Photo by Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images
If there is one thing we know about Stan Van Gundy, it’s that he’s a pretty quiet guy, reticent to speak his mind to the media, and wholly above speaking publicly in any way that might ruffle fans’ or players’ feathers. That’s why we can be certain that earlier this week, when he made the following comments, Stan had no sort of ulterior motive or objective in mind:
“There’s no matchup for [Dwight Howard] that creates the excitement,” Van Gundy said. “If you got back to when the centers were king, you have Chamberlain-Russell and people say ‘Wow, that’s a match-up you look forward to.’ Now people look forward to Chris Paul against Derrick Rose.”
What Stan was saying, subtext aside, is that the lack of a nemesis is keeping Dwight Howard’s hype factor down. Well, is he right? There are a couple of different ways to approach this. First, let’s look at a crude measure of the league marquee, the 2011 All-Star rosters. Yao Ming aside, there are only three players who were listed either as centers or forward/centers. One of them was Kevin Love. Another was Al Horford. The third was Pau Gasol, who could be seen as a bona fide A-list big man, but I’m not sure that most people think of his battles in the same way they do LeBron/Kobe or Rose/Paul. The other big man on the list who might qualify is Kevin Garnett, and the popular narrative about the Celtics has been that Kendrick Perkins did the heavy lifting when it came to guarding D12. So, on the face of it, taking as limited a sample as I guess you could, it seems like Stan is right: there are currently no direct match-ups for Dwight that seem worthy of the hype that wing or point guard matchups might garner.
In trying to think of other marquee post players who might be seen as a real match-up for Dwight, I don’t really get anything. Amar’e? Not really–he’s rarely a center and even when he is I doubt that match-up, because of style of play difference and the responsibilities each player has to their team, is really seen as a mano-a-mano showdown. In fact, the league seems littered with players who are effective in the post, but almost none anymore who produce at the level Dwight does as a true back-to-the-basket guy. We’ve been hearing tales from the media about this for a couple of years. You might recall, as I do, that when the “Seven Seconds or Less” Suns teams were racking up wins, sportswriters were fond of saying that the day of the true pivot player in the post had passed, and that the new NBA was about face-up, fleet-footed bigs. But then you might also–say, last year–have read about what a proliferation of young centers there are right now doing real work in the league. Joakim Noah, Al Horford, Marc Gasol, Brook and Robin Lopez, Andrew Bynum: there are a lot of guys who seem to have real promise as centers in the league. Most centers in the league, however, seem to be falling into the utility-man archetype, the sort of guy who anchors a defense, controls the boards and does dirty work while still not being the kind of player with the go-to post moves to get you 30 in any given game. To my mind, this is the sort of big that is really flourishing right now. Kendrick Perkins, Joakim Noah (and every other non-Boozer Chicago frontcourt player), Tyson Chandler, Marc Gasol–these are the sorts of players that strike me as having real impact in the league right now, in a way that feels like a recent development. And, it must be said, none of these players has the offensive game of Dwight Howard. Conversely, more offensively oriented bigs like Zach Randolph, Amar’e, Blake Griffin, and LaMarcus Aldridge give up much more than Dwight on defense. By this wholly subjective analysis, it seems, again as if there are no big men in the league who control the floor on both ends the way Dwight does.
I want to be clear here that I am not saying there aren’t players who match up compellingly with Dwight; I want to examine the idea that there are no players at the tip of the public’s tongue who play a game similar enough to Dwight’s to elicit a comparison that might make both gain popularity. And it seems to me that this is correct. Of course there are players that test Dwight, but these tend to be the sorts of big men who devote their time on the court to shutting him down rather than battling him–think something along the lines of Sefolosha frustrating Kobe rather than Kobe having a superstar showdown against LeBron. And these aren’t very sexy matchups. In fact, I would argue, it serves to tarnish Dwight’s image somewhat when a player like Joakim Noah or Jason Collins really frustrates him: it’s not that those guys aren’t good players and fantastic defenders, but they lack the name recognition that might excuse Dwight’s struggling against them in the public eye. I’ll put it this way–the casual fan might excuse some struggles against, say, a young Shaq, or David Robinson, but when they see six turnovers against Jason freaking Collins, well, then, that says more about Dwight to the casual fan that it does about Collins. Which is not totally fair.
I don’t believe that Dwight has been “underhyped,” really, but I do think he does not get credit for being the player he is, for a variety of factors. First, his body and demeanor do not seem to match his game. Dwight has the narrow-hipped and broad-shouldered physique of Adonises like Karl Malone or David Robinson, but his game is much more like the mammothly-hindquartered Shaq.
Note: I read a fantastic article about Dwight’s high center of gravity and the effect it’s had on his game, but I cannot for the life of me recall who wrote it. Just wanted to say this idea is not wholly mine.
The most famous pictures of him that don’t involve a Superman outfit feature him smiling ear to ear. He doesn’t look like the type of player who gets his man on his back and batters him with an array of moves, so that even as he’s become precisely that, the mainstream fan thinks of him as under-developed and raw offensively. Secondly, I think Orlando’s relatively small national profile–regardless of its efficacy as a market–does more to keep Dwight off people’s lips than anything else. After all, Jordan never had any trouble establishing a name without a real rival.
It does seem to me, in sum, that there is no other player in the league today who dominates offensively in the same manner Dwight does, while exercising a similar control over the paint on defense. I think, in a few years, Andrew Bynum may evolve into a similar force, as he plays as much like a “true” center as anyone else in the league and seems to be coming into his own a little more every game. For now, though, it seems that Dwight is a man alone, so in that sense Stan was right. And while it does seem arguable to me that the lack of a marquee match-up has kept Dwight’s profile down, I think I speak for all of us when I say that I cannot wait to watch when that match-up comes along.