Dwight Howard is many things, including: jacked beyond decency, the NBA’s best center and one of the most divisive fantasy basketball players alive today.
First off, let’s be clear that in roto leagues drafting Howard in the first round can only be seen as a masochistic self-challenge and ultimate test of your fantasy skills — a test which will almost always lead to a non-first-place finish. In head-to-head leagues, however, Howard is seen by the vast majority of experts and fantasy basketball owners as a top-12 fantasy asset. This assertion is, of course, always followed up by a warning that starts with something like, “…so long as you…” followed by a brief mention of punting categories and building around his strengths.
Let the record show that I fully agree with the idea that “Foul on You” is worth a pick in the first round, so long as you are disciplined enough to follow up by constructing the right roster with your remaining picks.
But that doesn’t change the fact that I don’t like placing Howard in the first round of my fantasy rankings — even for head-to-head formats.
Here is my reasoning:
- A list of rankings to serve all skill levels: This point is my main reason for being so averse to placing Howard in the first round of my fantasy basketball rankings, even for head-to-head formats. Any time you have to follow up your explanation of ranking a player in the first round with “…so long as you…” a red flag should be flapping all up in your lovely mug in the same way it should when a friend tells you they know a girl who’d be perfect for you, “so long as you’re OK with the fact that she has no thumbs.” While fantasy basketball veterans should have no problems reading H2H rankings that have Howard in the top 12, those who are either new to the game or still trying to learn the ropes might read them and be led into a trap, especially if a caveat isn’t included. In order to accommodate fantasy basketball owners in all categories of 1337ness, from rookies to 20-year vets, I choose to place Howard somewhere between where experienced owners might take him (mid- to late-first round) and where rookies should probably be advised to take him (mid- to late-second round). If that means I’m indirectly advising less-experienced owners to miss out on Howard, so be it. He’s a potent fantasy weapon, but one that could easily backfire for someone who won’t know how to use him. The following points are reasons why the big man in Orlando is a risky option for your team’s first pick, especially if you’re not too well acquainted with the game.
- Objects in mirror are more difficult than they appear: While a word of caution and an explanation regarding Howard’s fantasy value is fine and dandy, it’s usually not as simple as it sounds. Let’s say you draft the big fella in the first round and commit to punting FT%. This would mean that in the second round, your ideal picks would be either Josh Smith (60.6 percent in the past two seasons) or Rajon Rondo (63 percent in his four-year career). But what if those two dudes are taken before you can get them? What if players that would fit into your punting strategy continue to be taken throughout most of the draft, forcing you to either compromise your plan, reach a bit too often for players who should be taken a round or two later, or just completely lose your cool and draft a mediocre team? It can happen. Even if you’re aiming to draft Howard in the first round and endeavor to actually target players with great free-throw percentages to make up for his 59 percent from the line on 10+ attempts per game, the same risk of unfortunate drafting scenarios can easily take place. Punting is a great tactic for Howard owners in a vacuum, but in reality there’s a lot of room for error. (This isn’t even to mention how difficult it could be to transition from drafting with a roto or traditional H2H mindset, which are oftentimes the same for many owners, to a punting/compensating strategy.)
- The ceiling is sagging: Let’s be brutally honest here: despite the upbeat mentions of how much he has worked on his shooting and offensive arsenal during each offseason, we never see any of that come to fruition once the season starts. Let’s take a look at Howard’s stats for the past three seasons:
Do you see a trend (besides the strange streak of XX:42 in playing time)? No matter how insignificant you might think it seems, it’s there. Howard has seen his points, rebounds and minutes decline, while his personal fouls have risen. This isn’t to say that I think the trend will continue in this exact fashion this season, but I do see a troubling trend here, and it’s mostly rooted in his penchant for fouling and his consequential decline in playing time. With the NBA’s new (and more sensitive) guidelines regarding technical fouls, there’s even less to like for Howard’s on-court time heading into this season. (He and Rasheed Wallace led the league with 17 technical fouls each last season.) His stats seem set in stone. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, since he’s putting up some gaudy numbers, but it doesn’t bode well for his potential to improve on any particular statistical category. Upside is an intangible aspect of players’ values on draft day, and Howard has next to none of it.
- They’re gunning for him: Why do you think the Miami Heat has seven players who can play center on their roster? Part of the reason is to frustrate, foul and defeat Howard, who will face the South Beach triumvirate and their stable of bigs four times this regular season. While that’s only four games in an 82-game schedule, we’ve all seen how teams are doing a better job of frustrating the easy-to-fluster Howard on a nightly basis. The new guidelines for technicals don’t help here either.
- Overrated strengths, underrated weakness: When discussing Howard’s fantasy value, everyone will concede that he’s miserable at the free-throw line, but point to the notion that he’s gold from the field. What some owners fail to realize is that Howard’s high FG% doesn’t help as much as it would appear to. That’s because he’s typically taking a measly 10-11 shots per game. This means that a player like David Lee, who shot 54.5 percent from the field and made 8.5 shots on 15.5 attempts per game last season, can be seen as more helpful for your fantasy team’s FG% than Howard’s 61.2 percent from the field with 6.2 shots made on 10.2 attempts per game. This further highlights why Howard is so detrimental to your team’s FT% (and why a successful attempt at punting/compensating is even more necessary), and also why his “strong” FG% may not actually be that helpful, especially if you have a neutralizer like Brandon Jennings (37 percent from the field, 5.5 FGM on 14.8 FTA last season) on the same team. Also, let’s not forget that rebounds are the second most common stat in the game, which means his strength in that category might not “lock it up” nearly as well as Howard’s blocks do for that exponentially scarcer category.
- Fewer outs: Aside from shooting percentages and turnovers, most first- and second-round players pretty much help you in three, four or five categories. Howard is essentially limited to two: blocks and rebounds. So it doesn’t help that when he has a bad game, that’s pretty much it. Howard won’t gut out a bad night by finding other ways to contribute like other top-tier players can by, for example, handing out more assists or heading to the line more often on a bad shooting night. Add to this the fact that foul trouble particularly affects the steals and blocks categories, and you’re looking at limited lines from Howard when he’s having a bad night (i.e., in foul trouble). Last season, Howard racked up four or more fouls in 45 games (55 percent of the 82 he played). In those games, he averaged 16.2 points, 12.2 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 0.8 steals, 2.4 blocks and 3.4 turnovers. He racked up five or six fouls in 19 games (23 percent of the 82 he played). In those games, he averaged 14.7 points, 10.7 rebounds, 1.2 assists, 0.6 steals, 2.1 blocks and 3.3 turnovers. Not too shabby, but not the kind of rigidly weighed-down numbers you’d like to see so often from a first-round pick.
- Bad news comes in threes, or fours, or fives, or…: It wouldn’t be so bad if Howard’s foul troubles popped up once every several games. But the bad news is that foul trouble comes in streaks for him, which is particularly harsh for weekly formats. Last season, Howard was tagged with four or more fouls in at least two games in a row nine times. (The precise streaks in chronological order were: four, five, seven, five, four, two, two, two, two.) Given the foul-troubled stats in the previous point, it’s clear that there were a handful of weeks where the big man was more human than superman for his fantasy owners in 2009-10.
- I’ve seen too many casualties: During the past several seasons, I’ve seen many fantasy owners take Howard in the first round of head-to-head format drafts. How many ended up winning the championship in those leagues? Zero. In fact, I’ve seen only one owner win a league after drafting Howard at all. Yes, I haven’t played in enough leagues to make this statistic scientifically significant, but it does seem to lend at least the tiniest bit of weight to my preference to leave Howard out of my first-round rankings.
- I have a headache: Punting or compensating FT% with Howard leading your fantasy squad can be a headache. It requires discipline, attention and some fortunate draft picks to work. It’s not too absurd to argue that it’s all too much toil for a player with limited fantasy versatility. Going with another better-rounded player in the first round gives you the freedom of choice until the latter rounds of the draft, when subtle weaknesses might rear their heads. For some fantasy owners, avoiding Howard and opening up their options is the path to a more enjoyable fantasy draft. For others who want to avoid the paradox of choice, taking Howard in the first round and limiting their options will be the more challenging-in-a-rewarding-way undertaking. While taking him as your first pick might be the foundation of a smartly built fantasy juggernaut, I adhere to the notion that avoiding Howard in the first round offers most fantasy owners more avenues to fantasy championships.