September 4, 2010
Dwight Howard vs. Pau Gasol: Battle of the India visitors
You knew this was inevitable, didn't you? After being relatively starved of NBA star-power for years, the world's finest basketball league decided to spoil us this summer. I already feel that August 2010 will go down in NBA India lore as the summer/monsoon season where India took its biggest splurge towards becoming a large NBA market.
In the space of two weeks, All-Star Orlando Magic Center Dwight Howard and All-Star Los Angeles Lakers Power Forward/Center Pau Gasol landed in India. Now apart from being recent fans of India, these two players have a lot more in common: they are both big players hovering around the 7 foot range, they are both in successful teams who have been going deep in the playoffs the last few years, and they are both devastatingly talented players.
But the question remains: which one of the NBA's All Star visitors to India is a better player: Dwight Howard or Pau Gasol? The two players faced each in the 2009 NBA Finals where Gasol, Kobe and the Lakers beat the Howard and the Magic 4-1. I'm going to lay down my stats and opinions, and finally my choice.
But first, I must answer the more important question of "What is better?" Is the better player the one with the better statistics? Is the better player the one who wins more? Is it someone who can carry a team better? Is it someone who performs better in tougher circumstances? Is it someone with a bigger worldwide influence?
Maybe it's a combination of all these things. And I'm going to use all of those factors, and then finally determine it through a final determining factor: "If I am starting a new team today, which player would I pick first?"
So here we go...
Dwight Howard (Orlando Magic): 24 years old, 6"11, 120 kg, Center
Pau Gasol (Los Angeles Lakers): 30 years old, 7"0, 113 kg, Power Forward/Center
Basic Individual Statistics: 2009-2010 season - PPG: points per game, RPG: rebounds per game, APG: assists per game, BPG: blocks per game, SPG: steals per game.
Howard: 18.3 ppg, 13.2 rpg, 1.8 apg, 2.8 bpg, 0.9 spg
Gasol: 18.3 ppg, 11.3 rpg, 3.4 apg, 1.7 bpg, 0.6 spg
Howard and Gasol averaged the same points per game, despite Gasol being the second option in his team (behind Kobe) whereas Howard being his team's "main man". In his last full season in Memphis before going to the Lakers, Gasol averaged 20.8 ppg. Howard, who is the two-time reigning defensive player of the year, scores better in rebounds and blocks (where he has led the NBA), and other important defensive factors that don't appear on the scoresheet.
The "Real Season", as many believe, actually begins in the playoffs, where the games are much tougher and a player's talents are tested more. Here are the statistics from last season's playoffs for both these players: Gasol played 23 games and went on all the way to win the title, whereas Howard's Magic were knocked out in the Conference Finals after playing 14 games.
Basic Individual Statistics: 2009-2010 Playoffs
Howard: 18.1 ppg, 11.1 rpg, 1.4 apg, 3.5 bpg, 0.8 spg
Gasol: 19.6 ppg, 11.1 rpg, 3.5 apg, 2.1 bpg, 0.4 spg
Both players improved on their blocks average, but as you can see, there is a sharp rise in Gasol's scoring and a slight fall in Howard's in the playoffs. Howard also became a worse rebounder. Most of these struggles are due to the Celtics Conference Finals series.
This is where the intangibles begin - I place a lot of importance on team success to determine a player's value. Dwight Howard, still only 24, joined the Magic as a rookie in 2004. After closely missing the playoffs in his first two seasons, Dwight has led the Magic for four straight years. For the last three years, Magic have been the best team in the Southeast division over the regular season. In 2009, Magic went all the way to the Finals only to lose to the Lakers. In 2010, they lost in the Conference Finals to the Celtics.
Gasol has had a lot more success with his teams. He has been in the NBA for nine years, six of which he spent with the Memphis Grizzlies. The team moved from Vancouver to Memphis in his first season there. In six full season's with the Grizzlies, Gasol saw Playoffs three times, each time to lose out in the first round. To be fair, the Grizzlies were a much inferior team who overachieved every year in a tough conference. But Gasol immediately showed his class after being traded to the Lakers half-way through the 2007-08 season. The Lakers became a world-class team again and made the NBA Finals for three straight years, winning the Championship twice. What is more astonishing is that he Lakers have only lost three straight games once in the Gasol era!
Both Howard and Gasol have had international success with USA and Spain respectively. Howard followed the "disappointment" of a Bronze medal in the 2006 World Championships with a Gold over Gasol's Spanish team at the 2008 Olympics. Gasol's Spain won the 2006 Championships Gold (with Gasol named the MVP of the tournament) and his team won Silver at the 2008 Olympics. In the FIBA European Championships, Gasol and Spain have won Gold (2009), Silver twice (2007, 2003), and Bronze (2001).
Howard never got the opportunity to star in a packed US squad filled with players like Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, etc, whereas Gasol has always been the first option for Spain.
The last few categories may have made the questions of better statistics, better performance under pressure, and more team success, but the question remains: Given the same set of circumstances, which player would perform better? Would the Lakers win even more games if they traded Dwight Howard for Pau Gasol? Would the Magic continue to perform so well consistently if they had Gasol instead of Howard in the middle for them?
Gasol has had the luxury of having one of the NBA's best players in Kobe Bryant, the NBA's best coach in Phil Jackson, and an amazing supporting cast including Andrew Bynum, Ron Artest, Lamar Odom and others backing him. Howard's Magic may not be as star-studded, but they are certainly one of the deepest teams in the League, with talent pouring out of even their 11th and 12th best players. Last season, Dwight was surrounded by players like Jameer Nelson, Vince Carter, Rashard Lewis, Matt Barnes, Brandon Bass, Adonal Foyle, Jason Williams, Mikael Pietrus, Marcin Gortat, and others. Stan Van Gundy isn't a bad coach, either.
My opinion is this: Gasol wouldn't be able to carry his team as far as Howard does every year. But conversely, I don't think Howard has the ability to carry a team with a different system (like Spain), or be able to play an ideal complementary player to someone like Kobe in LA. The biggest reason for the Lakers' consistent success since the Gasol trade has been the fact that Gasol eases can ease between being a main player to a complementary team player with ease. His shooting and passing make him stand-out in Phil Jackson's system, something that Howard would've struggled with.
The two also have a curious distinction: Howard is a stronger player physically whose biggest drawback may be his mental ability. Gasol is a relatively softer player but has shown championship caliber and toughness - especially against Garnett and the Celtics these last finals. I am actually of the opinion that Gasol should have been named the Finals MVP this time instead of Kobe.
The other major difference is in offence and defence: Gasol is one of the best offensive big men in the league (perhaps second only to Dirk Nowitzki), but has been exposed for his defensive problems in the past. Howard is a two-time defensive player of the year, a monster in the paint on defence, but hardly has any offensive post moves to stand amongst the greats.
There is one other clear advantage Howard has - he is about six years youngster than Gasol, and thus can be potentially a much greater player.
So, who do I pick?
So if it comes down to it today: I'm starting a new NBA franchise, I have no player on my team yet, and can make my first choice between Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol. There is also no guarantee how good my supporting cast will be - it could be LeBron James and Dwyane Wade or it could be Mo Williams and Jamario Moon.
And with my first pick I choose... (drumroll)... Pau Gasol!
He may be older and lacking in some of the raw atletism that Howard is gifted with, but Gasol will guarantee me a competitive team with any kind of roster.
Phew! Do you think I'm right? Or do you think I need to get some more sleep to think clearly? Both of them came to India, but who do you choose for your team - Dwight Howard or Pau Gasol?