Matt Cianfrone is the newest contributor to Hickory-High. He’ll be handling the Friday links in Rants, References and Revelations, and offering longer pieces whenever the mood strikes. You can follow him on Twitter, @Matt_Cianfrone.
I wasn’t going to get sucked into the debate. To me it was never really even that much of one. Then I read it.
“Andrew Bynum is already better than David Robinson.” Another Lakers’ homer had crossed the line in Daily Dime Live carelessly throwing around assertions of greatness. At first I thought it was just one crazed individual, but more and more support for the statement rolled in from the chatters, including a growing swell of assertions that Bynum was the best center in the NBA, currently. Fans of every team hold completely irrational beliefs, but some misconceptions cannot go unchallenged. So here I find myself, ridiculously picking up the Dwight Howard vs. Andrew Bynum debate.
Before we delve into the stats, the non-statistical, character knock on Howard must be addressed. Yes, Dwight Howard clearly quit on his coach in a nationally televised game this season. Yes, he asked to have his coach fired and and was responsible for months of soul-squelching media coverage about whether or not he would be traded. But to use that as a justification for siding with Bynum in this debate is ignoring his own sins, not just this season, but over his entire career. There have been tickets for parking in handicap spots and driving on the wrong side of the road. On the court behavior has not been much better either for Bynum. This past season he shot a three-pointer for no apparent reason, was benched for it, and said he would shoot it again. He admitted he does not feel the need to be part of Laker huddles led by Coach Mike Brown because he’s “getting his zen on.” And don’t worry Bynum has quit in his fair share of games as well, most recently in the game against Oklahoma City that will always be remembered for the return of Ron Artest via elbow. In that game Jordan Hill played 35 minutes to Bynum’s 29, including all of the fourth quarter and both overtimes as Bynum sat on the bench. Throw in some cheap fouls like the one he laid on J.J. Barea in last season’s playoffs, or the one in 2009 on Gerald Wallace and the picture of a disgruntled malcontent starts come into focus. Sure Howard had a rough year in the likeability department, but Bynum hasn’t done much to sew up any sportsmanship awards either. One of those two players has a history of it, and that player is not Howard.
Most arguments for Bynum over Howard start with something along the lines of “Bynum has post moves” and “Howard can only dunk.” Now Bynum shows flashes ability in the post, when he gets it going he becomes almost unstoppable, but he isn’t exactly Tim Duncan in his prime. In fact most of Bynum’s offense comes from one simple thing. He is longer and stronger than most people he plays against, and has two great passers, Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol, that are able to get him the ball close to the basket. According to NBA.com’s player statistics page, Bynum attempted 60 percent of his shots inside the restricted area this season compared to Howard’s 65 percent mark. Bynum can score from a step-or-two further from the basket because he can simply turn and shoot using his incredible length to his advantage. If you watch Orlando you see Howard loves to run right to the middle of the floor and into the restricted area on breaks, sealing defenders behind him. If that doesn’t work Howard has to face up out of his post-ups and attack the rim. Bynum’s post-game may be more refined than Howard’s but he has a physical advantage which is usuall ignored.
According to mySynergySports Bynum scored 0.90 points per possession this year in post up situations, a very good number. Unfortunately for Bynum, and the Lakers, that’s not the whole story. As anyone who has watched them carefully this season knows there is a glaring weakness to Bynum’s post game – playing through double teams. For the season Bynum turned the ball over 14.4% of his post possessions. Many of these turnovers come from Bynum panicking once the double comes, and traveling, continuing to try and dribble in traffic and being stripped, or just plain throwing the ball away. Looking at the rest of Bynum’s post-up numbers and the 0.90 points per possession loses some of its luster. Bynum shoots 47.1%, draws shooting fouls on 11.7% of his post possessions and scores on only 46.8% of them. For someone that people claim is the best post-up player in the league those numbers are very average.
In fact Howard tops Bynum in almost every single one of them. Dwight only scores 0.88 points per possession; a difference of just a single made basket out of a hundred possesions. What makes Dwight superior is everything that comes after that. Howard shoots 49.9% on post-up moves, was sent to the line on 13.8% of his post-up attempts, converted 33 And 1’s to Bynum’s 20, and turns the ball over just 13.5% of the time. That all adds up to Howard scoring on 47.4% of his post-ups, a better number than the supposed better post-up player Bynum.
What really sets the two apart offensively is their abilities as a pick-and-roll roll man. Bynum is quite good at the job scoring 1.11 points per possession, but Howard is elite. Dwight scored 1.38 points per possession rolling to the basket after setting his screen, shooting an incredible 73.6% in these situations; for comparison Bynum shot only 58.6%. Turnovers are again a Bynum problem in roll-man situations as he somehow manages to turn the ball over 8.6 percent of the time in a situation that normally is catching the ball on the way to, if not right under the basket. Howard does not have the same issue turning the ball over only 4% of the time in those situations, but what he does do is create fouls. Howard is sent to the line on 21.2% of his pick-and-roll possessions, and 10 times this year he finished And 1 opportunities.
There is one area that Bynum clearly bests Howard at the offensive end though, off ball cuts. For the season Bynum is scoring 1.55 points per possession off of cuts, good for fourth best in the league. In those same situations Howard only scores 1.41 points per possession. While Howard still shoots better from the field, 83.3% to Bynum’s 79.9%, and draws more shooting fouls, 25.5% of the time to Bynum’s 11.3, the turnover battle finally falls into Bynum’s domain. On cuts Bynum’s typically higher turnover percentage has disappeared as he only turns the ball over 4% of the time to Howard’s 7.1%. This advantage allows Bynum to score on 78.5% of his cuts, while Howard does so only 73.4% of the time. Unfortunately for Bynum being better in this category mostly comes from playing with better passers. While he still must see and make the cuts Bynum has a better chance to receive pinpoint passes from Kobe Bryant or Pau Gasol than Howard does from Jameer Nelson or Hedo Turkoglu.
Defensively, both players are elite but again, Howard has the edge. As with offensive numbers, the points per possession of many categories are very similar for the two, but Howard shines in field goal percentage against and turnovers forced. The three defensive play types that big-men are most instrumental in defending are isolations, post-ups and pick-and-rolls. Howard, Howard and Howard.
Howard has a clear edge in isolations, having given up only 0.61 points per possession compared to Bynum’s 0.72, and holding opponents to only 31.4% shooting compared to Bynum’s 34.6% against. He didn’t commit a single personal foul in isolations all season, while Bynum did 6.5% of the time.
Post-up situations provided more of the same as Howard gave up 0.73 points per possession in comparison to Bynum’s 0.72. However, the numbers turn in Howard’s favor when you look deeper. Against Dwight in post-up situations this year opponents shot 34.6% from the field, and turned the ball over 17.9% of the time, while converting only one And 1 for the season. Against Bynum opponents shot 38.1% from the field, turned the ball over only 10.5% of the time and converted only 2 And 1’s for the season. What allowed Bynum to stay close in points per possession were the foul rates of the two. Howard fouled opponents on 16.7% of post-up attempts, while Bynum only did so 7.2% of the time.
The final possession type the two faced in significant amounts this season was defending screeners in the pick-and-roll. Again the points per possession numbers remain very close, with Bynum again ahead in this category 0.81 to Howard’s 0.85. In this situation, Howard actually gave up the higher field goal percentage as well, 42.1% to Bynum’s 39.0% percent. Howard turned opponents over more often, and fouled more often, with rates of 7.4% for both. Bynum on the other hand posted 3.2% for each measurement. Looking at some of the video though, the numbers seem to be a product of the team’s defensive systems. As we know Stan Van Gundy has designed the Magic system to funnel everyone into Dwight in the paint. This gives him responsibility for many of his teammates’ men as they catch the ball close to the basket, not giving him enough time at points to provide enough defense. Bynum on the other hand has help behind him in pick-and-rolls, many times in Pau Gasol, a luxury Howard does not have.
The final two areas to compare the two players in are rebounding and passing. As we have seen this year Bynum is a very capable rebounder, when engaged, but Howard is among the league’s elite. Howard boasts an offensive rebound rate of 11.3%, a defensive rebound rate of 31.8%, and a total rebound rate of 21.8%. Bynum on the other hand produces an offensive rebound rate of 10.7%, a defensive rebound rate of 25.8%, and a total rebound rate of 18.7%. Ten times this year Howard had over twenty rebounds compared to 4 for Bynum, even though Howard played in six less games. Ten times this year Howard had only single digit rebounds, compared to 16 times for Bynum. The final area to look at in the comparison of the two players is their passing. For the season Bynum posted an assist percentage of 7.4 percent, and had an assist to turnover ratio of 0.56. Howard on the other hand posted a 9.8 assist percentage, and had an 0.59 assist to turnover ratio. To take it further, according to 82games.com Bynum’s assist to bad pass ratio was 2.1, while Howard checked in at 4.0, proving again that Bynum struggles in comparison to Howard in passing.
In the end, the correct answer to the league’s best center at this moment is clear. Andrew Bynum has plenty of potential still inside him and I expect him to keep growing. Even right now he does some things better than Dwight Howard, namely he has better range and is better from the free throw line. But there is no question that Dwight Howard is the better overall player at this moment. It’s time for people to back off this question and start to ask a better one; Andrew Bynum or Marc Gasol, or even if Andrew Bynum is better than Pau Gasol (not in my mind, but that is more arguable and for another day). Whatever your personal rooting preferences are, the ‘Bynum is an all-time great’ argument just doesn’t hold water.