Photo by Fernando Medina/Getty Images
“Old Indian game. It’s called, uh, put the ball in the hole.” – Randle McMurphy, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest
Basketball really is as simple as an in-character Jack Nicholson says it is. Put the ball in the hole, stop the other guys from putting the ball in the hole, and you’re all good.
It’s only us loonies that insist on making it more than it is -– a story about humans, mental achievements intertwining with physical capabilities, or the guys with the colors I like against the guys with the colors I hate.
The trick to putting the ball in the hole is getting there, because –- here’s the catch -– the hole is pretty high in the air. 10 feet, to be exact. Most of us are not 10 feet tall, not remotely, not even with our hands stretched up high.
But if you can get your Chief Bromden lookalike to stand under the basket and hold the net shut, you can shut off the other team.
Dwight Howard won the genetic lottery, a 6-foot-11 behemoth with springs for legs and boulders for shoulders. But to dismiss his defensive dominance as the natural conclusion to the combination of his parents’ DNA is lazy and ignorant. True, Howard’s sheer being is domineering on the basketball court as we approach the rim –- even as an 18-year-old rookie with almost no idea how to play the game, that build and athleticism were enough to average 1.7 blocks in 32.6 minutes per game -– but over the years, Howard has become the first player in NBA history to win three consecutive Defensive Player of the Year awards because of his ever-increasing understanding of how to take that Apollonian structure and utilize it with devastating effects.
It all starts down low, obviously, where Howard is a force of nature at deterring those pesky drivers with their scoring aspirations. By virtue of being one of, if not the best weak-side shot blocker of his generation, the minute Howard steps on the court, shots are already altered just by the simple fact that his opponents know he’s there. The Magic have been in the top five in least shot attempts allowed at the rim for four straight years, according to Hoopdata’s shot distribution stats, an impact that runs much deeper than Dwight averaging over 2 blocks a game each season in that four-year stretch.
Dwight is also a very good post defender -– mySynergySports ranked him the league’s 34th- (2010), 55th- (2011), and 61th-best (2012) post up defender over the three years of the database’s existence -– which is hardly a surprise.
Dwight can actually have trouble giving up position to bulkier centers, as most of his strength is upper-body based (this is also why he can struggle with positioning on the offensive end, though he’s become better at it as his game has evolved), but he’s so quick both laterally and vertically that he can still contest almost any shot that’s being put up against him. Both when he’s guarding a posting big man or helping on a driving guard, he does a very good job of going straight up to contest shots and rarely bites on pump fakes, a wise strategy, since he is quick enough to join the offensive player at the apex of his jump even while giving up a head start — although last year, he was less successful at this, giving up shooting fouls on 16.7 percent of his post defense possessions (compared to 9.6 percent in 2010 and 8.9 percent in 2011).
Of course, it’s impossible to be just an interior defender in today’s NBA. Modern offenses tend to be built around constant pick-and-rolls, and as much spacing as possible, from bigs and wings alike. With more and more centers capable of hitting mid-range jumpers, either by popping out of a pick or spotting up, the static interior defender has suddenly become a flawed viable NBA entity.
Elite defensive big men must be adept not just at closing out on shooters –- which places them further from the rebounding battle and is generally harder for them to do as slower human beings –- but at leaving the sanctity of the paint and floating in that dreaded zone above the free throw line, staying close enough to the ball to affect the opponent’s every move while not taking themselves out of the play. It’s that zone above the free throw line where the Tyson Chandlers and the Kevin Garnetts separate themselves from the Andrew Bynums and the Roy Hibberts, with Dwight proudly presiding over that first group.
If you watched the Orlando Magic defend a pick-and-roll over the past few seasons, you probably saw something similar to this regular season game against the Pacers in the 2010-2011 season:
Step 1: Sag away from the screener
The effect here is twofold: by sagging back from the screener, Dwight is in perfect position to intercept the guard running off the screen, while still ensuring that he can catch his man on any cheeky attempts to dive towards the basket.
Step 2: Show out on the ballhandler
Dwight closes off the drive by stepping in front of the ballhandler, giving his teammate (in this case Jameer Nelson) enough time to get back to his man. This can be an instantaneous recovery or can include a few seconds of being left on an island with a much quicker guard. Dwight is one of the few big men in the league capable of such shading, but note that even he knows not to go out too far -– Dwight is long enough to be able to contest even a quickly released shot, so shutting off the drive is a priority.
Step 3: Recover
Fairly self-explanatory, yet extremely important. As mentioned above, more and more big men are legitimate mid-range threats in today’s NBA and, given enough time, will gladly nail an open elbow jumper. That Dwight so often manages to recover on these sort of plays is nothing less than marvelous.
The list of players who can complete all three steps to perfection are few and far between in today’s NBA or in any other era.
A millennium or two ago, as the Phoenix Suns defeated the San Antonio Spurs in the first round of the 2010 NBA Playoffs, ESPN’s David Thorpe noted that even the great Tim Duncan -– one of the greatest defensive players of all-time -– had become somewhat of a defensive liability against the Suns’ high-octane offense because he was no longer capable of aptly defending both the ballhandler and the screener in pick-and-roll situations. At his age, Thorpe surmised, asking such a thing from Duncan is simply unfair –- and yet the Spurs had no alternatives as they bowed down in a sweep to the last great Steve Nash-led Suns team.
Such requests were presented to Howard on a daily basis. Anchor the interior, defend both participants of pick-and-rolls, hold the fort as your teammates close out on shooters and take themselves out of plays.
It resulted in a prolonged stretch as one of the best defenses in the league because Stan Van Gundy molded it perfectly around Howard’s many skills and abilities. Some of those were passed on to him by his parents, but many were either taught to the big guy by a brilliant basketball mind such as Van Gundy or honed over time to the levels that we now expect to translate to Los Angeles.
When you dismiss Howard as yet another empty physical freak, remember how much of his defense is derived from the calculated movement of his feet and arms.