Heat beat the Washington Wizards 123-107 to stay two-and-a-half games behind the Chicago Bulls in the Eastern Conference. The Heat are now 14-4 when playing on zero days’ rest this season. Only the Los Angeles Lakers (10-2) have a better record on no days’ rest.

• Carmelo Anthony scored 39 points to lead the Knicks past the New Jersey Nets. It was Anthony’s third straight game with at least 35 points. That’s tied with LaMarcus Aldridge and Monta Ellis for the longest streak of 35-point games in the NBA this season. It’s also tied for Anthony’s longest streak of 35-point games in his career.

Nothing stands in way of Spurs wins

December, 28, 2010
By ESPN Stats & Info
Here’s how well things are going for the San Antonio Spurs.

On a night in which veterans Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili had games that would rank among the worst of their careers, they still beat the Los Angeles Lakers by 15 points, 97-82.

Duncan played 29 minutes and made just one shot, the most minutes he’s played in any of the half-dozen games in which he’s made just one basket or fewer. Ginobili was 3-for-12 from the field, his worst shooting night when taking that many shots in more than two years.

The Spurs shot 42.5 percent from the field, 28.1 percent from 3-point range, and 66.7 percent from the line. A quick check of shows they hadn’t won a game with that sort of statistical combination since beating the Phoenix Suns in November, 2005.

How did they win? It took a great effort from Tony Parker (San Antonio is 21-1 when he scores at least 15 points) and their defense. Los Angeles shot 35.4 percent from the field, the third time they've shot that badly against the Spurs in the 49 regular season games that Kobe Bryant has played against them. Bryant missed 13 straight shots, which according to Elias, is the worst run of misses he's had in any game in his career.

The Lakers have dropped three straight games by at least 15 points, one shy of their longest stretch ever, done in November 2007.

Kobe Bryant matched his worst shooting day of the season, but you can go 8-for-27 against the Minnesota Timberwolves (as he did on November 19) and still win. Not against these Spurs, who have won 11 straight home games.

Elsewhere in the NBA, the Dallas Mavericks 84-76 home loss to the Toronto Raptors may add fuel to Dirk Nowitzki's early MVP candidacy. The Mavericks outscore opponents by 13.3 points per 48 minutes with him on the floor, and get outscored by almost 14 points per 48 minutes with him off the floor. According to Elias, his plus-minus differential of 27.0 is the best in the NBA among qualifying players.

The Celtics and center Shaquille O’Neal got a win over the Indiana Pacers, but he fouled out for the second straight game, this time in just 16 minutes. He’s the first player to foul out of consecutive games, playing 16 minutes or fewer in each since Dan Gadzuric, in December 2008.

Shaquille O'Neal
O’Neal’s former team, the Orlando Magic, got strong production from its bench, though one player’s value may have gone a bit unnoticed. On a night where Gilbert Arenas stole the headlines with 22 points and 11 assists, Ryan Anderson may have been the Magic’s most valuable man.

In 23 minutes, Anderson netted only six points in a 110-95 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers, but Orlando outscored Cleveland by 27 points when he was on the floor. That’s noteworthy considering that Orlando had three starters who posted a negative plus-minus rating in this contest.

Speaking of valuable players, the best of the best was the Miami Heat’s Dwyane Wade, who scored 40 points in a win over the New York Knicks. Wade has 18 games with at least 40 points over the last three seasons, matching LeBron James for most in the NBA.