Dwight Howard's defense is overrated, except for when it isn't

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One of the most buzzed-about things during the recent Sloan Conference at MIT was a paper presented by John Huizinga on the value of a blocked shot. 
It was an interesting paper because it quantified things that fans have known for years. A block softly deflected to a teammate is better than a shot swatted out of bounds, blocking a layup is more valuable than blocking a jump shot, and goaltending is bad. 
What makes the paper extremely interesting is that according to Huizinga’s findings, Dwight Howard made the least valuable blocks in the league, while Tim Duncan made the most valuable ones. Since Howard is generally regarded as the best shot-blocker in the NBA by a wide margin, this finding has stirred up some controversy. Most people know that Howard goes for some blocks even he can’t get and tends to spike the ball out of bounds rather than tap it to a teammate, but the least valuable blocks? 

ESPN’s Peter Keating explained Huizinga’s conclusions like this:
“If your block produces an offensive rebound — often the result of smashing the ball out of bounds — that’s neither the best nor worst result. The other team keeps the ball, with an expected value of about 1 for its possession. If you goal-tend on a block, that’s the worst; your opponent scores automatically, and occasional fouls push the expected value of the possession up to about 2.07.
Over the entire stretch of data that Huizinga and Weil examined, Tim Duncan didn’t goal-tend once, while 24 percent of Dwight Howard’s blocks resulted in free points for the other team.”

Again, none of this is shocking stuff. Goaltending is bad. Tim Duncan is an extremely cerebral player on both ends of the floor. Howard relies more on instincts and athleticism, and sometimes tries to do too much on defense. 

So Dwight Howard’s blocks are overrated. But is Howard’s shot-blocking overrated? Even though Howard goaltends too much and doesn’t deflect the ball to his teammates, opponents sure are terrified of Howard swatting their shot when they play against him. The Magic are the second-best team in the league at preventing points in the paint, and were third in that category last season. Additionally, Orlando is the best team in the league at defending the rim for the second straight season. So while Howard’s blocks themselves may not be valuable, Howard’s value as a defensive presence is clearly off the charts. 
The real question is whether Howard’s minor issues with goaltending and swatting the ball out of bounds actually help him do what he does better than anyone else, which is prevent opposing teams from getting easy baskets inside. For each one of Dwight’s goaltends, how many shots got changed because an opposing player was afraid that Dwight would make a block no other player would dare to go for? For each basket scored on a second possession thanks to Dwight swatting a block out of bounds, how many players decided to pull up for a jumper instead of try to drive because they didn’t want to end up on the wrong side of a highlight? 
Before Huizinga’s paper gets dismissed because of arguments like the above, it should be noted that Duncan’s more subtle approach to shot-blocking was certainly effective as well. In 2008, the year Huizinga cites in his data, the Spurs gave up slightly fewer points in the paint than the Magic did, and were a top-five team in terms of defending the rim. 
Personally, I would say that Howard’s positives easily outweigh his negatives as a shot-blocker, and that he’s easily the best defensive player in basketball. However, I would stop short of saying that Howard would be best served completely ignoring Huizinga’s study. Just like great offensive players always have new skills to learn and areas of their game to refine, great defensive players can still have areas they need to improve in. In this case, Howard is giving up some points he doesn’t need to be giving up when he goes for blocks. Fixing that problem while still giving the impression he can still swat any shot will be tough, but it’s certainly something Howard is capable of.