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February 14, 2009

Durant’s Coming-Out Party/Moneyball in the NBA

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Pelton @ 2:55 pm

First, I urge you: Stop whatever you are doing and read Michael Lewis‘ piece in today’s New York Times: The No-Stats All-Star. Lewis spotlights Shane Battier, someone who will never be part of the NBA’s All-Star festivities, yet still has All-Star-type impact on the floor.

Naturally, Daryl Morey and the Rockets front office is the closest match for the Oakland A’s approach in baseball spotlighted by Lewis in Moneyball, and in Battier he found a fascinating subject. Morey opens up on his philosophy more than he ever has before, and Lewis tries to explain how Battier became what he now is–the ultimate specialist.

One well-known statistic the Rockets’ front office pays attention to is plus-minus, which simply measures what happens to the score when any given player is on the court. In its crude form, plus-minus is hardly perfect: a player who finds himself on the same team with the world’s four best basketball players, and who plays only when they do, will have a plus-minus that looks pretty good, even if it says little about his play. Morey says that he and his staff can adjust for these potential distortions — though he is coy about how they do it — and render plus-minus a useful measure of a player’s effect on a basketball game. A good player might be a plus 3 — that is, his team averages 3 points more per game than its opponent when he is on the floor. In his best season, the superstar point guard Steve Nash was a plus 14.5. At the time of the Lakers game, Battier was a plus 10, which put him in the company of Dwight Howard and Kevin Garnett, both perennial All-Stars. For his career he’s a plus 6. “Plus 6 is enormous,” Morey says. “It’s the difference between 41 wins and 60 wins.” He names a few other players who were a plus 6 last season: Vince Carter, Carmelo Anthony, Tracy McGrady.

It’s an absolute must-read, and I only hope it eventually turns into a full-fledged book treatment of the subject.

Now let us turn to our main topic. I love All-Star Weekend in part because I approach it 99 percent as fan and one percent as analyst. I just enjoy the show. Rare is the opportunity to take anything meaningful from an All-Star event. Last night was the exception that proves the rule.

Somehow, the Rookie Challenge–an event that usually devolves into And One slapstick by the second half, the occasional highlight-reel clip overshadowed by twice as many turnovers–turned into a semi-real basketball game. That proved a perfect setting for Kevin Durant‘s coming-out party.

Durant has been playing great basketball for the last two months while flying largely under the radar, which is strange given the insane hype that followed him between the time he finished up at Texas and the midpoint of his rookie season in Seattle. I was a part of the media hordes–local and national–that flocked to Durant during that period. Then the team moved, he wasn’t an instant superstar, and the country evidently forgot all about him.

Last night reminded the world why they fell in love with Durant in the first place. At best, his skillset is unparalleled. TNT color analyst Kenny Smith–who evidently needs to invest in League Pass; it sounded like first-half guest analyst LeBron James, who was very good and natural, had seen the Thunder play more often than Smith–was amazed at Durant’s ability to handle the ball. Playing against small defenders the entire evening because he was back at guard for a night (and when you’re 6’9″ or maybe even 6″10, they’re almost all smaller), Durant easily rose and fired from distance all night long when he wasn’t driving past them to the basket for dunks.

The Rookies looked well on their way to ending a six-year losing streak when Durant caught fire, making three triples in a four-possession span to key a 13-0 Sophomore run. He would come up with a couple of important baskets in the final two minutes to hold the second-year players at bay and finished with 46 points–not only 10 more than anyone had ever scored in a Rookie Challenge but also a record for any All-Star competition. He needed just 29 shooting possessions to get them, good for a 79.3 percent True Shooting Percentage. Obviously the defense wasn’t at a regular-season level, but the way Durant got his points is how he has been doing it throughout the last two highly-efficient months.

The scary thing is the development Durant has left to do; he’s still only 20 and is as hard a worker in the gym as almost anyone I’ve ever seen. I put no ceiling on what Durant eventually might become. Just about everyone watching last night’s game had to draw the same conclusion.

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