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May 15, 2009

Howard Pendulum Swings Too Far

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Pelton @ 3:43 am

The reaction to Dwight Howard‘s complaints about touches in the wake of the Orlando Magic’s Game 5 loss to the Boston Celtics has been fascinating to watch. The instant reaction was for the folks on TV to agree with Howard, in no small part because his argument dovetailed nicely with the conventional wisdom that Orlando shoots entirely too many three-pointers.

By the following day, when cooler heads prevailed, a new consensus emerged. Analysts, myself included, considered Howard’s performance in the game and in this series and found that he hasn’t done much with the touches he has gotten against Boston’s Kendrick Perkins. John Hollinger of ESPN.com looked at Howard’s shot attempts and how they correlate with the Magic’s success over the course of the season, while Ben Q. Rock of the Third Quarter Collapse blog weighed in a day later with a nice look at Howard’s production in this series broken down into second-chances opportunities and touches in the flow of the offense (the latter not nearly being as effective).

The third wave of analysis has been to criticize Howard for his incomplete game, a meme perhaps best expressed (and certainly done most eloquently) by Joey Litman on FreeDarko, who writes, “There are so many things which I’d like to write about Dwight Howard that we should probably start with the most simple one: he’s not nearly as good as he should be.” As Litman himself points out, the whole problem there is the word “should,” a wholly subjective judgment that invites widely different interpretations from different people. Until Howard reaches perfection, it’s always possible to argue that he should be better.

That aside, I think the biggest problem here is people are looking at Howard at his worst. First, we can all agree that Perkins has developed into one of the league’s better defensive centers. I’m wiling to argue that Howard doesn’t deserve touches against Perkins. That’s not the same as suggesting he’s a bad offensive player in any matchup. Second, the specific portion of the game being spotlighted is the stretch run, and few centers are effective in close games because it is so much more difficult to get the ball to a post player than a perimeter scorer who can bring the ball up, and also so much easier to double-team them. That’s only exacerbated by Howard’s poor free-throw shooting.

The same complaints apply to Howard’s literal predecessor in Orlando and his spiritual model, Shaquille O’Neal, and they haven’t stopped him from winning four championships when paired with wing players who could help offset his deficiencies down the stretch. Hedo Turkoglu is supposed to be that guy for the Magic, or maybe Jameer Nelson, but Nelson is watching from the bench and Turkoglu hasn’t quite been the same in this postseason, possibly due to his ankle.

The other issue is the classic overreaction to what has happened recently. That goes double for Stan Van Gundy, who has apparently become an idiot overnight. Van Gundy was my pick for Coach of the Year, and I wasn’t alone. Yes, he’s made some strategic mistakes in this series, but are there a lot of other coaches who would have this relatively motley collection of talent in this position? Maybe there’s another coach who would execute much better than Van Gundy in the postseason, but if that coach is unable to get the Magic this far in the first place, that’s pretty much pointless, no? You can’t switch coaches depending on the situation.

Depending on what happens Sunday in Boston, this topic may be entirely moot, and that’s precisely the problem. If Glen Davis misses his jumpshot in Game 4, we’re never having this discussion. It’s entirely too easy to blow things out of proportion, either positively or negatively, under the microscope of the playoffs. The smarter play is virtually always to consider the long-term picture.

If you agree or disagree with me, or somewhere in between, this topic is just one of the many we can chat about Friday at 1 p.m. Eastern/10 a.m. Pacific at BaseballProspectus.com. As always, leave your question now if you can’t make it live. I hope to see you there.

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