Dwight Howard, fourth quarters, and the truth | Magic Basketball



May 09

Dwight Howard, fourth quarters, and the truth

Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

There once was a man made of brick-and-mortar,
but his role diminished in the 4th quarter.
He will be remembered as an all-time great,
but you’d never guess it from his usage rate.

Today, I stumbled upon a poem I wrote a while ago (yesterday), and it compelled me to explore Dwight Howard’s usage rate in the 4th quarter with the help of StatsCube.

Orlando’s center boasted the NBA’s 19th highest usage rate (possessions used while on floor) during the 2010-2011 regular season, but his rate plummeted in the final period of the game. Some other key statistics indicate Dwight was at his best in the 4th quarter.

Green indicates at least 10% greater than average. Red indicates at least 10% below average.

However, maybe his stats are just a classic case of a reduced usage rate coinciding with more efficient performance? Let’s explore possible explanations for why the MVP candidate’s usage rate decreased in the final frame.

Dwight struggled at the stripe
Dwight averaged 11.2 free throw attempts per 36 minutes in the regular season. In the 4th quarter, his attempts rose to 14.0 per 36 minutes, nearly twice his 1st quarter rate of 7.8.

Why did this happen? Either teams deliberately fouled Dwight late or the Magic went to him more often. Dwight’s relatively low usage rate in the 4th quarter suggests he was fouled more often by design.

The most important part of this debate is his free throw percentage in the 4th quarter. Dwight made 59.6% of his free throws during the season. In the 4th, he made 64% of his freebies, his best rate in any quarter. The big man never broke 60% in quarters 1 through 3.

In fairness, his 4th quarter rate was still a shot below those of his teammates: Hedo Turkoglu (70%), Jameer Nelson (74%), Jason Richardson (78%), and Brandon Bass (80%).

Dwight was drained at the end of games
Maybe. He looks like the NBA’s most physically fit player, but running from baseline to baseline every possession must take its toll. He played 37.6 minutes per game, by far the most among centers. The closest center in minutes played was David Lee (36.1), but his style of play is far from Dwight’s. Howard played inside all game and had a Hacker Platter like Jason Collins and Zaza Pachulia walloping on him many nights.

However, Dwight’s rating in the 4th quarter was 9.96, falling just short of his first quarter mark (10.19). His 4th quarter offensive rating tied for his best mark, but his defensive rating in the 4th ranked 3rd among the quarters.

Dwight tried to close out games on defense
Research has shown big men are the most important players on defense. Maybe Dwight used all of his energy on defense to seal the deal in the 4th?

On the other hand, his defensive rating is a tick above 100 in the 4th quarter. It is possible teams attacked the rim more in the 4th or just possessed a greater urgency to score at the end of the game.

Dwight was in foul trouble
Howard averaged 3.3 fouls per game in the regular season, and he only fouled out of four games. He finished with five fouls 16 times during the season, but only four times after the All-Star Game.

It is possible the Magic decided to avoid Dwight on offensive when the next whistle would have ended his night, but he was only in imminent danger of fouling out in about 20% of the games he appeared in.

Teams focused on Dwight late
Dwight Howard is unquestionably the best player on the Magic. Who else would teams plan to stop if the game was on the line? Some teams decided they would focus all their efforts to prevent Howard from beating them.

The gameplan changed
Not surprisingly, Jameer Nelson’s usage rate’s worked opposite of Dwight’s.

Green indicates at least 10% greater than average. Red indicates at least 10% below average.

Dwight had a relatively high usage rate in the 1st quarter and a relatively low usage rate in the 4th quarter. This may show Stan Van Gundy simply changed the plan of attack near the end of the game.

I mentioned this in a previous post, but Jameer has much more control over his usage rate than Dwight does. He brings the ball up, and he can choose what he does with it. Theoretically, he could eschew Dwight whenever. I don’t think that is the case in this situation, but the nature of Dwight’s position leads to a greater dependence on teammates.

The other players in the starting line-up possessed fairly steady usage rates.

The Magic trailed and needed 3’s
Orlando finished 22 games above .500 in the regular season, and they were winning in the 4th quarter quite often.

A more realistic idea is the Magic chose to slow the tempo to ice late leads. If that’s the case, why wouldn’t you throw it to Dwight on the block to run off time and attempt a high percentage shot? Jacking up three-pointers isn’t a surefire way to milk the clock or protect a lead, but this thought probably takes us back to the free throw debate.

Everybody is doin’ it
I looked at the other centers in the NBA to see if low usage rates in the 4th spread league wide. The chart shows per quarter usage rate for centers that averaged 30+ minutes per game and played 40+ games during the 2010-2011 NBA regular season.

Green indicates at least 10% greater than average. Red indicates at least 10% below average.

Clearly, Dwight Howard has company when it comes to low usage late in games. Marc Gasol, Nene Hilario, David Lee, Andrew Bogut, and Emeka Okafor also had 4th quarter usage rates at least 10% below their average. All of these centers, excluding Lee, had usage at least 10% greater than their average during the 1st half. Maybe they spent all of their energy by the time the 4th quarter rolled around? Or maybe they were just victims of playing with high volume shooters late in the game?

Bulls’ big man Joakim Noah was the only center to have a usage rate 10% greater than average in either the 3rd of 4th quarter. Also, he was the only one with a 10% increase without having a 10% dip somewhere else.

Two players on the list, Andrea Bargnani and Channing Frye, are nominal centers. They make their money beyond the arc and have very consistent rates throughout the game.

Did free throw percentage determine if big men got the ball in the 4th quarter? The three worst free throw shooters in the group (Howard, Bogut, Okafor) all had a significant decrease in usage rate in the 4th quarter. On the other hand, three relatively good shooters at the stripe (Gasol, Hilario, Lee) saw a 10% decrease too.

It’s tough to pinpoint exactly why Dwight Howard’s usage rate diminished in the 4th quarter, but it certainly did plummet.

I believe it is a combination of several factors, and I hope the Magic can find a way to incorporate their future Hall-of-Famer more at the end of the game.


The other centers you used as comparison aren't exactly stalwarts on offense. Hence, the drop off in usage in the 4th quarter for points. Try using Jabbar, Ewing, Olajuwon, David Robinson, Shaq, Moses Malone.


it's because everyone plays defense at the end of the game. you can gamble for steals off the center because you know someone will most likely help you if you get burned. the rest of the game, you're not sure if anyone's going to help you so you stay in front of your man. so if you're jameer nelson, you have your guy pressuring you and trying to take away the passing angle, dwight howard is posting up, and jason richardson's man is looking at dwight howard, ready to steal the ball if it goes into dwight howard. so you give the ball to j-rich because you physically can't feed dwight howard without getting the ball stolen and then everyone on the internet bitches about why didn't you feed dwight howard he's a physical specimen he gets paid 100 million dollars to not get used in the 4th quarter if i coached the team i would give it to dwight howard every possession this coach is an idiot...

Joseph Horner
Joseph Horner

umm why 10%? How does that make statistical sense? Good idea, little more work might lead some real nice offensive plan insights.

Carlo Simone
Carlo Simone

I still think Dwight is a lot more useful on offense than he is being utilized in the 4th. I say let him shoot the free throws and let the chips fall where they may.