Howard, Russell, and KG on defense

On the front page there's a reference to Orlando Magic announcer Matt Goukas claiming that Dwight Howard is a greater defender than Bill Russell was.  Outside of the statement being controversial (laughable?) on its surface, the article doesn't really give any logical reasons for why Howard's D might be higher impact than than Russell's outside of not-well-thought-out surface explanations about era or very Magic-centric views...which aren't surprising for someone that is, in fact, paid by the Magic.

Interestingly, there is another article that also came out in the last week that mentions Dwight Howard and Bill Russell.  It also features another player you may have heard of, Kevin Garnett.  The difference is, this article was written by someone that a) isn't a fan of either team and b) compiled a lot of very compelling quantitative evidence to support his point.  The article is entitled, Howard is the DPOY, but he's no Garnett. Here are some of the money shots from the article:

1) In a section called "Garnett, Russell and the horizontal game" the author analogizes Russell's style of defense to Garnett's and Howard's to Wilt Chamberlain's based upon a quote from Bill Russell: a Biography:  "Bill understood that Wilt’s game was more vertical, that is, from the floor to the basket. Wilt’s game was one of strength and power…Bill’s game was built on finesse and speed, what he called a horizontal game, as he moved back and forth across the court blocking shots, running the floor, and playing team defense."  The author relates that quote to the present in this way: "In short, that which gave Russell the edge over Chamberlain is exactly what Garnett has over Howard."

2) Of course, if the author left it at just a stylistic comparison there might not be much to separate this article from the Orlando one.  But the author doesn't leave it at that.  He presents evidence from 3 different multi-year defensive adjusted +/- studies, all of them at least four years long, that between them span the period from the start of the 2003-04 season until the end of 2010-11.  I won't post the chart here (though I urge you to follow the link and check it, and the rest of the article out), but here is how the author describes the results of his comparison:

"analyzing these metric, the first thing you’ll see is that Garnett leads all 3 of them. That’s nice, but there are two more “Holy Crap!” things to consider:

1) On all 3 metrics, the gap between Garnett and the #2 guy in the league is bigger than the gap between the #2 and the #10 by a VERY large margin.

2) Garnett switched teams before ’07-08, and it didn’t change this in the slightest. And in case you’re thinking that all 3 studies include time in Boston, understand that Garnett’s +/- peak was when he was in Minnesota, and that even Ilardi’s study doesn’t cover all of that.

That kind of consistent domination in the metric – how the heck did Garnett pull that off if wasn’t due to him actually having more impact than other defenders?"

Conclusion: Dwight Howard has won three straight Defensive Player of the Year awards, and very few (not even the author of this article) would say that he wasn't deserving.  But even if you look only at the last four years, which one of the cited studies does, the most impactful defender in the NBA by a large margin has been Kevin Garnett.  So before Matt Goukas or anyone else decides to stack Howard up against the greatest defender in league history, they might want to make sure that at the least he's the best defensive player of his own era first.  Because as you'll see if you follow that link, there is some pretty compelling evidence that just like in Russell's time, the greatest defender of this era is wearing Green.

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