Dwight Howard vs. Joakim Noah.
The two centers really couldn't play the position more different. One is leaner and quicker while the other relies on brute strength and shoulders that look more like shoulder pads. One is an established passer from the high post who finds cutters while the other sits on the low block and kicks the ball out to open 3-point shooters as the defense collapses on him.
So while a direct comparison isn't all that fair, there's no denying that Howard and Noah have established themselves as the two best centers in basketball. That means we get to try:
Since he entered the league, Howard has been one of the most dominant inside scorers in the NBA. He's never shot worse than 52 percent from the field in 10 seasons, averaging 18.3 points on 58 percent shooting in 761 career games. Nearly 97 percent of his shots this year have come from 10 feet and in, and he has made just six of the 24 shots from outside that range. He's made nearly 59 percent of his shots this year, his best mark since 2010-11 and if flourishing in his first season under Rockets coach Kevin McHale.
Noah also has made his living around the rim, taking 80 percent of his attempts from 10 feet and in. He gets there in different ways, cutting to the basket, driving off the dribble and flashing in the paint. He's made 35 percent of his 117 attempts outside of 10 feet, finding success on the left elbow where he typically initiates the Bulls offense.
Howard gets the nod here because of his stellar 73 percent mark at the rim, per basketball-reference.com. But Noah's versatility and better free throw percentage (71.8 percent, compared to Howard's 54.7 percent) can't be forgotten.
On the surface it would appear that Howard is the better rebounder, but there's more to it than sheer numbers. Howard ranks fourth in the NBA in rebounds per game (12.4), better than Noah's 11.1 boards (sixth in the NBA), but advanced stat tracking has done wonders for determining who's really doing work on the glass.
One of the best determinants is measuring contested vs. uncontested rebounds. Sport VU defines a contested rebound as one that occurs when an opponent is within 3.5 feet. Both Noah and Howard are averaging 4.7 contested rebounds per game, tied for fifth in the league. But where Noah holds the advantage is in contested rebound percentage, or the percentage of attempts when an opponent is close that he comes down with the board. In that department, Noah is grabbing 41.7 percent of contested rebounds, better than Howard's 38 percent mark. Noah is 10th in the NBA; Howard is 19th.
The reality is these two are among the best rebounders in the game, and Howard's volume numbers may make him the better option. But Noah's never-ending motor and better percentage on contested rebounds put him right with Howard in this category.
There's no debate here.
Noah has become easily the best passing center in the NBA, averaging a career-best 4.9 assists per game, 28th best in the league. For reference, he's averaged more assists per game than Jose Calderon, Tyreke Evans and Victor Oladipo, among others.
Perhaps Noah's most telling statistic also comes from Sport VU. He's 10th in the NBA in passes per game (62.7). The assist totals are impressive, but he's also keeping the ball moving, playing within the Bulls offense and finding open teammates, even when it doesn't lead to dimes.
Looking further, his 4.9 assists have created 11.2 points per game. For Howard, his 1.8 assists per game (he's never averaged 2.0 assists per game) have resulted in 4.3 points per game for the Rockets. So putting their respective points per game and points created by assists per game together, Noah creates 23.4 points per game for the Bulls; Howard's numbers put together average 23.0 points per game.
This is arguably where Noah and Howard are toughest to debate.
Noah has totaled 4.8 Defensive Win Shares this season, better than Howard's 3.8. Though Howard has averaged more blocks per game (1.77 vs. Noah's 1.5), the Bulls center has grabbed more steals and has a better defensive rating (96) than Howard (100). A few years ago this wouldn't have been a debate, but Noah's prominence this season has flipped the scale.
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Perhaps the best indicator of how far Noah has come is in his opponents' field goal percentage at the rim. In 2013-14, opponents have made 44.8 percent of those shots, third best among centers, behind Roy Hibbert (41.5 percent) and Robin Lopez (42.7 percent). Howard hasn't been a slouch here, but his 48.6 percent mark ranks seventh among centers, notably worse than Noah.
Howard used to be the poster boy for the NBA, providing that cheeky smile even in the late moments of a close game, providing humor on his Twitter account and making Magic fans forget about Shaquille O'Neal. But an ugly, ugly divorce in Orlando and arguably a bigger one in Los Angeles a year later hurt his reputation dearly (LeBron and The Decision can thank him for that).
And while Howard hasn't had any blow-ups in Houston, what Noah has meant to a Bulls team without Derrick Rose and Luol Deng is second to none. He's been the emotional leader, the mental foundation and the physical box score stuffer that Tom Thibodeau needed. This is more a plus for Noah than a negative for Howard, but it's a MAJOR plus.