Philadelphia 76ers: Bench Dwight Howard is the best Dwight Howard

(Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images)
(Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images) /

When the Philadelphia 76ers took the court against the Indiana Pacers, it was without Joel Embiid.

Now typically, traditionally, that isn’t a good thing. While calling any game without Embiid a guaranteed loss was technically correct up to that point – as, ya know, the team was 0-4 in games without The Process – but, in arguably his second-best coaching decision of the day, Doc Rivers decided to change things up and trot out a previously unused lineup to try to spark a little something-something versus an intraconference foe.

Move over Tom Brady, for the Sixers are undefeated in the TB11-era.

Now, for the sake of total transparency, Tony Bradley did not play particularly well against the Pacers. He played the fewest minutes of any Sixer who entered the game, only took two shots, and finished out the game with a team-low -16 +/-. Though he did impact the game ever so slightly on the margins, hauling in four rebounds and two assists to go with his two points, objectively speaking, Bradley was just a guy. The Sixers could have instead played Vincent Poirier, Norvel Pelle, or even Kyle O’Quinn and gotten an identical, or even a better, performance no doubt.

But the decision to start Bradley wasn’t sorely about Bradley but instead about putting their second-team center, Dwight Howard, in the best position to succeed.

Howard is the Philadelphia 76ers’ best bench center in years – keyword bench.

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At 35-years-old, Dwight Howard’s case for the Hall of Fame is pretty strong.

He’s an eight-time All-Star, a five-time rebounding champion, a two-time blocks champion, a Slam Dunk champion, and an NBA champion. He’s also been named to the All-NBA team eight times, the All-Defensive team five-times, the All-Rookie team in 2015, and has won the NBA Defensive Player of the Year award three times in 2009, 2010, and 2011.

For a player many once called Superman both for his muscular build and for his high-flying way of play, the twilight of his career should be about cementing that legacy, having some fun, and really, doing whatever he wants to do – after all, it’s not like he’s playing on an eight-figure contract anymore.

In 2019-20, Howard did just that.

After bouncing around the league in the post-Houston Rockets-era of his career, playing for three teams in as many years, Howard returned “home” to Los Angeles to try to do what he and Kobe Bryant could never do on the court together: Bring another championship back to the City of Angels.

Sporting a leaner, meaner physique, and a blonde hairdo, Howard came off the bench in 67 of the Lakers’ 69 games and arguably turned in his most impactful season since 2016-17 – averaging 7.5 points and 7.3 rebounds in a to that point career-low 18.9 minutes per game. Despite having had so much more success than the team’s starter, JaVale McGee, in every quantifiable category except championship wins, Howard took the role in stride and became a vital cog in what would be the Lakers’ first championship win since 2010.

Things were going about as well as anyone could have hoped for Howard’s reunion with the Lakers, but after having a contract extension offered, delayed, and ultimately rescinded in favor of signing away Doc Rivers‘ former Sixth Man of the Year forward Montrezl Harrell, Howard opted to join the NBA’s reigning Eastern Conference Coach of the Month in South Philly to help hype up Joel Embiid’s MVP campaign.

And, to his credit, Howard has remained one of the most efficient bench centers in the NBA even after trading in his gold and purple for Philadelphia 76ers red, white, and blue.

Despite playing even fewer minutes a game at 17.7, Howard is actually averaging .8 additional rebounds a game. He’s hit double-digit boards in 10 games – including a wild 18 rebound performance against the Memphis Grizzlies – and even has a pair of double-doubles to his credit.

But in games where Howard starts, things haven’t gone as smoothly.

Chalk it up to Howard’s pension for picking up personal fouls once every five and a half minutes or his inability to maintain his spark-plug tendencies over a longer, more expansive role, but in games where the 35-year-old is coming off the bench, he just plays with a faster, more chaotic-good energy that’s easier to maintain when you know you’ll be out of the game in a few minutes.

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In games where Embiid is active, Howard can go up for that block and not worry about getting fouled. He can push the pace a little harder to go up for an alley-oop. Heck, Howard can even forgo taking lower percentage shots and instead shotgun the ball out to an open shooter.

When you’ve got a guy like Embiid who can drop 30 in his sleep, you really don’t need a backup center who can drop 10 a night.

By starting Bradley in games without Embiid, even if he’s a starter in name only, Howard gets to maintain his typical role as a bench energizer bunny. He can do the things he does, do them well, and then head back to the bench before he gets to do it again.

Next. (Zone) defense is the key to winning without Joel Embiid. dark

In a perfect world, the Philadelphia 76ers would be able to play all 82 games – or however many games are on the docket – with Joel Embiid on the court. He’s by far the team’s best player, a revelation at both ends of the court, and a certified gamechanger when the ball is in his hands. But when Embiid can’t go, Doc Rivers and the Sixers need to find a way to secure a few Ws, even if they have to go the unconventional route of playing “John Chaney matchup (2-3) zone defense” to get it done. As unconventional as it may have seemed two years ago, the best way to get that done may just be to keep Dwight Howard’s role the same regardless of Embiid’s status, even if that means moonlighting Ben Simmons at center to make up for the big man’s absence artificially.