Dwight Howard past his prime? That’s just lousy defense

LOS ANGELES — Days later, and the tom-toms are still beating.

Turn on the radio, surf the web, and it shouldn’t be hard to find some Dwight Howard bashing. The talking heads and disembodied voices have claimed him as their own, and the criticism is hardly surprising. Some of it is deserved. Other bits are just downright confusing.

Howard is an immature child. Howard is a broken old man. Howard is the biggest baby in the NBA. Howard peaked years ago.

Even retired Laker greats are spouting it. There’s Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on his Facebook page Tuesday, writing that “productivity has a shelf life.”

Translation: Howard is over the hill.

There’s Shaquille O’Neal, speaking at Daytona International Speedway on Saturday and ripping Howard’s exodus to Houston. “Not a whole lot of people can handle being under the bright lights,” O’Neal said. “Everybody wants to do it, but when you get there, there are certain pressures. I think it was a safe move for him to go to a little town like Houston.”

Translation: Howard is immature, or at least ill equipped to deal with pressures he should be capable of handling.

It’s a funny web of ideas we’ve woven around the NBA’s most-talked about big man, not just post-decision but long before it. In reality, he’s just a coddled 27-year-old whose actions make him seem younger and whose tenure in the league makes him appear far older than he really is.

So first, let’s do away with the idea that Howard is a child. He’s not, and perhaps his new payday and the novelty of playing for the Houston Rockets will hold off the whining for a few weeks or even months.

Second, remember that Howard was drafted at 18, that just because he’s been in the league for nine seasons doesn’t necessarily mean he’s a decrepit old man. Let’s remember that Howard spent all of last season injured, even seriously injured, at times. Phil Jackson summed it up perfectly in a July 7 tweet: “What DH brings to the game is power and D. This past year didn’t show due it to rehab and confusion.”

Think on that for a second, and then try — just try — to reserve judgment. It’s time to stop the conversation about how Howard is past his prime and not worth the money. In a world where Josh Smith and Blake Griffin get max deals, so does Howard, and he’s certainly not past his prime. Maybe he has plateaued, but this isn’t a drop-off, not yet — or if it is, the sample size is too small and distorted to prove it.

There’s no clear-cut way to assess the point at which a big man’s body breaks down. Trends are not easy to find, at least not among the elite centers of the past 40 years. There are the outliers, the tragedies, guys like Yao Ming and Bill Walton whose hulking frames doomed their fragile feet. But then there are the others, the guys who played average-length to long careers, everyone from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to Shaquille O’Neal to David Robinson. Some were drafted at 20, some 21, some 22. Some lasted two decades, others barely more than one. Some declined late and precipitously, others earlier and slowly. With some, it was so gradual that people barely noticed.

However, there are some trends to be gleaned among the ranks of the very good to elite big men, assuming Howard’s name will appear in that group upon retirement. Looking at a sample of nine such players from the past 40 years, players whose careers were not cut precipitously short by injuries and who were among the league’s best when they played, the average time for sustained, precipitous decline to begin is year 12.

The average age of those players when their declines began: 32.8.
The average length of career among them: 17 seasons.

Heres how they stack up, including each big man’s PER (player efficiency rating):

David Robinson: 14 seasons, best PER in Year 5 (age 28), decline began in Year 10 (33)

Moses Malone: 21 seasons, best PER in Year 8 (26), decline began in Year 14 (34)

Hakeem Olajuwon: 18 seasons, best PER in Year 11 (31), decline began in Year 13 (33)

Shaquille O’Neal: 19 seasons, best PER in Year 8 (27), decline began in Year 12 (31)

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: 20 seasons, best PER in Year 3 (24), decline began in Year 17 (38)

Dave Cowens: 11 seasons, best PER in Year 5 (26), decline began in Year 9 (30)

Patrick Ewing: 17 seasons, best PER in Year 5 (27), decline began in Year 13 (35)

Bob McAdoo:
14 seasons, best PER in Year 3 (23), decline began in Year 8 (28)

Robert Parish:
21 seasons, best PER in Year 5 (27), decline began in Year 16 (38)

It’s not that the past dictates the present or that this sample size is large enough for true predictions, but these are reasonable comparisons and if some general trend holds, Howard isn’t over the hill just yet. Even if he has peaked, that doesn’t mean he’s worthless; far from it. Even if his 26.1 PER in 2010-11 is the best he’ll ever post, that’s just fine. Abdul-Jabbar topped out PER-wise in his third year, and yet he didn’t truly begin to decline past the point of greatness for 14 more.

Howard’s numbers did fall off last season, but it’s impossible to ignore the effect of injuries, and only if he posts those numbers for another season can the discussion of a trend really begin. Include the fact that his health problems — a bad back and shoulder — aren’t the foot and ankle injuries that typically doom big men, and it seems the Rockets shouldn’t start fretting just yet about damaged goods.

So no, Kareem, the Lakers didn’t dodge a bullet by losing a declining player — or if they did, there’s not enough evidence to say so yet. Instead, they lost a PR nightmare, a prima donna, a player who’d already butted heads with their leadership structure. Shaq might have hit on some truth in that regard.

Falling back on the idea that Howard is past his prime is a defense mechanism, and nothing more.