Dwight’s game is fine, it just looks terrible

Basketball is the most beautiful game I’ve seen yet, but it’s so often analyzed in terms of functionality. “Who is the best?” matters more to fans than “Who plays beautifully?” What works often corresponds with beauty, as it’s transfixing to watch success at the highest level. The correlation isn’t perfect, though, which itself can lead to some faulty analysis.

If our underlying assumption is that beauty equals success, then it is easy to confuse the former for the latter. As I watch replays of Dwight Howard’s best on court performances, I become increasingly convinced that his play is nearly unimpeachable, in terms of what works. There is wisdom to his approach, he did not become the game’s best center simply due to physical prowess. We play this cruel joke on big men where everything they accomplish is either attributed to their height or strength. Bigs are never allowed to fulfill their potential. The game is rigged so that potential is always beating them.

Throughout the week, I do these short radio interviews with hosts in cities like Huntsville, Alabama and Waco, Texas. Sports talk plays to a general audience, so these guys aren’t so immersed in just why Dwight Howard is better than Andrew Bynum. In a recent such interview, the host emphatically stated his preference for the latter. He’s a smart enough guy, certainly not one to toss out opinions just for the reaction. Andrew Bynum simply fit his notion of a center a little bit better. There is nothing notable about this story, save for how awkwardly I handled his position.

What can you say? D12′s just statistically better, and that’s even before you account for the wide gulf between the two in terms of defense. I fumbled between condescending to the man and listening to his position. And it was far from the first time I’d heard that opinion.

While I believe that Howard has claimed objectively superior production, I’m curious as to why a casual observer might see it differently. Last season, you heard more than a few sports pundits (incorrectly) choose Bynum over Howard in the Grand Game of Rank. I don’t think this phenomenon can be reduced to, “Bynum’s a Laker,” or “people are dumb.”

First, let us look at negative Dwight appraisals a bit. I often hear that Howard has “no offensive game” or “no post moves.” This is the kind of hyperbole that misleads not just because it is hyperbole, but because its spirit is wrong. Howard is a good offensive player; he’s not merely subsisting on alley oops and tip-ins.

Dwight’s footwork is fine, he can often freeze a guy with a rocker step and jaunt towards the rim. Back to the basket, Dwight likes to shade one way, and fluidly spin in the other direction, leaving his defender to watch the whirl. If you’re looking at Dwight’s feet, you won’t find his Achilles’ heel.

Flaws can be found in his handle, his court vision, and yes, his (free throw and otherwise) shooting. Fortunately for him, these flaws round out the least essential elements for a prototypical big man.

I don’t think the aforementioned flaws contribute much to the negative perception of Howard’s offense, with the exception of his shooting. But his problem is broader than an errant shot–it’s how bad it looks when the ball goes in. Dwight’s form is highly constrained, as though he’s trying to avoid an invisible barrier. Howard does not feel comfortable fully unfurling his lengthy arms, so he always appears to be pulling back from the ball, even as he pushes it.

This description is also applicable to Dwight’s hook shot, which can have the vertical trajectory of a floater. For whatever reason, Howard prefers to loft the ball rather than swing his arm towards the basket a la Kareem. This can give the visual impression that his made buckets are almost accidental, especially since Dwight pulls back from the ball at the last instant, like a batter checking a swing. It is hard for an observer to have confidence in such a method, even if the method is sound.

When Andrew Bynum takes a hook shot, his fully extended arm is grazing planets. The shot is blessed by a fluid, swinging, follow through. Bynum’s hand chases the ball towards its destination, making success seem quite intentional. When the twine flutters, Drew is still pointing in that direction. If you used CGI to make the ball invisible, Bynum would look like a wizard, casting a spell at the net. If you did the same with a Dwight shot, the swish might appear more coincidental than summoned.

Aside from free throws, there is nothing, nothing at all that Andrew Bynum does better than Dwight Howard. And yet, there is the sense that Bynum’s game is more refined. I posit that this is because Drew follows through. Appearances matter, even in a rigorously analyzed game.

Another note, to those who think Dwight’s style to be unthinking: Watch him rebound. Howard employs a tactic that is childish and brilliant, all at once. When you were a kid, did you ever tap a friend on the right shoulder, only to swoop in from the left? This was an effective means of taking a toy back, because your victim reflexively whips around to the wrong side and stares at air.

Well, that’s Dwight Howard offensive rebounding move. When someone tries to box Dwight out, he taps them on right side, then crashes to the left (or vice versa). Since his defender is watching the ball, instinct moves the defender towards the tactile sensation, where Howard used to be. Dwight’s opponents are forever boxing out nothing.

Dwight Howard cleverly manipulates the reflexes of others, but plays offense in manner that we instinctively dismiss. He can trick defenders into backing away from a rebound, but he can’t trick our eyes into loving that post game.

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  5. How a division of labor will get the Magic offense back on track


  1. [...] possession, good for 60th, but in ’09-10 Howard was actually ranked much higher than Bynum. So while aesthetically the gap between Bynum and Howard in traditional post play might be fairly large, in practical terms it doesn’t amount to much. [...]

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