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While the mainstream media continues to salivate over the prospects of Derrick Rose or Amar’e Stoudemire winning the Most Valuable Player award, there’s a player that deserves to get a lot more attention than he’s currently getting.
Yeah, Rose’s acrobatic forays to the rim are aesthetically pleasing to watch and high on entertainment value, with him occasionally putting the exclamation point on a play with a violent, two-handed tomahawk dunk. And when Stoudemire dives on pick-and-rolls for a power slam, it’s cool to see. Heck, are Rose and Stoudemire deserving of — as of right now — starting in the 2011 NBA All-Star Game? Sure, and they’re star talents on their respective teams. The problem is that they’re not MVP candidates, despite whatever narrative is being driven out there.
Howard is an MVP candidate. Should Howard win the award? It’s too early to say, of course, but Howard should be strongly considered at the very least. Howard has been a top five player in the NBA for the past several years and has always “been in the discussion” for the MVP. But because LeBron James was producing at a rate similar to Michael Jordan, Howard has always been nothing more than a footnote when the MVP ballots are distributed and the votes are made. However, this is the first year that Howard has a legitimate shot at taking home the hardware.
Howard doesn’t do the sexy things that voters like to see, like score, score, or score, but rest assured that his value to the Orlando Magic is irreplaceable.
A look at the numbers
The beauty of analyzing the league right now is that there’s scads of data that can quantify a player’s worth. In this day and age, there’s no excuse for people not to be able to make an educated decision about the rightful choice for MVP based on evidence and observation. Narratives shouldn’t be determining the winner, despite the insistence by writers that it makes for a nice story.
In the last two seasons, adjusted plus/minus, net plus/minus, statistical plus/minus, PER, WARP, and Win Shares/48 were in agreement, for the most part, that James was the best (and most valuable) player in the NBA. James outclassed his peers and it was hard to ignore the disparity in production when comparing him to the likes of Howard, Dwyane Wade, and others.
Because James is playing alongside Wade and Chris Bosh, though, his numbers have gone down. Predictably so. That’s made determining the MVP a little trickier this season because no one is producing that much better than anyone else.
In a way, James leveled the playing field by joining the Miami Heat. That’s opened the door for someone like Howard to have a realistic chance at winning the award. As the stats indicate, Howard is in striking distance to Chris Paul (another player that isn’t getting enough consideration for MVP) and James — notice that Rose and Stoudemire aren’t even on the list.
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In fact, it’s safe to say that Paul should be deemed the favorite right now.
During the offseason, many said that for Howard to have a chance at winning the MVP award, he needed to boost his productivity on offense. As foolish as it sounds, in the minds of many voters, Howard averaging 18.3 points per game last year made it tough for them to consider him for the honor despite the fact that no one in the league could come close to equaling his impact on the defensive side of the ball. Howard wasn’t averaging 20-plus points per game.
Well, Howard will never be mistaken as another Hakeem Olajuwon but he has seen improvements on offense this season. The irony is that Howard isn’t that much different from the player he was offensively last year. Those righty and lefty hooks that are seen with regularity? Yeah, those were there before. Heck, even Howard’s jumpshot that’s come with a lot of press has been in his offensive repertoire for the past several seasons.
What’s the difference then?
For all the good that Olajuwon did for Howard during their workouts in Houston, it wasn’t like they broke a considerable amount of new ground when it comes to certain moves on offense. Olajuwon convinced Howard to have confidence in his abilities and to trust in himself. As a result, Howard is consistently utilizing a mid-range jumper offensively. Even though Howard is only shooting (37.8 percent) near the league average (38.5 percent) from 10-15 feet, the improvement is there.
Additionally, Howard is attempting more of those hook shots as well from inside 10 feet.
Another thing is that the Magic are featuring Howard in the offense, more than they ever have. Howard’s usage rate (28.1 percent) is the highest of his career, yet he’s been able to still score with efficiency despite an increase in shot attempts. The sign of a great player offensively, even if he has his flaws like Howard, is to operate efficiently while carrying a heavier load on offense. Howard has shown that ability, while being able to cut down on his turnovers from last year — which is a plus.
And by the way, Howard’s passing skills are underrated. It’s deceiving to look at Howard’s assist percentage because it’s low and doesn’t reveal anything. But rest assured, the many times that teams double-team Howard in the post, he has shown an uncanny ability to kick it out to the perimeter and trigger ball movement that has led to many threes for Orlando this season. Howard’s vision shouldn’t be confused with Paul’s, but he’s become a beautiful passer as a big man.
This is Howard’s trump card in the MVP race.
No one in the league is a more dominant force defensively than Howard.
Only Kevin Garnett and Andrew Bogut, when he’s healthy, can match the amount of responsibilities Howard has on defense. Despite the Magic playing with an eight-man rotation that contains no players that are considered, at best, average defenders, they rank fifth in defensive efficiency thanks in large part because Howard covers up so many of their deficiencies.
Howard deters opponents from entering the paint, thus forcing them to shoot jumpers from the perimeter, and thus eliminating chances for easy baskets and trips to the free-throw line. Oh, and Howard cleans up the mistakes of his teammates, excels in defending pick-and-rolls as well as post-ups, and provides great help-side defense.
A perfect example of Howard’s impact comes when he’s in foul trouble or sitting on the bench getting some rest. In the blink of an eye, opposing teams attack the basket with enthusiasm and glee, knowing that there’s little resistance at the rim coming from Brandon Bass and Ryan Anderson. Of course, when Howard returns to the game, all that ceases to exist.
The difference without Howard for the Magic defensively is night and day.
If there’s ever a year for Howard to win the MVP, this is it.
As long as Howard is close statistically with Paul, the should-be favorite to win the award, then he’ll stand a chance.