August 15, 2012
By Eric Palutsis
By now everyone is aware of the blockbuster four-team trade finalized on Friday morning that has given Dwight Howard his escape from Orlando to the bright lights of Los Angeles. Twelve players, five draft picks, four teams, and an immeasurable number of headaches and trade rumors later, the Magic are relieved to finally be rid of their disgruntled superstar. For the Lakers, this means adding the NBA’s top center to a rejuvenated roster primed for another championship run.
Howard is immediately set to join the prestigious club of dominant big men who have donned the Laker purple and gold before him, following in the footsteps of Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Shaquille O’Neal (someone needs to send out a league memo to stop trading franchise centers to LA). However, underneath the lore of all these hall of fame centers, the thing that is being lost in the shuffle is the player that Superman is directly replacing: Andrew Bynum. Widely regarded as the other franchise center in NBA, Bynum is coming off a season in which he averaged almost 19 points and 12 rebounds per game. And while no one questions Howard’s defensive dominance, some will argue that Bynum is more polished and superior offensive option. So why were the Lakers so quick to give up the younger Bynum for a center coming off of season-ending back surgery? Does Howard really make them that much better? Sounds like it’s time to crunch some numbers.
Physically, both Howard and Bynum are the two most imposing figures in the game today. Howard is listed at 6’11”, 240 pounds, while Bynum is a true 7-footer who tips the scales at 285 pounds. Now Superman may make up for his slight height disadvantage with a staggering 39.5” vertical leap but what is really surprising is the extra 45 pounds packed on by Bynum; if that extra weight is muscle that can be the difference down low in the post. Age-wise, Bynum is two years younger than Howard (24 vs. 26) and has played nearly 13,000 less NBA minutes. Granted, this is partly because he has already suffered two different knee injuries and a torn meniscus over the course of his young career. However, while Howard has traditionally been very durable up until this past year, he still must return from an always dangerous back injury that ended his 2012 season. Advantage: Bynum
On the defensive side of the ball there seems to be no contest: Howard is a three-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year while Bynum has yet to even make an All-Defense team. Howard has averaged over two blocks per game for the past five seasons and ranked in the league’s top ten in that category for the past six years. Comparatively, Bynum has only been in the top ten once. Dwight’s dominance is even clearer on the glass, as he has ranked top five in total rebounding every year since coming into the league and taking the top spot six of his eight seasons. Even in his injury-shortened 2012 campaign, Superman averaged 14.5 rebounds per game, while Bynum only managed 11.8 rebounds per game.
Howard’s defensive rating, which estimates the number of points allowed per 100 possessions, gives us a deeper look into his defensive superiority. While Bynum’s 2012 defensive rating is an even 100—meaning he is responsible for giving up an average of one point every trip down the floor—Howard held a more successful defensive rating of 96. For perspective’s sake, that is the fifth best defensive rating for players who played over 1000 minutes last season. Four points may not seem like a big deal but it is a pretty significant difference when you consider how many NBA games come down to the final possession. Indeed, Howard’s defense alone would have provided an extra 1.1 wins over Bynum last year. Advantage: Howard
The offensive side of the ball is a less clear-cut story for these two big men. Last season Howard averaged 20.6 points per game compared to Bynum’s 18.7 points per game. Each displayed similar usage percentages, as Dwight utilized 26.1% of the Magic’s offensive possessions and Bynum used 23.8%. It is surprising to see how high Bynum’s usage was with the Lakers when he had to compete for touches with Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol; that’s a good sign for Howard as he looks to settle in with the latest LA superteam next season. But Bynum had a slightly higher and more efficient true shooting percentage of 59.4%, while Howard’s was 56.9%. Bynum also took better care of the ball than his replacement, with a career mark of only 1.6 turnovers per game compared to Howard’s career average of 3.1 per game.
It seems like this comparison is a wash offensively right? Not so fast. Examining the offensive rating statistic—this variation measures the number of points produced by a player per 100 possessions—reveals the real winner. Last season Bynum had an offensive rating of 112 and was responsible for 4.8 offensive win shares. What about Howard? He only had an offensive rating of 106 and 3.3 wins. When combining that information with both players’ defensive metrics, that means that Bynum held a six point and 1.5 win advantages over Howard, seemingly making up for Howard’s defensive advantage. Advantage: Bynum
So if Bynum’s offense offsets Howard’s defense and Bynum is two years younger, what explains why the Lakers felt the need to make this blockbuster trade? The money certainly couldn’t have had anything to do with it, as both are entering the final year of their contracts and will surely receive maximum deals next off-season (Howard is actually even set to make just over $2.5 million more than Bynum this year).
So what advantage are the Lakers gaining? It comes down to the fact that Superman is simply a better fit in LA with the new direction the Lakers have taken this summer. Between Kobe, Gasol, and the newly acquired Steve Nash, the Lakers already have 58 points, 19 assists, and 18 rebounds in the starting lineup. What the new superteam is lacking is rebounding and defense; Howard provides the perfect complement with his defensive dominance and title as the best rebounder in the NBA. And while he may not be quite the offensive threat that Bynum was, he won’t have to be the go-to option thanks to Kobe (having Nash as a floor general certainly can’t hurt either). Finally, his new head coach Mike Brown, known for his emphasis on defense, has finally found the intimidating centerpiece for a defense that gave up over 104 points per game last season.
In LA’s eyes, this swap essentially comes down to the fact that they are trading a player who would have given them more of the same for a superstar who will fix their glaring weaknesses. According to AccuScore, the numbers agree with the Lakers diagnosis and predict that bringing in Howard to fix these weaknesses (as well as adding Nash to run the point) will give them an extra 6.3 wins next season, putting them back at the top of the Western Conference once again. For a proud franchise used to being on top and looking to return to championship form, adding Superman to the City of Angels seems like just the thing to make that happen.