Is Dwight Howard the next Shaq?

In the December 18 issue of ESPN The Magazine, Ric Bucher penned an article entitled “Magic Prince.” In this article Bucher compares the Orlando Magic’s Dwight Howard to Shaquille O’Neal.

Both players are large men (yes, Shaq is a bit larger) who were chosen with the first overall pick in the draft by the Orlando Magic. And as Bucher notes, both have trouble shooting free throws.

Noting the similarity in free throws was a bit odd. Shaq has been very productive in his career, but as I noted during the NBA Finals, he would have been even more dominant if he could hit his free throws. Specifically, Shaq would have produced about five more wins per season if he was able to hit free throws in his career at the average NBA rate.

This is not the first time I recall seeing a sports writer compare a young player to a legend by noting the ability of the younger player to mimic the legend’s flaws. Years ago I remember a player being compared to Magic Johnson with the commentator noting that the prospect, like Magic early in his career, couldn’t jump very well and didn’t have much of an outside shot. Of course, one can describe my basketball game with these words, so perhaps one would need to do more than just not be able to jump and shoot to be an NBA legend.

Okay, I digress. Let me get back to question this post seeks to answer: Is Howard really like Shaq?

Let’s start with what Howard has done thus far in his career. He came to the Magic right out of high school and in his first year produced 13 wins and posted a Wins Produced per 48 minutes [WP48] of 0.234 (average is 0.100). His second year he improved to 17.6 wins with a WP48 of 0.286. These are both impressive totals for a player who did not play college basketball, but how do these compare to what Shaq offered?

Last season Shaq produced 8.5 wins and his WP48 stood at 0.225. So Howard in his first two seasons bested what Shaq did last year. Of course, last year was easily Shaq’s worst season. In his previous 13 seasons Shaq’s WP48 ranged from 0.284 (in 1995-96) to 0.428 (in 1999-2000). Although he only eclipsed the 0.400 mark once, Shaq had only dipped below 0.300 once before the 2005-06 campaign. In sum, Howard in his first two seasons – while far above the average NBA player – has not been as good as Shaq.

Of course, had Howard gone to college like Shaq for three years he would not have been posting numbers in the NBA at all these past two seasons. In fact, Howard would not have been playing NBA basketball until the 2007-08 campaign.

Let’s say that Howard only played two seasons of college ball and that this year is his rookie season. If we look at Howard this year we do see evidence of Shaq-like productivity. Through 27 games he has produced 7.8 wins. His WP48 stands at 0.384. Only twice, in 1993-94 and 1999-00, did Shaq ever do better than 0.384. So if Howard can continue to play at this level, we might begin to compare Howard to Shaq.

Does this mean that Howard will soon lead his team to the NBA Finals (something Shaq did in his third season)?

When we look at the Magic after 27 games – which is just about one-third of the season — we see a record of 17-10. Orlando, though, has only scored fifteen more points than their opponent for the season. So if we look at points scored and points surrendered, the Magic appear to be on pace to win about 42 games.

This is the same story we see when we look at Wins Produced (which should not be surprising). Yes, Howard is outstanding. But after Howard we only see three above average players who are seeing significant court time. And these three players – Grant Hill, Jameer Nelson, and Trevor Ariza – have only combined to produce 5.1 wins. So this team is really Howard, and then not much else.

Speaking of Grant Hill, he is producing at the same level he offered in in 2004-05. That season he played 67 games and had a WP48 of 0.141. This year his WP48 stands at 0.143. This is above average, but not nearly what he did for Detroit. In 435 games with the Pistons he posted a WP48 of 0.284. So Hill is about half the player he was before he got hurt.

Given the lack of talent around Howard, should we expect this team to reach the NBA Finals? Well, the Magic do play in the Eastern Conference. Even though the Eastern Conference is very weak, it is still hard seeing this team getting past the Bulls, Pistons, or Cavaliers in the NBA playoffs. Failing to get past these teams should not detract from a talent like Howard. He is an extremely productive player and having him on the roster makes building a championship team a bit easier for the Magic. And if he keeps producing as he has thus far this season, some day everyone might compare him to Shaq.

– DJ

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