Posted by Neil Paine on November 21, 2008
Last week, Wages of Wins author David Berri posted about the Oklahoma City Thunder over at the WoW Journal, pointing out that Kevin Durant and his teammates are having really a terrible offensive season in 2008-09 (something which, frankly, cannot be debated -- OKC ranks dead last in the NBA in offensive efficiency, and by a pretty wide margin). In turn, Berri's post sparked a discussion at APBRmetrics regarding just how much of the Thunder's offensive woes are Durant's fault (his 94.5 ORtg is pretty abysmal) and how much of the blame falls to his lackluster supporting cast. The argument that ensued was fairly circular: is Durant playing inefficient basketball because his team is bad (and he is forced to take on a huge role he's perhaps not ready for yet), or is Durant's team bad because he's playing inefficient basketball? Or both?
Out of all this, our esteemed colleague Kevin Pelton (of Basketball Prospectus) posed the following question:
If we take out each team's leading scorer, who has played with supporting casts comparably bad to the one employed by the Thunder, especially so early in their career?
Well, that's a question we can at least attempt to answer objectively. First, let's classify the "leading scorer" of a team as the player who consumed the most possessions -- this is preferable to taking the leading scorer because straight-up points account for both usage and efficiency, and here we're interested in identifying the team's offensive "alpha dog" regardless of how well he actually produced points. Then let's calculate the cumulative offensive rating for his teammates, which should give us a rough estimate of his supporting cast's offensive ability.
This season, the Thunder have scored 1076 points on 1148 possessions (through Nov. 20); Durant has produced approximately 211 of those points and has used roughly 224 of those possessions by himself. That means his teammates have combined for an offensive rating of 93.6, which is really bad by the way. Last year, Durant's Seattle teammates produced an ORtg of 101.3 -- better, but still not good at all. So, the question is, which "alpha dogs" have had to put up with similarly inept teammates in the past? Have they been as inefficient as Durant? And has anyone so young (KD is 20 this season) had to carry such a terrible supporting cast?
Here's every "alpha dog" whose teammates posted an offensive rating roughly as low as Durant's fellow Thunderites in '08-09, sorted by the differential between their individual ORtg and that of their awful teammates:
Year Team Player Age ORtg t_ORtg Diff 2002 MIA Eddie Jones 30 109.2 97.1 12.2 2000 CHI Elton Brand 20 104.2 92.8 11.4 1993 DAL Derek Harper 31 109.2 97.9 11.3 2002 MEM Pau Gasol 21 107.6 96.6 11.0 2003 DEN Juwan Howard 29 101.6 91.0 10.6 1983 WSB Jeff Ruland 24 107.4 96.9 10.5 2001 GSW Antawn Jamison 24 104.4 96.1 8.2 1983 HOU Allen Leavell 25 102.8 95.6 7.2 2001 ATL Jason Terry 23 104.8 97.8 7.0 2001 CHI Elton Brand 21 103.3 96.7 6.7 1999 VAN S. Abdur-Rahim 22 104.2 97.5 6.6 1999 CHI Toni Kukoc 30 98.7 92.1 6.6 1988 LAC Mike Woodson 29 102.3 96.7 5.7 1981 DET Phil Hubbard 24 102.7 97.4 5.3 1979 NJN Bernard King 22 101.7 96.8 5.0 1978 NJN Bernard King 21 98.0 93.7 4.3 1998 GSW D. Marshall 24 99.6 95.7 3.9 2003 MIA Caron Butler 22 99.2 97.1 2.1 2004 CHI Jamal Crawford 23 99.0 96.9 2.1 2004 TOR Vince Carter 27 99.4 97.3 2.1
As you can see, despite their horrendous supporting casts, most of these players managed to rise above their teammates and post reasonable efficiency numbers. In fact, many of them did it at an age not significantly older than Durant (while one of the major points made in KD's defense is his youth). So it's not like it's unprecedented to expect Durant to perform more efficiently than he has so far this season.
However, the good news for Durant is that he's not your ordinary "alpha dog" -- he's more like a super-mega-alpha dog, taking on about 29% of OKC's possessions when he's on the court. By contrast, most of these guys, while leading their respective squads in possessions, were only expected to create on 25% of the team's possessions (or fewer). So Durant deserves a little leeway when we evaluate his efficiency numbers, because he's being asked to do more, at a younger age, than most of the guys on this list.
Even so, Durant's early returns aren't exactly those of a future megastar; no alpha dog in the past has had such horrible teammates and still played down to their level in terms of efficiency. Durant still may very well develop into a solid player, but if the history of similar players (alpha dogs saddled with poor teammates) is any indication, it's doubtful he'll live up to the considerable hype that surrounded him when he first came out of college.