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January 29, 2008
Game Reax
Rookies

by Bradford Doolittle

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As we enter the second half of the NBA season, very little is decided. That holds true for both team races and the races for individual honors. MVP? Right now, it's a dead heat between LeBron James and Kevin Garnett. (Well, it ought to be.) Coach of the year? It could be the Hornets' Byron Scott, but the Trail Blazers' Nate McMillan is going to get a lot of votes, too.

One race, however, is all but decided: Barring injury, Seattle's Kevin Durant is going to win the Rookie of the Year Award.

That's not really a bold statement. In fact, it's a no-brainer. Durant leads all rookies in scoring average--by 8 1/2 points per game. All advanced metrics aside, the award usually goes to the guy who scores the most. True, there are exceptions. LeBron James (20.9) was outscored by Carmelo Anthony (21.0). Mike Miller was outscored by, of all people, Marc "With a C" Jackson. But for the most part, the scoring rule holds true.

At Basketball Prospectus, we generally cast a more discerning eye toward these things. About the Kevin Durant situation, I'd say this: Durant has been one of the "worst" rookies in the league this season. There is certainly no rookie (ignoring Greg Oden for the moment) that I'd rather build a team around.

Why do I write "worst"? I call this the Angel Berroa Situation. That's not to compare Durant to Berroa, even if they will both end up winning a rookie award, because there can be no lower blow than to compare someone to Angel Berroa. But I digress

When you refer to a player as "worst," what you're really saying is that he is the player who has done the most damage to his team's ability to win games. To be that player, you have to remain on the field, or the court, long enough to inflict said damage. That entails that the player have just enough competence that his team is convinced that he must stay in the lineup. In reality, they aren't the worst player, or anything close to it. The standard notation for the Angel Berroa Situation is "worst."

"Worst" NBA rookies

Player                    Age   WA82
Corey Brewer, MIN          21  -3.87
Jeff Green, SEA            21  -2.22
Kevin Durant, SEA          19  -2.20
Juan Carlos Navarro, MEM   27  -2.17
Daequan Cook, MIA          20  -1.71
Yi Jianlian, MIL           20  -1.66
Jason Smith, PHI           21  -1.52
Nick Young, WAS            22  -1.41
Acie Law, ATL              22  -1.14
Chris Richard, MIN         22  -1.08

WA82 -- wins added/82 games 

"Wins added" in my system contains a strong defensive component and Durant's defense has been awful. That skews things somewhat. John Hollinger's PER, which doesn't account for individual defense, places Durant's 14.41 sixth out of 20 qualifying rookies.

There is little doubt that Durant's inefficient play has cost the Sonics games this year. But let's face it, Seattle wrote this season off last summer, when they sent Ray Allen to Boston for Jeff Green, another one of the season's "worst" rookies, and let Rashard Lewis leave via free agency. This season has been all about letting Durant and Green take their lumps on the court. Next summer, they'll add another piece. The strategy, as currently implemented by Sonics' GM Sam Presti, is sound. By the time Presti is old enough to run for president, Durant and Green should be stars.

Seattle has lost a number of games on last-second finishes. In those contests, Seattle generally spreads the floor and lets Durant go to work to finish out games. He's hit a couple of big shots but, for the most part, he hasn't come through. Last week against the Lakers, Durant showed just how raw he is when in a tie game, he took the "last shot" with more than five seconds left on the clock. He missed, the Lakers rebounded, and LA had plenty of time to set up a play of their own. (They missed, too, before going on to win in overtime.) In the long run, this experience should serve Durant well.

Since I listed the "worst" rookies, I guess I should list the "best".

"Best" NBA rookies

Player                    Age   WA82
Al Horford, ATL            21   1.66
Luis Scola, HOU            27   1.56
Joakim Noah, CHI           22   0.64
Aaron Gray, CHI            22   0.58
Glen Davis, BOS            21   0.15
Spencer Hawes, SAC         19   0.12
Julian Wright, NWO         20   0.06
Sean Williams, NJN         21   0.04
Rodney Stuckey, DET        21  -0.36
Thaddeus Young, PHI        19  -0.48 

Horford has probably played enough minutes to deserve some ROY consideration. While he's scoring at less than half the rate of Durant, he is averaging 10 rebounds a game and has become the defensive anchor for the young Hawks. Other than Horford, you probably can't consider any of these guys to be a serious threat to Durant.

The Al Horford vs. Kevin Durant debate harkens back to a fundamental problem with any rookie-of-the-year designation. We generally award the guy who was best in that season. That's pretty much what the award is for. But in this case, the award is likely to go to the guy who is the best prospect simply because voters will see that 19+ scoring average and think, "That's great...for a 19-year old."

Durant does outpace all other rookies in one key and truly informative category--usage rate. Here are the usage rates for all rookies with at least 200 minutes played as compared to the overall league average:

Player                   Usage
Kevin Durant, SEA          8.2
Nick Young, WAS            4.5
Aaron Gray, CHI            3.2
Aaron Brooks, HOU          2.0
Rodney Stuckey, DET        1.6
Al Thornton, LAC           1.4
Juan Carlos Navarro, MEM   0.1
Daequan Cook, MIA         -0.7
Thaddeus Young, PHI       -0.7
Luis Scola, HOU           -0.8
Jeff Green, SEA           -1.0
Yi Jianlian, MIL          -1.3
Mike Conley, MEM          -1.4
Acie Law, ATL             -2.1
Spencer Hawes, SAC        -2.3
Jared Dudley, CHA         -2.5
Joakim Noah, CHI          -2.8
Jason Smith, PHI          -3.1
Sean Williams, NJN        -3.7
Glen Davis, BOS           -3.7
Corey Brewer, MIN         -3.8
Arron Afflalo, DET        -4.3
Al Horford, ATL           -4.7
Jamario Moon, TOR         -5.3
Julian Wright, NWO        -5.9
Chris Richard, MIN       -11.5 

Usage rate measures the percentage of a team's possessions a player "uses up" while he is on the floor. The skill being measured is a player's ability to create his own offense for his team. It's one of the most underrated metrics in basketball. Take a look at the league leaders in usage rate (again compared to league average):

Player                   Usage
LeBron James, CLE        13.69
Dwyane Wade, MIA         12.34
Kobe Bryant, LAL         11.54
Tracy McGrady, HOU       11.28
Manu Ginobili, SAS        9.83
Carmelo Anthony, DEN      9.79
Tony Parker, SAS          8.63
Kevin Durant, SEA         8.19
Chris Paul, NWO           7.84
Allen Iverson, DEN        7.54 

That's a pretty select group. Usage rate is an essential tool for rating perimeter players. Any successful team must have players that can create offense. A team of the five most efficient players in the game (call them the Fabricio Obertos) would have a tough time scoring because they rely on these high-usage types to create opportunities for them.

This explains statistically the difference between a guy like Durant and someone like J.J. Redick. We can watch those two play and the difference is obvious. Redick is undersized and slow and even though the Better Basketball folks consider him perhaps the greatest shooter of all time, it doesn't really matter because he can't create his own offense. Meanwhile, the long, athletic Durant can pretty much pull up and take a jump shot any time he wants, which is something he chooses to do a little too often at this early juncture of his career. Durant's usage rate (8.2) dwarfs Redick's (-2.9).

We don't need the numbers to differentiate between Kevin Durant and J.J. Redick, but for a lot of players, the differences are more subtle and usage rate can help sort out the prospects from the suspects. For the most part, the ability to get your own shot (or get to the foul line) is either something you have or you don't. Usage rates certainly fluctuate from season to season but, generally speaking, usage rate tracks an innate skill.

I remember the first game that Michael Jordan played after his first retirement, which was a Sunday afternoon game at Indiana. Jordan went 7-for-28 from the field and the color analyst, who I want to say was Doug Collins, said something like, "You have no idea how much skill is involved in being able to get off 28 shots in an NBA game."

Usage rate, when paired with one other pet metric of mine, goes a long way to explaining pretty much any player. I call this second metric "efficiency ratio." Most evaluation systems, including mine, apply some sort of linear value to each categorical item (points, rebounds, missed field goals, etc.) and subtract the bad stuff from the good stuff. PER does this, as does the good old Manley Credits system, where each category is worth exactly one point. My wins-added system is built from a similar foundation. But I have found that DIVIDING the good stuff by the bad stuff (and comparing to the league average) is also very revealing.

Efficiency ratio leaders

Player                   EffR
Fabricio Oberto, SAS     43.4
Erick Dampier, DAL       27.8
Chuck Hayes, HOU         26.7
Desagana Diop, DAL       24.0
Andrew Bynum, LAL        22.5
Kurt Thomas, SEA         22.0
Andris Biedrins, GSW     21.9
Jeff Foster, IND         21.7
Jose Calderon, TOR       18.8
Joel Przybilla, POR      18.3 

Efficiency ratio trailers

Player                   EffR
Kevin Durant, SEA       -10.4
Sasha Pavlovic, CLE     -10.2
Larry Hughes, CLE        -9.3
Stephen Jackson, GSW     -8.9
Jeff Green, SEA          -8.4
Kareem Rush, IND         -8.3
Antoine Walker, MIN      -7.5
Marquis Daniels, IND     -7.4
Rashad McCants, MIN      -7.3
Al Thornton, LAC         -7.2 

How about that Cavaliers backcourt! Efficiency ratio is much easier to improve upon than usage rate is, but the categories should always be tracked together. When a player's role expands, it's natural for his efficiency ratio to take a hit. When high-usage players can stay near or above the league average in efficiency ratio, that's when you have a winning player.

Durant is just 19, and the next three years will be the ones in which he develops the most. He has to learn how to take higher-percentage shots, he has to get stronger so he can take the ball to the rim--and get to the foul line--more often, he has to take better care of the ball and he needs to spend less time floating around the three-point arc. He also needs to learn that there are two ends to a basketball court. With all that said, Kevin Durant can already get a shot whenever he wants and that skill is what marks him as a future star and probable Rookie of the Year.

Even if he doesn't really deserve to be.

Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Bradford by clicking here or click here to see Bradford's other articles.

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