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On Dwight Howard At the Offensive End

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Dwight Howard is an effective offensive player with significant holes in his game.

Howard set off a mini-firestorm by calling out coach Stan Van Gundy for not getting him enough touches down the stretch of the Magic's Game 5 fourth-quarter collapse against the Celtics.  ESPN's John Hollinger did a fine job of calling out Howard in turn for abusing the phrase "dominant player."  He couldn't be more right.

Howard's flaws at the offensive end are many.  The five-year vet still doesn't have much in the way of touch around the rim.  Unless he is dunking, he doesn't look smooth or comfortable finishing, even baby hooks and box jumpers.

Away from the bucket, he really runs into trouble.  Though he has abnormal speed for a man his size, Howard has yet to develop a face-up game away from the basket to utilize that quickness.  He isn't a threat to catch the ball several feet from the hoop and swoop by his man.  D12 also has nothing in the way of a mid-range arsenal, ala the 15-footer that Al Jefferson has been working on over the past couple of seasons.  Only 155 of his 979 field-goal attempts for the season came from much outside the restricted area.  The running hook he employs from the middle of the paint can hardly be considered a viable scoring threat.

Howard is also a disaster at the free throw line.  He shot 67 percent in his rookie season and has never since broken the 60 mark, leaving him at 60.1 percent for his career.  Between his rough outings at the stripe and his propensity to turn the ball over (his three turnovers per game and 15.1 turnover percentage in 2008-09 actually marked significant improvements over seasons prior), the "dominant" claim at the offensive end is a bit much. 

These are flaws that keep Howard from being a reliable option late in games because teams can foul or bring extra defenders in hopes of sparking a poor decision with the ball.  Given his lack of post moves (articulated especially well here by Kelly Dwyer), creating his own shot from anywhere outside the block remains out of the question at this point.

With all that said, the notion that Howard isn't a good offensive player is just as silly as the idea that he's an irresistible force at that end.  Being consistently productive and efficient at the offensive end makes you good at the absolute minimum in my book.  Howard fits that bill, averaging 20.7 points per game on 57.2 percent field-goal shooting.  As bad as his foul shooting is, Howard still posted a 60 percent true shooting mark this season, good for 21st in the league.  He finished in the top 10 in each of the two previous seasons, and his 59.7 percent career true shooting mark is fifth among active players.

Howard gets the job done by making deep catches and dominating the offensive glass.  As poor as he shoots once he even gets outside the restricted area, Howard  can overpower most of the league with his blend of strength, quickness and leaping ability if he gets position and the ball down low.  He's going to dunk it most of the time in those situations.  Given the volume with which he scored and the efficacy with which he shot, it's hard to claim that he doesn't do a good job fighting for that position.  Howard is clearly capable of drop-stepping and stuffing if he makes his catch beneath the block, and he is also effective on spin-off lobs at the rim.

The other issue in play here is rebounding, which is a skill at each end of the floor (Howard just happens to be a terrific rebounder at both ends).  Howard collected 13.8 percent of available offensive rebounds this season, ranking him third in the league.  More than four times per game, he extended an Orlando possession that could have ended on a missed shot.  As we've seen in the first five games of the Magic-Celtics series, Howard has no problem getting up for the carom and slamming it before coming down.  He gets plenty of extra buckets off the second chances he creates.  Those might be called garbage buckets, but they count for two points apiece all the same.

Finally, while we're talking about offensive effectiveness, it bears noting that Howard sets some killer screens.  They may not always be legal, but no one in the NBA seems to be setting legal screens these days, and if he can get away with it, more power to him.  Howard has laid out more than a couple of unsuspecting defenders this season.  That may not always lead to points for him (though the Magic have been effective with the pick-and-roll at times), but it no doubt makes it easier for his team to put the ball in the hoop.

Screening aside, the rest of this chatter about what Howard does well offensively only serves to accentuate the job Kendrick Perkins has done at the defensive end throughout this series with Orlando.  I know I'm starting to sound like a broken record on this, but Perk is for the most part doing a fine job of adhering to a cardinal rule of post defense: Do your work early.  While this applies all over the floor, it's particularly important in the post.  Starting to play defense when one's man first touches the ball is a surefire way to lose the battle. 

Perk bodies up on Howard right away and maneuvers D12 off the block, forcing him to make his catches a few steps further from the basket than he would like.  The results have been exactly what the Celtics want: contested running hooks and ill-fated turnaround bank attempts.  Howard hasn't shown the ability to hit those shots with regularity to this point.  If the Celts can force those shots rather than open three-pointers for perimeter players or deep-catch dunks for Howard, the green has to like its chances.

Dwight Howard has made considerable progress through his first five seasons in the professional ranks.  He scores at higher volume and efficiency, defends more consistently and rebounds at a higher rate than he did in his first couple of campaigns upon entering the league.  Given that he is only 23 years old and has shown the ability to make such improvements, there is reason to believe he will continue to work to turn his offensive arsenal into a dominant one.  Right now, even as someone who isn't a shot creator and occasionally is a late-game liability, Howard remains a highly effective offensive player.  The idea of what could happen if he puts in the work on his touch and post moves over his summers is downright scary.

Fortunately for the green, until then, D12 remains productive but stoppable.

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