Memo to a Young Baller

On Friday, TrueHoop had a post about Kevin Durant's statistics sending conflicting messages. They show that Kevin Durant is literally among the very best players in the NBA, of any age. Other numbers show, however, that the Thunder have somehow been a lot better when their franchise player is ... not in the game at all.

Why? It's a mystery.

Kevin Durant didn't like the topic much, and tweeted over the weekend, apparently in response:

Everybody that is doubtin me as a player and my team as a whole..all i can say is that we all are tryin and workin our hardest!

What more do u want? let me be the player i am...i come to practice everyday..and push myself to my limit, God has put me n a gr8 position!!

I love all the REAL basketball fans who appreciate hardwork, passion and love for the game..and not jus "plus and minuses"...wateva dat is!

My response:

Kevin Durant, I feel your pain. The post might have seemed like an attack, but this is no tale of hate.

Forget the parts of the article about what a hard worker and great teammate you are. Forget where I said I thought you would be a star. Let's get into the article's main point, and the news that might be hard to swallow.

Here's the deal: For two years, when you have been in NBA games, you have put up amazing numbers, but somehow your team has been better when you sat. When you have been out there, opponents have outscored your team pretty bad. When you sit, they don't outscore your team as much. That's what plus/minus is.

(The final score, by the way, is also plus/minus. If you play the entire game, and the team wins by twenty, you're plus-20. It's not one of those stats you want to ignore. Not when for two years it has been saying the same thing.)

Now, I hear you saying, hey, that's because I'm a starter and I play against the likes of LeBron James and Kobe Bryant, while many of my teammates with better plus/minus numbers play against scrubs. That's not it either, though. For one thing, all your fellow starters have better plus/minus numbers, some of them much better.

Also there's a way that some experts have of adjusting those plus/minus numbers for the quality of the competition you play against (and for your teammates). In your case, those adjustments don't change the picture much at all. We can argue about how those adjustments are made. People have different approaches, but in all of them your effect on the team looks just about the same as the raw plus/minus.

It might not feel like it, but if I were you I'd want to know more about this, not less.

Think of it as someone letting you know you have something stuck in your teeth before you go on TV. Nobody wants to hear that, but anyone who cares about you would tell you anyway.

If I were your coach, your GM, or anyone else really invested in a great Thunder future, I'd want to dig deep into this issue -- in there somewhere are the keys to a lot more Thunder wins.

Now, are we saying this means you're a bad player? Hardly. See the word "conundrum" in the headline? Nobody knows what the hell is going on. It doesn't make sense. You're blatantly one of the best prospects to enter the NBA this decade. But, for reasons that are something of a mystery, you have not helped your team.


To the Video
I love this debate, because what it forces us to think about is what actually gets results on the basketball court, as opposed to what seems like it ought to work.

Watching you play -- that length, that shooting, that talent -- we all see something that seems like it ought to work. What has been going wrong? That's really a question for your coach. Coaches know this kind of stuff.

There are a zillion different things that happen when your team has the ball: isolation, spot-up shooting, catching and shooting off a screen, posting up, cutting, offensive rebounding. You're good at all of those, and I've seen numbers to prove it.

But, in my experience, there's literally nothing NBA coaches talk about as much as the pick-and-roll. Running it, and defending it.

Thanks to Synergy Sports, I have spent the last three hours watching video of you in the pick-and-roll last year.

On offense, when you're the ball handler in the pick-and-roll, the numbers show you're not very effective. And the video makes clear why: The idea, of course, is for your team to get a good look. Your superpower, however, is to get off a decent shot even when you're covered.

The way you're running the pick-and-roll, it looks like you're relying a little too much on your superpowers. In short, those picks are not getting you open, which is reflected in a low field goal percentage and a high turnover rate.

If you were sitting right here next to me, watching video, I imagine Coach Scott Brooks' voice would ring in your ears. Sometimes you go around the screen lackadaisically, failing to make things hard for your defender at all. Sometimes you don't wait for the screen to arrive. Sometimes the screener is set up at one angle, and you drive at another, so the screen has hardly any effect.

But the end result of all of those is you, with the ball on the move, and not open at all. (You'd have been better off, in most cases, just isolating ... at least that way Nenad Krstic's guy wouldn't be in your grille, too.)

And when you're far from the hoop, on the move, with one or two guys on you ... you bust out the superpowers. I saw about a dozen examples from last season alone of you taking that double-team to the hole, where two more defenders are waiting, and you shoot one-on-four. (The fact that you make those sometimes is amazing, but more impressive is the shovel pass to the rolling Krstic, or, one day, the kick-out to the dead-eye teammate the Thunder don't have.)

More common than driving against four guys, though, is taking a mid-range jumper against two. You make this shot more than most, but nobody makes it much at all. Efficient offenses take as few of these as possible.

What's especially clear in this video is that teams are more than happy to use pick-and-rolls as excuses to double-team you hard. A lot of times, it works, as they have succeeded in forcing very tough shots.

The Defense Issue
All that talk about offense, in the original post and this one, is probably silly. The same statistics that show your team is not as good when you're playing also hint at why: When you play, the offense is a little bit worse. But the defense falls off a cliff. When you're playing, your team gives up 111 points per 100 possessions. When you're on the bench, they give up 103. That's one of the biggest gaps in the whole NBA.

Again to the video. And again, the Synergy Sports stats show you're good at most categories of defense, except the two most common ones: Making spot up shooters miss, and defending that darned pick-and-roll.

Every coach in every game, more or less, has different pick-and-roll defense strategies. There
are books and books on this stuff. Against certain kinds of players you go over. Against others you switch. Sometimes you can go under. You can also blitz the ball, or lock-and-trail ... this might be the major thing NBA coaches worry about.

What nobody ever recommends, though, is getting lost. When your man is the screener, there is an art to jumping out to slow down the ball handler, so your teammate can catch up to the ball handler. Once he's there, you have to scramble back to your man, who is usually on his way to the hoop.

The key is to spend as much time as possible guarding somebody. Get your body into the ball handler until the last possible moment, and then boom, explode back to your original guy, while making the pass as difficult as possible.

In executing this little maneuver, you tend to spend quite a lot of time guarding nobody. I could show you video of many plays when you never get close enough to really slow down the ball handler, but at the same time, your original man is also wide open. You? You're somewhere in the middle.

Other times you seem to be counting on your long arms to save you, either by playing for the block (letting someone drive, then swatting) or steal (instead of preventing the pass, trying to poke it away on the catch).

This is no crisis. I could fire up video of any NBA 20-year-old (as you were in this video) and see similar things.

Remember when Team USA lost to Greece in the World Championships a few years ago? The Greek team realized that LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony had not mastered defending the pick-and-roll, and exploited it all night. You're in good company.

I'm sure you'll work at this as you have so many other aspects of your game, and I'm sure with age, maturity, savvy and an ever-improving collection of teammates the results will turn around. But I wouldn't ignore this kind of stuff. The plus/minus numbers seem to be telling us that mastering the pick-and-roll, at both ends of the floor, is a key to winning.

In the meantime, realize this: What we have been talking about is how you have played at ages 19 and 20. What does that mean for how you'll play when you're 25? Nobody really knows. Maybe nothing.

But if I were you, I'd answer the critics like this: You're one of nine players in the history of the NBA to play heavy minutes and have a PER over 20 when you were just 20 years old. The others turned out all right. Your little club includes LeBron James, Magic Johnson, Shaquille O'Neal, Chris Paul, Spencer Haywood and the like.

It's not hard to imagine that one day they'll brag about being in that club with you.