Since being drafted first overall by the Orlando Magic in 2004, Philadelphia 76ers center Dwight Howard has put together a Hall-of-Fame-caliber career. Howard has been named to eight All-Star teams, eight All-NBA teams, and five All-Defensive teams. He was named the NBA's Defensive Player of the Year three times, he led the league in blocks twice, he won the Slam Dunk Contest in 2008 and he was a key contributor to the Los Angeles Lakers title team last season.
Out of all the things that Howard does well on a basketball court, rebounding is his strong suit. Howard has led the league in rebounding a whopping five times, and he currently sits 12th on the league's list of all-time rebounding leaders, only a few hundred boards away from moving into the top ten.
Now, at 35 years old in the midst of his 17th professional season and what could be considered the twilight of his career, one would assume that Howard's rebounding rate has slowed since his peak playing days. But, that isn't the case. In fact, the opposite has occurred as Howard is quietly having the most productive rebounding season of his career.
With the Sixers, Howard is playing fewer minutes per game than he ever has before (17.4), but he's grabbing more rebounds than he ever has on a per-minute basis. On the season, Howard is averaging 17 rebounds per 36 minutes of playing time -- the highest mark of his career. His 11.6 defensive rebounds and 5.4 offensive rebounds per 36 minutes are career highs, as is his total rebound percentage of 25.9. In other words, Howard isn't playing nearly as much, but he's rebounding the ball more efficiently than he did when he led the league in rebounding on five separate occasions.
I recently asked Howard how he has been able to be so productive in a limited role, and he explained that it's all about maximizing his minutes while also setting an example for his teammates.
"The biggest thing is just making my minutes count," Howard said. "Also just showing my teammates that it doesn't matter how many minutes I play. When I'm on the floor those minutes are valuable to me, and also to the team. So I just try to put all my effort and energy into what exactly this team needs me to do. I know that I can be very effective in rebounding the basketball on both ends of the floor.
"It's very, very difficult to do in this game, this new era, because of the 3-ball and the floor being spaced so much, but it's a lot of fun. I enjoy it, and [I] just want to continue to rebound at a high level for my teammates and do whatever I can to get more options for us, rebounds and stuff like that. And it's been really good."
Howard isn't just outperforming his old self on the glass this season. He's also outperforming the rest of the NBA as his average of 17 rebounds per 36 minutes leads the league.
The fact that Howard is the league's most productive rebounder at this stage in his career is extremely impressive, and a testament to the fact that he has been able to keep himself in great shape over the course of his career -- he still looks like he could win a body-building contest. It's also the result of the accumulation of knowledge and experience that he has gained over a decade and a half in the league. He's no longer interested in being a top offensive option like he was during his days in Orlando, and instead, he has fully embraced his role as a rebounder. Winning a title with the Lakers last season also helped him to put things in perspective.
"Whatever situation I'm put in, if it's wanting me to be a scorer for a team, just rebound, just block shots, whatever is being asked of me I can do it to the best of my ability and be the best for my team," Howard said. "The biggest thing is just winning. That's the most gratifying thing. When I was younger, of course, I wanted to score, be the man and do all that stuff. And over time you realize that none of that stuff really matters. The only thing that matters is winning.
"And like I was saying earlier, it's about maximizing your minutes. That's something that I talk to my teammates about a lot, especially the younger guys. Understanding, hey you might not get a lot of minutes on the floor right now. It could be five minutes, it could be three minutes, but make those three minutes count. Give all you got for those three minutes because you might not ever get those two minutes back again, and you won't. So you just got to take that and take advantage of a moment."
When Howard ultimately decides to call it a career, he will go down as one of the best rebounders that the NBA has ever seen. His stint with the Sixers should be remembered for the fact that he maximized limited on-court opportunity to remain the most impactful rebounder in the league in his seventeenth season.