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Dwight Howard's defense is overrated, except for when it isn't

Mar 9, 2010, 3:11 PM EDT

Dwight Howard.jpg

One of the most buzzed-about things during the recent Sloan Conference at MIT was a paper presented by John Huizinga on the value of a blocked shot. 
It was an interesting paper because it quantified things that fans have known for years. A block softly deflected to a teammate is better than a shot swatted out of bounds, blocking a layup is more valuable than blocking a jump shot, and goaltending is bad. 
What makes the paper extremely interesting is that according to Huizinga’s findings, Dwight Howard made the least valuable blocks in the league, while Tim Duncan made the most valuable ones. Since Howard is generally regarded as the best shot-blocker in the NBA by a wide margin, this finding has stirred up some controversy. Most people know that Howard goes for some blocks even he can’t get and tends to spike the ball out of bounds rather than tap it to a teammate, but the least valuable blocks? 

ESPN’s Peter Keating explained Huizinga’s conclusions like this:
“If your block produces an offensive rebound — often the result of smashing the ball out of bounds — that’s neither the best nor worst result. The other team keeps the ball, with an expected value of about 1 for its possession. If you goal-tend on a block, that’s the worst; your opponent scores automatically, and occasional fouls push the expected value of the possession up to about 2.07.
Over the entire stretch of data that Huizinga and Weil examined, Tim Duncan didn’t goal-tend once, while 24 percent of Dwight Howard’s blocks resulted in free points for the other team.”

Again, none of this is shocking stuff. Goaltending is bad. Tim Duncan is an extremely cerebral player on both ends of the floor. Howard relies more on instincts and athleticism, and sometimes tries to do too much on defense. 

So Dwight Howard’s blocks are overrated. But is Howard’s shot-blocking overrated? Even though Howard goaltends too much and doesn’t deflect the ball to his teammates, opponents sure are terrified of Howard swatting their shot when they play against him. The Magic are the second-best team in the league at preventing points in the paint, and were third in that category last season. Additionally, Orlando is the best team in the league at defending the rim for the second straight season. So while Howard’s blocks themselves may not be valuable, Howard’s value as a defensive presence is clearly off the charts. 
The real question is whether Howard’s minor issues with goaltending and swatting the ball out of bounds actually help him do what he does better than anyone else, which is prevent opposing teams from getting easy baskets inside. For each one of Dwight’s goaltends, how many shots got changed because an opposing player was afraid that Dwight would make a block no other player would dare to go for? For each basket scored on a second possession thanks to Dwight swatting a block out of bounds, how many players decided to pull up for a jumper instead of try to drive because they didn’t want to end up on the wrong side of a highlight? 
Before Huizinga’s paper gets dismissed because of arguments like the above, it should be noted that Duncan’s more subtle approach to shot-blocking was certainly effective as well. In 2008, the year Huizinga cites in his data, the Spurs gave up slightly fewer points in the paint than the Magic did, and were a top-five team in terms of defending the rim. 
Personally, I would say that Howard’s positives easily outweigh his negatives as a shot-blocker, and that he’s easily the best defensive player in basketball. However, I would stop short of saying that Howard would be best served completely ignoring Huizinga’s study. Just like great offensive players always have new skills to learn and areas of their game to refine, great defensive players can still have areas they need to improve in. In this case, Howard is giving up some points he doesn’t need to be giving up when he goes for blocks. Fixing that problem while still giving the impression he can still swat any shot will be tough, but it’s certainly something Howard is capable of.  
  1. Money - Mar 9, 2010 at 6:47 PM

    This reminds me of the study done on lebrons points against the magic when howard is in vs when he’s out. We can all agree lebron is one of the best at driving to the hoop. If dwight can make one of the best drivers in the NBA change his game to such a big extent, i can’t imagine how much it affects lesser players.

  2. Sguy2130 - Mar 10, 2010 at 7:58 AM

    Good objective article. Dwight Howard is a great player no doubt, but he needs to add intelligence in his game to be truly dominant. Since I am not a Magic fan, I hope he never does. On a side note, just imagine if Howard got called for more goal tends that he should be. I don’t regularly watch the Magic, but I’ve seen him get away w/ quite a few goal tends and 3 seconds is almost never called on him. Makes it much easier to defend the paint when you can get away w/ that.

  3. URDumb - Mar 11, 2010 at 12:21 PM

    Sgay – My response to you would be to watch more basketball. It’s obvious you have no clue what you’re talking about. Magic are the #1 team in basketball at defending the rim for the 2nd straight year. This is because of Dwight Howard. Again, just watch more basketball, you’ll get it one of these days.

  4. whatever - Mar 11, 2010 at 12:33 PM

    As usual, it’s easy for clowns to make articles & talk like they know everything but come on, whenever Howard is called for goaltending, it’s not like the man is doing it on purpose to allow them to score. It’s called trying to make a defensive stop. Whether he gets the block, misses getting the block or gets it but is called for goaltending, all depends on how the ball is in the air & made contact of. It’s easy to sit back & make these judgments about, “Hey, that’s not a valuable block. He didn’t deflect it to his teammate” & blah blah blah. So what? It’s called playing in the heat of the moment. I’ve seen some shotblockers, great ones on top of that before, block a person’s shot right back to that person & that person ended up capitalizing & scoring on their 2nd chance but I don’t see that on here. Wow you clowns are a trip. I understand the point of this article but overall, it’s stupid. D. Howard, keep doing you man. Don’t worry about these fools trying to make their lil observations about you. They talk like they can go out there & do a better job. Any nerd can sit back & write stupid articles like they’re perfect but not everybody can go out there & play the sport & on top of that, do it “sooooo perfectly.”

  5. Ben Wallace - Mar 11, 2010 at 12:33 PM

    Hmmm…a tool from MIT writes this paper, Boston is in Mass, could this be a Celtics fan who is ‘mirin Dwight’s abilities? I think so. Maybe this Celtics fan is just so scared of their team’s recent downward spiral that they need something to hate on. Very sad actually. Dwight is without question the best center in the league, with Yao (when healthy) being a distant 2nd. Poor Celtics fan, I hope he realizes that his green friends will be out of the playoffs in the first round this season…. **sigh**

  6. Ben wallace - Mar 11, 2010 at 12:34 PM

    Hmmm…a tool from MIT writes this paper, Boston is in Mass, could this be a Celtics fan who is ‘mirin Dwight’s abilities? I think so. Maybe this Celtics fan is just so scared of their team’s recent downward spiral that they need something to hate on. Very sad actually. Dwight is without question the best center in the league, with Yao (when healthy) being a distant 2nd. Poor Celtics fan, I hope he realizes that his green friends will be out of the playoffs in the first round this season…. **sigh**

  7. tkimbomb - Mar 11, 2010 at 12:37 PM

    dude that is such a bad counter response to sguy’s argument. He is making legitimate points and watching more basketball doesn’t change facts. Don’t make a strawman out of sguy it’s not nice.
    Huizinga makes a good point about goal tending; that needs to go down. however tapping a blocked shot to a teammate is not as easy as it sounds. One sometimes you don’t have time to think about where your teammates are and tap it to them and if you mistake it you can tap it to the other team. Blocking shots into the 10th row also gets the crowd going and slowly mentally drains the opponent.

  8. tkimbomb - Mar 11, 2010 at 12:41 PM

    dude that is such a bad counter response to sguy’s argument. He is making legitimate points and watching more basketball doesn’t change facts. Don’t make a strawman out of sguy it’s not nice.
    Huizinga makes a good point about goal tending; that needs to go down. however tapping a blocked shot to a teammate is not as easy as it sounds. One sometimes you don’t have time to think about where your teammates are and tap it to them and if you mistake it you can tap it to the other team. Blocking shots into the 10th row also gets the crowd going and slowly mentally drains the opponent.
    whatever you too stop trying to start an argument also making a strawman out of this article. leave them to their statistics and opinions it’s their job to write this stuff. and you are being hypocrite with your own response. We all have seen “stuff” what other players did. all this article is saying is showing the statistics of dwight howard from the view of Huizinga thats all. if you don’t like it then that is your own opinion. don’t be a cyber bully

  9. unkown - Mar 11, 2010 at 12:46 PM

    good article. understandable statistics. dwight is still really young. basketball IQ will grow and his defense would become better.
    talking about shotblocking check out andrew bogut right now. what a monster

  10. Mike - Mar 11, 2010 at 12:53 PM

    There is another intangible benefit not discussed here. When Howard blocks a shot at home, whether it goes out of bounds or is called for goaltending,he does it with such authority and power it gets the entire crowd in the game…MOMENTUM plays a key role in sports and Howard can swing the momentum in the Magic’s favor in one swat! Go Magic!

  11. rasheed wallace - Mar 11, 2010 at 12:55 PM

    Ben wallace you sound talk about a tool from MIT? you sound just as bitter in my opinion. I understand you guys are dwight howard fans so am i. I mean for goodness sake i went through hell to get him on my fantasy team. who is by the way making me win in rebs and blk shots!!!=) but ruining my ft% =(. But this article is written by an NBA critic and his job to CRITIC!!! so calm yourself.
    and I doubt howard is as good as yao when healthy, not yet atleast. Yao plays defense maybe not as well as howard. he has the touch of a shooting guard. Yao in my opinion at this moment is a better all around center. Dwight Howard has still more development to do and thats the great part. he’s this young and not even in his prime and playing this well.

  12. augustus - Mar 11, 2010 at 1:08 PM

    Now comes a guy who has never probably played any kind of sports commenting on something that he knows nothing about. Getting statistics doesn’t necessarily mean that this guy knows what he is talking about. Every team wants a shot blocker as the threat of it deters players from taking shots from inside the paint.If the guy watched basketball games he would know that whenever Howard is taken out of the game, the opposing team mounts a comeback. They now can drive in and make layups wherein with Dwight in they are afraid to do this, thus making it easier for the Magic defense. I look at all of the Magic games, Dwight is my nephew, so I think that my opinion carries more validity than the writer of this insane conclusion. The best center in the world, do not forget the USA Gold Medal, and he is dissed for blocking shots not like the writer would want him too. No doubt that real basketball fans disagree with his conclusion. Every NBA team would love a Dwight Howard. The writer should go back to watching Jersey Shore!

  13. Anonymous - Mar 11, 2010 at 2:22 PM

    There is always going to be a critic out there that will find fault.. those people are too miserable with their own lives to appreciate greatness

  14. rob - Mar 11, 2010 at 5:23 PM

    this is dumb
    hey writer you and your stat head friend, go check orlandos record the last 2 years when he blocks 3 or more shots

  15. Soar - Mar 11, 2010 at 5:52 PM

    One item omitted from the article is how bogus some goal tending calls are. Ref’s make a quick judgement call and often get it wrong. In order to add real credibility to the stats here, there would have to be a review of the bad calls that go against Howard’s blocks. Sguy2130, by your own admission, you don’t watch many Magic games, well take it from someone who never misses a game, you are wrong and unqualified to give an intelligent opinion about Howard’s game so stop regurgitating and perpetuating fake criticism.

  16. GERRY - Mar 16, 2010 at 5:36 AM

    This research is certainly valid and it couldn’t hurt Howard if he paid attention to this study and incorporate some things into his game.
    If Dwight just “kept doing him” …that’s certainly fine because 20 and 14 is sick no matter how you look at it…but when you have room for improvement, why not improve?
    Sure sending someone’s weak stuff into the 10th row looks great, will get you some espn time, and hype the crowd up…I’m not trying to downgrade momentum now…but how much momentum can you really gain? The good players/teams will just brush it off and continue with their game plan. They might get gunshy, sure, but the really good teams will adjust and find other ways to attack, and sending the occasional layup flying into the stands just means another possesion for them.
    If he could take some of those blocks and turn them into turnovers, which he certainly can, he should focus on doing that. How many of Dwight’s rejections have you seen where the ball ends up in the stands could have easily just been stripped from mid air? That takes a possesion away from the other team, and gives your team atleast one more shot at the basket, which in my opinion is more of a momentum builder than the highlight swat.
    I’m not saying it’s easy (directing blocks to himself or teammates or just snatching them in midair for himself), but if anyone could do it, don’t you think Superman could? He’s got the athleticism to make it happen and should do it more often.

  17. kobeishog - Apr 6, 2010 at 3:32 AM

    yo stop hating on this critic cause you’re all obsessed with dwight howard. I understand you’re all fans of dwight and the magic and I respect that but this guy makes legitimate observations regarding his shot blocking. BTW the article is infact PRAISING howards overall defensive value “Personally, I would say that Howard’s positives easily outweigh his negatives as a shot-blocker, and that he’s easily the best defensive player in basketball. ” However not that he’s also comparing him to TIM DUNCAN. Now i don’t care if you’re dwights uncle but he’s not as good as duncan was in his prime. He may become but tim’s already a legend so take into account the comparision. And dont diss the article and call me a hater or say im just jealous and too lazy to get off my fat ass and play some bball. So look at both sides of the arguement cause the other day I saw him get the dumbest block, where marion put a floater and it was about 2 feet down from its peak and he went for a block. Now i dont care how much you love him, he had a good long look to decide on whether to go up for the block and knew it was gonna be goaltending even before, making that a dumb play. Nevertheless he’s still the best centre in league (although Bogut is closing,wish him a speedy recovery).

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