Although the NBA regular season is still a month away from tipping off, ESPN has released their rankings of the top 500 NBA players for the upcoming NBA season, with LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Dwight Howard, Chris Paul, and Derrick Rose making up the top five in that order. And, just like any list ranking the top players in the game, it has come with a fair share of criticism.

Analysts from around the league have chimed in with their opinion of which players are too high on the list, and which players are too low. Depending on who you listen to, you will hear different names for who should be in the top 10, but you will not find any knowledgable analyst who doesn’t agree that LeBron James and Kevin Durant are the clear-cut top two players in the NBA. The other three players in the top five have all been criticized by different sports personalities, speculating whether they deserve to be in the top five. However, I believe that one of those players, Dwight Howard, is without question deserving of the number 3 ranking on the list. 

Many people will argue that the top five should be reserved for players that can make an extremely large impact on both sides of the floor. Although Dwight Howard may not possess the same offensive repertoire that the other players in the top five do, he does have a vastly-improved post game that has flown under the radar the past few years due to people becoming accustomed to the notion that he gets all of his points off of dunks.

During his first few years in the NBA, Dwight Howard became a regular on the Sports Center top 10 plays because most, if not all of his points on any given night, were off of eye-popping, jaw-dropping dunks. Dunks that not only defied logic, but also embarrassed anybody who dared to try and get in his way. During the last few seasons however, Dwight Howard has been able to hone his athleticism and strength, and utilize them to his advantage to create a very polished post-up game. Defenders no longer have the luxury of being able to guard Dwight one-on-one in the post like they did early on in his career. If teams do not respect Dwight and bring that second player to double team him in the post, he will abuse his defender throughout the night.

Whether it be blowing by them with his speed and quickness, overpowering them with his otherworldly strength, jumping over them with his sheer athleticism, or just knocking down an easy hook shot with either hand, Dwight Howard will find a quick and effective way to consistently make his defender wish he was anyone in the world besides himself on a regular basis. He still gets a number of unbelievable dunks, but now he can rely more on his savvy array of post moves and pump fakes to get him to the rim, rather than depending on his teammates to get him the ball in an area where he can just rise up and throw it down.

Throughout the course of the NBA, we seemed to have forgotten that defense is 50 percent of the game. We also rely too heavily on how many blocks and steals a player has on his stat sheet each night as the tell-tale sign of how good a player is defensively. Although Dwight Howard has only led the league in blocked shots twice in his career, he has been able to rack up three defensive player of the year awards as well as five NBA All-Defensive teams. Along with all of these accolades, he also consistently leads the league in defensive efficiency ratings as well as points allowed per 100 possessions.

Although Dwight wasn’t leading the league in blocks every year, he was still altering more shots than anybody else in the league. The NBA doesn’t keep track of how many shots a player alters per game due to how arbitrary it is, but if they did, the stats would probably show that Dwight keeps anywhere from 10 to 20 points off the scoreboard per night based on how many shots he alters per game. And that doesn’t even take into account how many times players don’t even attempt to venture into the paint due to Dwight’s mere presence inside. One thing is for certain, whenever a player does get a lane to the basket, you can be sure that they will enter the key with extreme caution and trepidation. If they don’t, they will be in Dwight Howard’s next defensive video montage. 

If you get close to the hoop and Dwight Howard is nowhere in sight, you might want to check behind you because chances are that Dwight is looming somewhere close by, waiting for you to shoot. If you think that you can squeeze a shot by him, one of two things are going to happen. Either you are going to see your shot go flying into the stands, or you are going to see stars, because Dwight is either sending your shot over to the spectators, or he is sending it back in your face. Either way, it’s not a good ending for the offensive player.

Combined with his strength and athleticism, Dwight also integrates his superb defensive instincts and a nose for the basketball to make his tremendous defense look effortless. He is considered the best post defender in the NBA, and with good reason. Not only is Dwight quite possibly the strongest player in the game, he is also incredible at recovering when, on the rare occasion, he gets out of position down low. He also is the league’s best pick and roll defender.

While most big men are reluctant to come up and defend the pick and roll because they are slow and feel out of position, Dwight embraces stepping out to defend and feels right at home while doing so. He uses his tall, imposing 6 foot 11 inch frame to either funnel the ball handler back to his defender, or force the guard to exhaust precious stamina trying to get around him. Then, when his defender recovers, he is able to use his quick feet to get back to his man before he can do any damage in the paint. He is counted on by his team to be a defensive anchor and the last line of defense once opposing ball handlers get by their defender. His teammates rely on him to be a defensive enforcer in the paint and he does that, terrorizing anyone who tests their luck and tries to score on him.

Another knock on Dwight Howard when comparing him to some of the game’s elite is his leadership abilities. All I can say is what a difference a year makes. Many people forget that just a year ago, before the dreaded “Dwightmare” that dragged on throughout the course of last season, there were no questions about his leadership abilities.

In 2009, Dwight Howard was able to lead his team to the NBA finals, even though he was the only true scoring threat on his team. He also lost his starting point guard, Jameer Nelson, for the majority of the playoffs with a shoulder injury.

Dwight Howard was able to do what Shaquille O’Neal couldn’t in his first time playing in the NBA Finals. Dwight Howard was able to lead his team to a victory and avoid getting swept. What made this more impressive was that Dwight was able to do this with a much less talented team than Shaq. Shaq was able to rely on other talented teammates such as all-star teammate Penny Hardaway. People forget that Shaq and Penny were Shaq and Kobe before Shaq and Kobe, just not quite as dominant. As for Dwight, he didn’t have anyone to help him with the scoring, or the rebounding for that matter. If he was having an off game, his team was going to lose. 

Kevin Durant is considered by most to be a far superior leader and player compared to Dwight Howard. People point out how Durant was able to lead the Thunder to the NBA Finals last year by taking out the two teams that had been the dominant forces of the NBA over the last decade, the San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Lakers.

When people then make light of the fact that the Thunder only won one game against the Heat, Durant was excused. For him, it was a learning experience and he was still praised for being such a great leader at such a young age in the NBA. Oddly enough, Dwight Howard was even younger than Kevin Durant, albeit by just a few months, when he took his team to the NBA Finals. Dwight also won the same amount of games in the finals as Durant, but with a far less talented roster. The Thunder’s roster can boast two top ten players in ESPN’s rankings (Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook), a sixth man award winner (James Harden), as well as Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins who averaged almost five blocks a game combined last year.

Meanwhile, Dwight Howard’s Orlando Magic team had none of that. Even though Dwight had less talent around him than Durant, he still managed to have just as much success as Durant at such a young age.

There are ways to slow down anyone in the NBA, even the league’s best. If you want to give LeBron a harder time, back off of him and make him shoot jump shots. If Dwight gets into a zone, the easiest way to slow him down is to foul him and force him to make his free throws. Remind you of anyone else who once donned the purple and gold? Although Dwight couldn’t even make half of his free throws last year, he is a better free throw shooter than last year’s percentages would suggest. Unlike Shaq, who was absolutely abysmal from the free throw line, Dwight does have decent form. He follows through on his shot, keeps his guide hand up, and even allows the ball to roll off his fingertips, contrary to Shaq, who merely pushed the ball towards the hoop and hoped it would find it’s way in. Dwight already has the good mechanics, now it’s more about practicing his good form and not over thinking himself at the charity stripe.

From 2009-2011, if you listened intently enough around the NBA, you could hear rumblings about Dwight Howard making a case for MVP. Then, suddenly when the 2012 season rolled around, all you heard about from Orlando was drama and questions about whether or not Dwight wanted to be there.

Even though his stats were above his career average and almost identical to the season before, many people questioned whether he was giving 100 percent on the floor and proclaimed that he was playing uninspired basketball. Those remarks really took a toll on Howard. Earlier in the off-season, after his trade to the Lakers, he would say that he always gave his all on the court. But he did admit that basketball just wasn’t as much fun for him, and he noticed himself not smiling as much the past year as he had been before the “Dwightmare” unravelled. 

His play should never have been questioned, as evidenced by his game against the Philadelphia 76ers in April when he broke his back. In that game, Dwight managed to accumulate 20 points, 22 rebounds, 2 blocked shots, and play nearly 40 minutes to help his team pull-out a close six point victory. Throughout the bulk of the game, everyone could visibly tell that Dwight Howard was in excruciating pain. He was constantly compensating for his back, whether it be kneeling while other players were shooting free throws, or laying down on the ground for a quick five seconds while there was a dead-ball. During the game, one thing that everybody should have learned if they hadn’t already was that Dwight Howard cared deeply about his team. Also, no matter what it takes, no matter how much pain he is in, Dwight Howard will do anything he possibly can to win.

All NBA players have their weaknesses, even the NBA’s best. But, the top players do everything they can to make sure that they minimize their weaknesses, and build upon their strengths. Also, what separates the NBA’s greats from the all-stars is their will to win, and their drive to always improve.

Dwight possesses all of these qualities that you look for in an NBA great, and that is why he deserves to be ranked at number three on ESPN’s rankings. He has earned everything that he has achieved so far. So, the next time you find someone arguing about how Dwight Howard is overrated and not committed to his team or to winning, remember what he’s done for his team. Remind them how hard he has worked to improve every aspect of his game, and what kind of suffering he has willingly put himself through so that he could have a chance to call himself a champion.