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Dwight Howard might not be as important as you think

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Watch me stir up spicy controversy like some kind of...chef...cooking...Curry.

D-12 is a huge presence, but what about his on-court impact?
D-12 is a huge presence, but what about his on-court impact?
Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

There's a question that demands attention, especially now that his game one injury left his Rockets shorthanded: just how good are the Rockets without Dwight Howard?

Or put another way, why aren't the Rockets worse than they have been without Dwight Howard?

For months, this has bugged me, but doubly so since Howard seemingly returned to form in the playoffs - the Rockets simply have not looked as improved as I would expect (per my eye test). After all, they were getting crushed by a Clippers team that didn't have Chris Paul healthy, and they were about a quarter away from being dismissed from the Western Conference Semifinals in blowout fashion. Yes, the Rockets were much better for most of the next three wins, and Howard was a big part of those games. But regardless of how much credit you attribute to the center for the three wins, he also deserves blame for the losses.

Ultimately, how valuable is he really? Can we really assume the Rockets would slaughter or otherwise defeat the Warriors in game one healthy? Can we expect him to swing the series? These seem like perfectly reasonable conclusions, but the truth is actually somewhat murky.

Before I create a riot, let me be clear: Daryl Morey won't cut or trade Howard. I'm not advocating that he should. This article refers to 2015 Dwight Howard, not 2015-2020 Dwight Howard. I'm not interested in predicting the future (...for now), this is strictly a here-and-now discussion. There are lots of small sample sizes referenced in this article -- if you find me a way to quintuple the length of the playoffs for the sake of blog analysis, I will gladly find my trusty wooden stake and garlic necklace and petition Adam Silver to do so.

On Offense

Ever since his final season in Orlando, Dwight Howard has not been the same player on offense. The former iron man suffered his first serious injury, requiring back surgery back in that 2011-2012 season. All of this was shrouded in rumor and speculation, as the super star center was exploring free agency and back surgeries for big men tend to be bad news.

Howard was never a prolific scorer, even at his Disney-loving best, but he was plenty efficient with a consistent .600ish true shot percentage (a measure of points per shot which recognizes that free throws and three point field goals are awesome). And more importantly, his tremendous size and athleticism required multiple defenders, and those double-teams consistently opened up three point looks for his perimeter players. D-Hows never did learn how to score in the post, but that's okay. He'd have great value to a team just by sucking in defenders, even if he scored zero points per game while doing so.

With the exception of the Lakers, his teams have been smart enough to understand that. Like the Orlando Magic of some years ago, the Rockets are loaded up on three point shooters at every position. Unlike the Magic, however, these Rockets also have arguably the league's very best offensive weapon, James Harden. He and the rest of the Rockets have proven perfectly capable of scoring without D-12.

More at the Dream ShakeDwight Howard sidelined due to knee injury

For the regular season, the Rockets were +2.3 points per 100 offensive possessions better with Howard on the court - certainly a good thing. However, they were +3.3 with Josh Smith, and a whopping +14.0 with James Harden pacing the team. With Howard half-injured and a step slower, he still made a positive impact on the team, but not so positive an impact so as to be irreplaceable. And the Rockets still probably beat the Rondo'd Mavericks if they were to hypothetically meet up in the playoffs.

Surprisingly, Dwight Howard's impact has been less pronounced on offense in the playoffs, despite his apparent recovery from injury (perceived or assumed recovery may be a truer phrasing). The Rockets are 0.7 points better per 100 possessions in the playoffs with Howard on the court—which might not be enough to swing a single playoff game.

That figure also makes Howard the least valuable starter on offense by offensive differential, as his figure trails six other Rockets per 100 possessions. And as any Rockets fan can tell you in a heartbeat, it's been James Harden, Josh Smith and Trevor Ariza driving the team's offense in the post season (+5.8, +5.3 and +8.4, respectively). With D-12 on the floor, the team's assists have dropped, their turnovers have increased, and their pace has absolutely crashed, falling almost eight possessions a game (or the difference between the Houston Rockets and the Brooklyn Nets).

The team scores ever-so-slightly more points per possession in that time, but they also have eight fewer possessions to work their magic on. For teams dependent on high variance three point buckets, possessions are life. The Rockets (and Warriors) know this, just as patron basketball Saint Don Nelson knew years earlier. It's not just that these teams want to score more points: it's that they understand that more tries improves the odds of them reaching their expected performance. Anyone can slump through 10 shots, but the odds of doing that through 20 or 30 treys decreases significantly as the sample size grows. Right now, Dwight Howard is antithetical to that concept. Last season, Howard still slowed the Rockets pace, but not nearly to this extent (-2.4 possessions per 100, though the Rockets as a whole played low-possession basketball that year).

Further, the Rockets thrive on fast break points, just like our Warriors. In the regular season, the Dubs were the only team that scored more points via the fast break. Yet in game one of the Western Conference Finals, the Rockets actually dabbled with playing Howard in the post against Draymond Green. The results were terrible, as the small-ball Warriors were able to speed away from Howard for extra possessions. What was worse is that Howard - still not a good post player - was still unable to score on the dramatically undersized Green. This would be a case of the coaching staff failing to play to Howard's strengths, and (perhaps unfairly) making Howard appear less valuable than he otherwise might be.

On Defense

Whether it's due to injury or age or TMZ (wow he's got a lot of TMZ articles!), Dwight Howard is not an elite rim protector right now. In fact, among centers, he's not even good this year - in the regular season or the playoffs. Howard was limited by or recovering from injury much of the year which explains his poor (by his standards) play, but his playoff numbers show that he still isn't himself on this end.

Simple test per stats.nba.com: we look at the opponent-field goal percentage three certain centers allow in the restricted area, versus the cumulative FG% of those many opponents in the restricted area. We then look at the spread, or the amount of FG% drop our sample defender is responsible for. In other words, negative numbers are good, positive numbers are bad.

Regular Season Player

Opp. FG% (restricted area)

Opp. Normal FG%

Spread Value

Dwight Howard

55.3%

58.5%

-3.2

Clint Capela

33.3%

56.7%

-23.3*

Andrew Bogut

44.6%

59.4%

-14.8

*Coincidentally, the league leader (minimum 1 game played)

Postseason Player

Opp. FG% (restricted area)

Opp. Normal FG%

Spread Value

Dwight Howard

55.8%

62.8%

-6.9

Clint Capela

47.1%

62.1%

-15.1

Andrew Bogut

39.7%

67.3%

-17.6


Clint Capela only played nine games in the regular season, so yeah, small sample size definitely applies. And right when we're ready to dismiss those numbers, here he is in the playoffs repeating his regular season performance in heroic fashion. Bogut, meanwhile, was the best defender in the NBA all year long - the four centers ahead of him in ‘spread value' played 15 games or less. For reference, Roy Hibbert was second best at the rim with a -12.1.

Unfortunately, stats.nba.com doesn't have opponent's True Shot percentage (which factors in points allowed via free throws) available for the restricted area. But Defensive Regularized Plus-Minus (DRPM) largely tells the same story (read the primer here if you need a refresher). Bogut was the league's best defensive center by a wide margin this season, and Howard was good but not great due to injury.

Player

2013-2014 DRPM

(rank among centers)

2014-2015 DRPM (rank)

Andrew Bogut

5.16 (2nd)

5.50 (1st)

Dwight Howard

4.91 (3rd)

1.58 (28th)

It's way too early to proclaim Clint Capela Houston's center of the future, King of the Alps and First Men, but the numbers are telling: he's outperformed Dwight Howard when it comes to protecting the rim, in limited minutes.

Simple playoff on-off confirms what the eye test has told us: Howard has been a very positive defender, but not a game changer. Trevor Ariza is the Rocket who has answered the bell: Houston opponents are scoring a huge -8.6 points per 100 possessions when Ariza is on the floor, versus a still-good-not-great -3.7 points when Dwight Howard is on the floor. And again, Clint Capela has a tidy -2.4 figure of his own. These Rockets aren't as dependent on Howard as they were a year ago because Howard just isn't nearly as good as he was a year ago. When he sits for Capela, we might expect to see a defensive drop-off of one point per 100 possessions -- that's just not a figure that will make or break the Houston Rockets.

Conclusions

It's not that the Rockets have made Dwight Howard expendable, but they have found a way to approximate some of the things this year's version has done in the playoffs. For example, the Josh Smith addition has helped the offense more than Stan Van Gundy ever thought possible; Clint Capela has helped to protect the rim; and Trevor Ariza has really upped the ante on defense. The one thing they haven't fully recaptured is Howard's rebounding - but their style of up-and-down play doesn't really call for crashing the glass. Like the Warriors, this is an aspect of the game that the Rockets would willingly sacrifice at times to push the pace and get back on defense.

Long term, the Rockets are hoping that Howard returns to last year's form, in which he's a borderline MVP candidate with elite defensive capabilities. With that player, the Rockets are potentially a Championship favorite, instead of a massive underdog. But until he returns to form, the Rockets haven't nearly reached their ceiling. And while they're playing these Western Conference Finals below said potential ceiling, they're not quite as bad as you think when Howard sits.