It has long been held that Dwight Howard is the best center in the NBA. He wasted little time in mounting his challenge to that throne after joining the league in 2004, an arrival coincident with the decline of Shaquille O'Neal, with only Yao Ming to truly rival him to the crown Shaq vacated. And despite Yao often besting Howard in their head-to-head matchups - and whilst certainly mounting a well supported challenge of his own - the consensus of public opinion still went with Dwight as being the best.
Perhaps he still is. Despite our appraisal earlier this season of the strength in depth of the center position around the league - a list to which DeMarcus Cousins can be added, omitted from the previous list due purely to a clerical error and not due to some judgement on his play - the reasonably reinvigorated Howard of 2013-14 might still be atop the list. Notwithstanding the spectacular rise of the amazing talent that is Joakim Noah, the defensive wall (at least pre-February) that is Roy Hibbert, the offensive machine that is a healthy Brook Lopez and the all-around excellence of a fit again Marc Gasol, the Rockets-era Howard has rebounded from his massively disappointing and statistically misleading campaign of last season into being mostly back to his best, a nightly double-double without even seeming to need his top gear. Warts and all, Howard can still sometimes dominate without being dominant.
What is increasingly apparent, though, is that he is not the best big man in the NBA.
Who that player is is not universally apparent. Kevin Love and Blake Griffin can certainly make a run at that title. So might the aforementioned Cousins. So might LaMarcus Aldridge, if you are from Portland. Arguments can be and are made for others. But one player is all too often overlooked in the discussion - New Orleans' Anthony Davis.
For all his ability, Davis has yet to parlay that into much success on the court or stock in the public's perception. Everyone knows who Davis is, and everyone surely knows he is good, but too few perhaps recognize how good he is. Such is the by-product of playing on an afterthought lottery team in a small market. This injustice was confirmed in this week's Defensive Player Of the Year voting, where Davis received only 25 votes (only five for first and second place combined), and tied for only eighth place in the results.
Perhaps fittingly, he tied with Howard. As one ebbs, the other flows.
This not to say that Davis should have received the DPOY award - he should not have. Nor should he necessarily have received the most improved player award, in which he today came third. Both, however, speak again to the manner in which he is often underappreciated. Davis is good, and he gets votes, and he tied for the eighth best defensive player, and he is apparently the third most improved player in a season, and that all suggests he is recognized as a player. So for that to still be potentially unfair to him, he must be really, really good.
He is. Davis' abilities could be transcendent. He is one of the best shot blockers in the league. He is one of the best rebounders in the league. He is one of the best scorers in the league. He makes few mistakes. He runs the floor. He shoots the J, even developing outside range. He drives the ball. He gets open. He handles. He has touch, length, IQ, energy level, timing and instincts, a disruptive defensive presence becoming a go-to scorer. He is learning to shoulder responsibility and when (and how) to carry a team. He is becoming the complete player. And he is still only 20. At this point, he is certainly better than Dwight. He is better than most people.
This is less a slant on Howard as it is praise for Davis. Nevertheless, viewing the two in conjunction serves to evidence the big holes in Howard's game that now, a decade in, seem destined to remain. Davis has more physical tools than Howard - he has not the same strength, of course, but he is more agile laterally and in full control of his limbs - and certainly has a far higher skill level. In contrast, while arguments that Dwight has never developed post moves or footwork are unfair - he has the moves, but just has no touch on any non-dunk shot, a largely innate skill - it is certainly fair to wonder why one who dunks so effortlessly does not work so hard to get position for them. Not everything comes easily or naturally to Dwight, and we are perhaps guilty of assuming they do based on his physical dominance, which misleadingly suggests he can dominate at will. But those that do, he has never truly taken advantage of. It is impossible to say the same of Davis right now.
At some point soon, if things do not change, Davis will start to hear the same rally against him that Love currently does. "If he is so good," it is said, "why do his teams never win?" And at some point, that argument starts to become palpably true. Yet it is far too early for these criticisms to hold too much weight. And it is certainly not too early to appreciate quite how good he is becoming. Consider for a moment that if the nonsensical 20-year age restriction were to have come into force a few years ago, Davis would just now be completing a rookie campaign. He'd be doing so with 20/10 averages, a mark no player in the league achieved last season, and which only five achieved this season.
He would be doing so with a dominant defensive presence, a much improved and increasingly diverse offensive game, and a unique combination of skill and physical tools. Even though so few seem to have seen it, his improvement can be seen on a month to month basis. Anyone who does not notice is missing out.
Things will change for New Orleans. Davis and the Pelicans are developing, and while nothing about their roster construction makes a great deal of sense, Davis rights many ills on his own. He is the future, and for that, if only for that, the future is nice. With their development will come further recognition What he does not yet have is the 'brand' Dwight created - the catchy nickname, the dunk contest performances, the winning smile, the supposedly good humor. He is instead developing significantly. The rest will come in time.
Essentially, he is doing all the things Howard never did. The King is dead. Long live the King.