NBA One on One: Dwight Howard vs. LeBron James
I don’t want to get in the habit of comparing two players of different positions too often, but inevitably, this is a part of the NBA that is unlike almost anything else in team sports. After all, in basketball, each position comes with its inherit strengths and weaknesses. Centers get rebounds but can’t dribble. Point guards can dribble but can’t block shots. But when you are the General Manager of a basketball team, and you have to decide between drafting Tim Duncan and Chauncey Billups in the 1997 NBA Draft, there are things about their game that lend to one of them having a bigger impact on the game of basketball than the other.
Now, history tells us that most general managers go with the big man; however, it is not for the reason most people think it is. As it relates to his position, big men cannot control a game any more than a guard. And history demonstrates that with players like Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Isiah Thomas and Kobe Bryant dribbling around iconic big men en route to multiple championships.
Thus, the real reason GMs tend to go with the big man over the guard is because of scarcity. There are a plethora of guards and perimeter players in college or in the early parts of their NBA careers that can dribble and shoot effectively. Sometimes getting a good perimeter player is about as scientific and/or lucky as drafting Manu Ginobili with the 57th pick of the NBA draft.
However, with big men, there are far fewer accidents/lucky picks. If a big man has talent, you see it early and often, and draft him early in the draft. This is why you see a lot more guards make it in the league as non-lottery picks than big men make it as non-lottery picks. Still, while talented big men are rare commodities, that does not inherently make them more valuable.
So in trying to analyze this from a GM’s perspective, who is the better player, LeBron James or Dwight Howard?
As far as big men go, there is little more to ask of Dwight Howard. He plays incredible defense, rebounds the ball extraordinarily well, and can finish at the rim. Taking it to the next level, he’s an eraser of shots, and there are few big men in the league whose coaches will even allow them to face Howard one-on-one for more than a single dribble.
Howard’s main weaknesses come from a lack of polish—not ability. As it stands, Howard is an extremely efficient scorer. Of the very best players in the NBA, nobody has a higher true-shooting percentage than Dwight, who despite being a poor free throw shooter, managed to maintain a TS% of 62% last season. However, the reason that is so high is because Howard’s game is only on the block and within the paint. While I am never one to knock anybody for keeping their game within their range, those close shots aren’t as easy to create late in games, and it causes a lot of his teammates to stay stagnant.
Then there is also Howard’s passing. Overall, the Orlando Magic do a great job of spreading out and knocking down the threes that are crated by Howard’s presence down low, so naturally, the Magic always rack up a lot of assists. But that inside-outside game, as nice as it sounds, lends to a randomness playing a larger factor in Orlando’s outcomes, and that’s not something that should be as large a part of their ability to win when you have a force like Howard on the team. Howard could solve that by becoming a better interior passer; thus, allowing him to hit cutting teammates in stride as they dive to the basket. Unfortunately, Howard is one of the worse passers, even for a big men, as his ability to share the basketball is more comparable to that of Tyson Chandler, and his turnover proneness is more like that of Samuel Dalembert’s.
It’s pretty easy to overview James’ skills. He’s a do-it-all wingman with the ability to play the point guard too. Offensively, he will attack the rim, take effective mid-range jumpers and pass the ball like Magic Johnson. Defensively, he is pretty close to Dwight Howard, as playing defense at the level LeBron plays on the perimeter is far rarer than Howard’s ability to defend the rim.
There are holes in LeBron’s game, most of them, however, are of the mental variety. Despite being able to score ridiculously for 47 minutes of the game, including clutch moments down the stretch, LeBron’s last-second shot-making ability has to be questioned. Not because of his shooting percentage, but because of his decision-making. Truth be told, making shots at the end of a game isn’t really much of an ability. However, taking good shots, essentially the same shots that lead to those 30-point outputs that LeBron produces so often, is a sign of one’s ability to understand the game and run the offense in the waning seconds. LeBron does anything but that down the stretch—especially on the last play of a game.
LeBron vs. Dwight
For the comparison, I want to look at four things: (1) Shooting & Shot Selection, (2) Defensive Effectiveness, (3) Impact on Score and (4) Cltuchness. I’m using the past season as our point of reference, but will obviously point out anything that needs to be put within the context of their careers.
Shooting and Shot Selection
I know some of you probably scoffed when I said that LeBron is a great mid-range shooter, but the stats don’t lie. LeBron hits 45% of his long distance two-points (those between 16 and 23 feet). That’s not Dirk Nowitzki amazing (52%), but it’s just as good as Chris Paul and is only 1 percentage point less than that of Ray Allen. Comparatively, Howard makes just 35% of his shots from that range, but he takes less than one attempt per game from that distance.
So I know what you’re saying, “this is why you can’t compare these two players.” However, what I see by looking at this is that LeBron’s 5.4 shots per game from long range help spread out the defense. And at his rate of 45%, defenders have to respect that. However, Howard takes just about all of his shots from within 9 feet, allow the defense to pack it in. In a vacuum, this hurts the team and makes the Orlando Magic a 3-point shooting team. So even though Howard’s true-shooting percentage of 62% is better than that of LeBron’s 59%, I will give LeBron the added-benefit of shooting away from the rim. However, I want to be clear, his three-point shooting is already factored into the true-shooting percentage equation (as are free throws), so in using TS%, I don’t have to make assumptions about the added point-value of a three-pointer.
Shoot & Shot Selection Advantage: LeBron James
Dwight Howard continues to rack up the Defensive MVP awards having collected his third such award in 2011. LeBron James has not won that award, but he has been in the running. The man is an elite defender on the perimeter, and unlike other elite perimeters, offenders cannot try to avoid his quickness by posting him up, as LeBron James doesn’t have too much trouble defending wingmen whose backs are turned to him.
Howard, on the other hand, is just a different animal. Do you understand that his team was #3 in defensive efficiency last year? Name one good defender in their main rotation! That’s right! You can’t! There is no one else. Howard is led a butt load of no-defense playing shooters to defensive performances better than the ones the Spurs, Lakers and most notably, the Heat had last season. Not to mention, Howard is unquestionably the best defensive big man in the NBA, while LeBron isn’t even the best perimeter defender in the league (Andre Iguodala, Tony Allen, etc.).
Defensive Advantage: Dwight Howard
Statistical Impact on Score/Game Outcome
From a purely statistical point of view, Howard had more of an impact on his team’s ability to win a game. The adjusted plus/minus ratio (which takes into account the players you play with when you’re on the court) was 14.1 for Howard and 9.6 for LeBron. Now, that number shouldn’t be taken too out of context, as obviously, LeBron plays with Dywane Wade and Chris Bosh a lot, and they’re on the sideline with him a lot too. That is obviously going to make it look like the team struggles without him on the floor, even when basketball statisticians do their best to account for that in this very “noisy” stat.
When you look at it from both an offensive and defensive perspective though, things really get interesting. We touched on defense earlier, but the facts show that LeBron’s unadjusted defensive impact (-4.51) is a little better than that of Howard’s (-3.04). However, Howard’s team still allows fewer points when he’s in the game than when LeBron is in the game, on a possession-by-possession basis.
Offensively, Howard and LeBron have a plus/minus of (+9.48 and +9.32), respectively. However, LeBron’s Heat score 3 more points per 100 possessions than Howard’s Magic scores.
What this all boils down too is that Howard’s defensive prowess is better than that of LeBron’s, while LeBron’s offensive impact is better than that of Howard’s—before you adjust for who they are playing with. When you adjust for who they are playing with, however, Howard makes his team 5 points better per 100 possessions.
Statistical Impact Advantage: Howard, slightly
But what about when the game comes down to the last handful of possessions—who would you rather have then? Statistically speaking, only Kobe, Derrick Rose and Mo Williams averaged more points per 48 minutes of clutch time than LeBron James, who averaged 45.1 points per 48 minutes of clutch play. Mo Williams aside, LeBron shot better during clutch moments (44%) than those other two guys and he turned the ball over less.
Howard, on the other hand, wasn’t even the best big man in the clutch. Mediocre guys with better outside games like Paul Millsap, Kevin Love, Carlos Boozer and even Blake Griffin were more productive in the clutch than Dwight, who managed a mere 24.8 points per 48 minutes of clutch play. In defense of Howard, he did shoot 72% during those moments, but his ability to create his own shot and take what the defense gave him limited the number of shots he could attempt. It also affected his team’s ability to win, as Howard’s plus/minus during crunch time was just +10 (per 48 minutes) while LeBron’s was +16. Again, LeBron had better people playing with him during these clutch moments, but he also was the one taking the shots, whereas Howard was not. And even when he was, he was usually missing free throws. (Note: James averaged more free throw attempts in the clutch while hitting 84% of his attempts vs. Howard who hit just 59% of his attempts.)
Taking clutch to the extreme, I’m going to go more of the objective route on this. I could go over the percentages, but because of the difficulty of the last-second shot, I’ll just tell you that LeBron’s percentage is bad and Howard doesn’t really take that shot at all. But when the game is on the line, fact is, you don’t really want Dwight with the basketball in his hands, especially if you’re down 2 and they can foul, and never if you’re down by 3 points.
But when you take into account what happened in the NBA Finals this past season, when LeBron shied away from the moment, can you give him the advantage? Sure, he took all the big shots against a Chicago Bulls team that the Heat were clearly better than, and he showed up against the Celtics as well, but when the time to be clutch truly presented itself, LeBron was passing the ball to somebody else to take the jumper. That’s actually no different from what Howard has to do because of his limited range. So can I really penalize Howard for that when LeBron essentially did the same thing the last time we saw him on a basketball court?
Objectively speaking, I can’t do it. But subjectively I can, and I have some reasoning to go with it. First, if LeBron is going to be considered the better finisher, he has to at least play like his normal self on the game’s biggest stage. Instead of doing that, LeBron now has the biggest point-differential drop-off in an NBA Finals series for a player that averaged 25+ points during the season. Second, as we discussed, LeBron can get to the line in the clutch, but in the Finals, he didn’t do that. Again, that’s a sign of him not playing up to the level he typically does during a pivotal point in the season. Last but not least, LeBron’s defense may have been one of the biggest turning points in the series. In Game 5, when Jason Terry netted that three in LeBron’s face as part of a double-digit fourth quarter for Terry with LBJ guarding him, that gave the Dallas Mavericks a lead in the series that they would never relinquish.
Clutch Advantage: LeBron, albeit reluctantly
All things equal, LeBron James is the more talented player, with the main difference being that LeBron can do something in crunch time that Howard can’t do. Other than that, their games essentially balance each other out. Howard has more defensive impact, and LeBron has more offensive impact—even when you adjust for whom they are playing with. But when it comes down to it and you need a bucket to win the game, LeBron is the higher percentage option—that is, if he will take the shot. From the 2009 NBA Finals, we know that Howard is going to play up to his abilities in the series and during crunch time, even if that means just playing stellar defense. LeBron didn’t do that in 2011, and unfortunately, that’s like turning your homework in all year long and flunking the final exam. And as long as LeBron is a flunker, I can’t rate him ahead of Howard. Thus, in the most sissified decision ever made, I give you…
LeBron vs. Dwight Decision: PUSH