Saturday, April 15, 2017

A Dwight Howard Primer

Dwight Howard played as well as one could reasonably hope this season. He played better than I expected. It didn't matter. 
The following excerpts aren't to pick on anyone because not watching the Hawks when you have a general NBA coverage brief is an eminently understandable decision this season. However, reading playoff preview content such as this from Jonathan Tjarks at The Ringer:
Atlanta’s best chance in its first-round series is for Dwight Howard and Paul Millsap to play so well together that it forces Scott Brooks to keep two traditional big men on the floor.
or this from Eric Freeman at Ball Don't Lie:
The Wizards are not an especially good interior team. Gortat puts up good numbers and Mahinmi can be useful when healthy, but these players do not constitute the strength of a playoff team. They’re important, to be sure, but not at the core of what the Wizards do. 
In other words, this should be a matchup that a player of Dwight Howard’s ability dominates. While Howard is no longer the Elite Defense of One he was in his Orlando prime (with Gortat as his backup), he remains a very good defender who can control the glass nearly by himself. No one expects Howard to average 30 and 20 in a series anymore (except Shaq, maybe), so he should be freed from those past expectations and allowed to do what he does best.
suggests an opportunity exists to look beyond Howard's excellent individual rebounding stats, contextualizing the limited positive impact he's able to have on a roster where his presence makes little sense.
It should be no surprise that adding a defensively oriented role player to a team that finished 2015-16 2nd in the league in defense and 22nd in offense was not transformative. The Hawks remained an excellent defensive team, but were even worse offensively. Improving from a bottom-5 rebounding team to a slightly below average rebounding team doesn't matter much in a league accelerating toward the supremacy of shot making.
Howard's presence on the court improved the Hawks' rebounding by 7 percentage points on each end of the floor. Yet the Hawks were outscored by 2.4 points per 100 possessions with Howard on the floor. They scored 1.7 fewer points per possession and allowed 0.7 more points per possession with him on the floor. Probably because the Hawks' turnover rate increased by 4 percentage points, and their opponents' turnover rate deceased by 1.2 percentage points with Howard on the floor. Going back to Basketball on Paper, turnover rate is more important than rebound rate.
Of the top 6 Hawks in terms of minutes played, Dennis Schröder is the only Hawk who played even slightly better alongside Howard this season. Tim Hardaway, Jr. is the only one who formed a positive duo with Howard. Which makes sense as their skills are tilted toward the offensive end of the floor at least as much as Howard's are to the defensive end.
w/ Howard Overall
Plus/Minus Minutes Plus/Minus Minutes
Millsap -0.1 1273 2.1 2343
Schröder -1.8 1746 -2.0 2485
Hardaway 2.6 1143 2.8 2154
Bazemore -3.4 1406 -2.8 1963
Sefolosha -2.5 978 -0.8 1596

You'll notice that Millsap, in particular, played without Howard on the court. This is why one can be a crank, but not a dangerous crank, in advocating de-emphasizing Howard in a playoff series against a better, perimeter-oriented opponent.

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