We’re moving through the regular season and continuing with our Expected Scoring player profiles. Today we’ll be looking at the Orlando Magic’s Dwight Howard.
If you’ve missed my other posts on the subject, Expected Points uses a player’s FGA from each area of the floor and multiplies it by the average number of points scored on that type of shot to come up with an Expected Point total from that area. The Expected Point total can than be compared to the actual number of points a player scored from that area to arrive at a Point Differential. This point differential is an expression of how a player shot compared to the league average, but I like that the comparison is drawn with actual point totals. The average values of shots by location that I use (At Rim – 1.208, <10ft. – 0.856, 10-15ft. – 0.783, 16-23ft. – 0.801, 3PT – 1.081, FT – 0.759) were calculated by Albert Lyu of ThinkBlueCrew.
In his time in the NBA Dwight Howard has established himself as a dominating rebounder and shot-blocker. He’s been the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year the last two seasons and has led the league in rebounds per game in each of the last three seasons. Despite all the individual success for Howard the chink in his armor continues to be his offensive game. More than 54% of his shot attempts have come at the rim in each of the last three seasons. While this would appear to be a strength, the majority of those shots are coming in transition, off cuts, or finishing offensive rebounds. Howard’s inability to consistently create quality shots (and make them) in the post has limited his effectiveness in the playoffs. When this imbalance has been exposed in the postseason teams have been able to slow down the Magic’s perimeter game.
At first glance his statistics for this season would leave you with the impression that little has changed. Here are his traditional stats (per 40 minutes) from his last three seasons and the 2010-2011 season through 7 games:
Howard’s minutes are down slightly, although this is probably due to some combination of a slight increase in fouls and the number of blowout wins Orlando has had so far. His rebounds blocks, steals, turnovers and assists are all relatively flat. The one major difference is a 7 point increase in his per 40 minutes scoring average. Since his FG% and FT% are down slightly the easy answer would seem to be that he is just taking more shots. But is that really the case?
Below is a table showing Howard’s Expected Points, Actual Points and Point Differential for each area of the floor from the last four seasons and through the first 6 games of this season (all numbers are per 40 minutes). If you prefer a spreadsheet to the embedded table photo, here is the link.
To begin with Howard is attempting a lot more shots and free throws per 40 minutes than he did last season. Last season he averaged 11.7 FGA/40 and 11.5 FTA/40. This season he is averaging 17.1 FGA/40 and 15.6 FTA/40. A surprising thing is that despite a rather large drop in his FG% his Point Differential is just about even. The reason is that he has changed his shot distribution quite a bit. This is reflected in the big jump in his Overall Expected Points.
This season Howard is averaging only 5.3 FGA/40 at the rim, his lowest total in four seasons. Accompanying this decrease, is an increase in shot attempts from other areas. Howard is averaging 7.9 FGA/40 on shots less than 10ft., nearly twice as many as last season. He’s also averaging 2.4 FGA/40 on shots from 10-15ft. which is nearly 5 times as many as last season, and 1.3 FGA/40 on shots from 16-23ft. which is over 6 times as many as last season.
Howard is not just attempting more shots from those areas, he’s also making them at a career high clip. On shots from less than 10ft. Howard is shooting 55.8%, compared to a previous career high of 44.8%. On shots from 10-15ft. Howard is shooting 46.2%, compared to a previous career high of 37.8%. On 16-23ft. jumpers he’s shooting 29.0% down from last year’s 38.0%. However, that percentage comes from making 2 of 7 from that distance this season. He only went of 5 of 13 from that distance all of last year. Clearly he is more confident and comfortable shooting from that range even if he isn’t seeing the results yet.
The last factor that’s important to note is that the percentage of his shots which has been assisted on is down in all three areas closer than 15ft. On shots closer than 10ft. this would seem to indicate that more of his shots are coming on isolations and post-ups, rather then just finishing off cuts and on the pick and roll, a good sign for his offensive growth. The fact that his assist percentage is down on 10-15ft. jumpers may indicate he is a little too eager to show off his new range and taking some contested shots. His FG% may even improve from this area as he becomes more patient, waiting for open jumpers created by his teammates.
Circling back to Expected Points, if Howard is shooting a career high from several areas and still finishing strong at the rim, why is his overall FG% down so far, and why is his overall Point Differential not higher? The answer to his FG% is in his shot distribution. Howard is taking less shots at the rim, where he shoots over 70%, and more mid-range shots, where his shooting is much improved and above average, but not nearly as good as at the rim. A short-sighted fan may look at this decrease in FG% as a negative for the Magic. Anyone with a long-term view should recognize that having Howard be an efficient scorer from multiple spots on the floor will help the Magic in the playoffs, both with individual matchups and creating better spacing and flow for the team’s entire offense.
As far as his Point Differential not reflecting his increased efficiency from the field, we need to look at Howard’s free throw shooting. Howard’s Point Differential is a combined +3.96 on all shots 15ft. and in. This is a great improvement over last year’s +2.12. However, this increase is offset by a 1.61 decline in his Point Differential at the free throw line, down to a career low -3.54. He could pick up an extra 3.54 points per 40 by raising his FT% to the league average of 75.9%. This is extremely unlikely, but what if he just raised it to to last year’s level? Keeping all other things the same, if Howard could raise his FT% to last year’s 59.2% his Point Differential on free throws would rise to a -2.64 and his overall Point Differential would climb to a +0.86, nearly 4 times his career high.
Free throw shooting and the ability to score outside the paint are the two factors which have kept Dwight Howard from scoring at an above expected rate over the course of his career. So far this season he appears to have solved his mid-range scoring issues in a big way. Whether it’s confidence, subtle changes to his shooting form, or moves he picked up training with Hakeem Olajuwon this summer, Howard has posted career scoring numbers over the first seven games from outside the paint. Free throws are a still a problem and likely will continue to be a problem. However, if he can return to his career averages at the line he will be reaching a new plateau of personal overall scoring efficiency. If I was anyone else in the Eastern Conference I’d sure be hoping this was just an abberation!