Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images
If you were to compare the current incarnation of Dwight Howard to any other player in NBA history, at least from a narrative-based perspective, the closest parallel would probably be post-Decision LeBron James. Like LeBron, Dwight was drafted straight out of high school, developed into a dominant superhuman, took his team to the Finals, couldn’t replicate that success, and ultimately, departed on the wings of a PR catastrophe to a hated superteam in a glitzier market.
LeBron, however, made the Finals in 2007 with a team heavily featuring the likes of Eric Snow and Drew Gooden; his subsequent failures in the years after that came with far superior teams. Dwight’s Finals team — the 2009 Magic –- may not have been good enough to win it all, but they were a fascinating and successful combination of players and personalities made possible only by the fella in the middle and his friend on the sidelines.
The plan was as simple as it was brilliant.
Even three years ago, when the complaints about his post game were based in fact more than ignorance, Dwight Howard was the sort of interior presence that weighed an entire court in his direction. Strong and agile, capable of elevating from any given spot and arriving with the ball at the rim, the premise was simple –- get Dwight either near the rim or rolling to it and you immediately solicit a response from all five defenders. It was within this defensive scramble that Orlando’s offense thrived and it was this constant set of circumstances that their personnel was set to exploit.
The team’s starting lineup was a perfect reflection of that philosophy.
Jameer Nelson and Hedo Turkoglu could run the pick-and-roll with Dwight and were well-versed at either finding him diving towards the rim or pulling up themselves for a jumper on the perimeter within the space that his movement created.
Rashard Lewis, the prototypical stretch four, would spot up off the ball, ready to benefit from the chaos by releasing a wide-open three.
Courtney Lee –- as were Mickael Pietrus and J.J. Redick when they came off the bench –- was an athletic swingman with a good outside shot who would fill the seams created by the constant ball movement without complaining about his role.
If the offense was a Dwight-centric system, full of pieces that could react and respond to what his sheer presence created, the defense was even more dependent on his performance –- and the results were even better.
Dwight commanded the paint, and though many of his teammates were limited defenders outside of it, the direction of Stan Van Gundy would send them flying out to the three-point line, preventing opponents from making shots worth one point more, while knowing that Dwight is behind them to cover for their eager close-outs. Howard played his part to perfection –- in 2009, he led the league in blocks and rebounds per game and was second in total rebound percentage and block percentage. And to top it all off, the Orlando Magic ranked first in Defensive Rating during the regular season. All those statistics allowed Dwight Howard to take home his first Defensive Player of the Year award.