A few weeks ago I wrote a couple of columns examining the best NBA center across the past two decades.
These posts argued that Olajuwon was better than Ewing, Robinson tops Shaq, and Robinson offered more than Olajuwon. In sum, since the mid-1980s, the Admiral is the most productive center.
The careers of these players over-lapped, so people had an opportunity to see these players play against each other. This is not the same story we see today. Although the game today has a number of very good players – and a few that rank among the all-time best (see Chris Paul) – the NBA in 2007-08 doesn’t have a plethora of great NBA centers. In fact, I think there is only one.
Last April I posted the following list of top centers from last season.
As Table One indicates, the list of great centers includes Dwight Howard and then… okay, not much after Howard. Camby has had a few good years, but injuries remove him from the list of all-time great centers. The best of remaining centers on the list produced eight fewer wins than Howard last season. In sum, Howard is currently head and shoulders above the current crop of centers. But how does Howard compare to the all-time greats?
Howard just completed his fourth season in the NBA. One way to compare Howard is to compare his performance last season to what other great centers did in their fourth campaign.
Before we get to the comparison, let me note which centers rank among the “all-time greats.” To begin, the NBA only began tracking all of the box score data we use to measure productivity in 1977. Prior to the 1977-78 season, the NBA did not track turnovers for players. And prior to the 1973-74 campaign, there was no data on offensive rebounds, defensive rebounds, steals, and blocked shots.
The lack of data restricts are analysis to players who played their fourth season in the past three decades. So we can’t look at George Mikan, Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. But we can look at Moses Malone, Hakeem Olajuwon, Patrick Ewing, David Robinson, Dikembe Mutombo, and Shaquille O’Neal. And when we compare what Howard did his fourth season to what these players did in their fourth year, we find a surprising result. As Table Two indicates, of the fourth seasons considered, Howard’s WS48 [Win Score per 48 minutes] of 19.4 led everyone.
Before Orlando Magic fans think that Howard is going to be better than all these great centers, a few issues to consider:
- This is Howard’s best mark in his career.
- Shaq, though, posted a WS48 [Win Score per 48 minutes] of 20.2 in his second season.
- Turning to the Admiral, he had marks of 21.7 and 21.8 in his second and third campaigns.
- Moses Malone – at the age of 23 – posted a mark of 21.5. If we count Malone’s ABA seasons, this was actually his 5th professional season (Table Two reports his 4th professional season and second NBA campaign).
- Focusing on Howard, he still exhibits a few weaknesses. Like Shaq, Howard has trouble hitting free throws. And like Malone, he thus far is a relatively weak passer.
All that being said, Howard’s performance in his fourth season was outstanding. Howard was only 22 years of age last season and already he is posting many of the numbers we associate with the all-time greats. So not only is he the most productive center in the game today, he is on his way to being one of the best to ever play in the NBA.
Orlando Past, Present, and Future
What does this mean for the Magic? For an answer we turn to Table Three.
Table Three reports what the Magic players did in 2007-08 as well as what we could have expected given what the players did in 2006-07. As we can see, Howard, Hedo Turkoglu, and Jameer Nelson all posted much better numbers this past season. As a result, Orlando’s efficiency differential [offensive efficiency minus defensive efficiency] of 5.7 tied with the New Orleans Hornets for the fifth best mark in the league. Only the Boston Celtics, Detroit Pistons, LA Lakers, and Utah Jazz posted a better differential.
In the off-season the Magic drafted Courtney Lee and added free agent Mickael Pietrus. It’s not clear either player will make much difference next season. The team, though, is helped by the retirement of Pat Garrity. Last season Garrity produced -1.4 wins in only 284 minutes. For his career he produced -16.0 (yes, that’s a negative number) and posted a -0.070 WP48 [Wins Produced per 48 minutes]. This may be the worst mark posted by anyone who played at least 10,000 minutes in the NBA (although I am not sure).
The departure of Garrity is probably going to make this team better (hard to believe a player could hurt a team so much in just 284 minutes). The team is also going to be helped by the fact the Celtics and Pistons are yet another year older. For the Magic, time brings more experience to Howard and the possibility of even more output from the top center in the game. Detroit and Boston, though, are led by much older players. Time for these teams is the enemy, as age inevitably must lead to lower levels of productivity.
If I were to guess, I would expect the Magic to close the gap we see between this team and both Detroit and Boston. But I don’t expect Orlando to take the Eastern Conference title in 2009.
Howard, though, is only 22 years old. Furthermore he just re-signed with the Magic. One would expect before Howard has a chance to depart Orlando, he will make at least one appearance in the NBA Finals. And one should also expect, if Howard stays healthy, he will probably go down as one of the best centers to ever play the game.
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Our research on the NBA was summarized HERE.
Wins Produced, Win Score, and PAWSmin are also discussed in the following posts:
Finally, A Guide to Evaluating Models contains useful hints on how to interpret and evaluate statistical models.