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A Quick Finder Search Regarding Durant’s Defense

Posted by Neil Paine on October 12, 2009

The b-ball blogosphere has been full of Kevin Durant chatter this weekend, after Wayne Winston criticized the young Thunder star for his poor adjusted plus/minus numbers. TrueHoop's Henry Abbott called Durant's rather pitiful APM performance to date (it was -8.62 last year, which is just ridiculously awful) a "conundrum", and there's really no other way to frame the situation than to say that apparently Durant's on-court impact is not matching that which you'd expect from his gaudy box score stats or his considerable basketball talent. In other words, he should have a better APM than he does.

Well, KD fired back over Twitter yesterday, saying he didn't know what pluses and minuses were (hint to Kevin: they come from subtracting those numbers on the scoreboard that determine who wins and loses the game) and that he appreciates true basketball fans who enjoy his hustle and hard work. To which Henry crafted his own excellent, thoughtful response, which basically sums up the entire Durant quandary in a nutshell.

I'm not here to add much to the conversation (at least any more than I already did -- remember, I questioned Durant back in November and had to issue an apology several months later), but I fully believe that Durant is a bad defender at this stage, and that this fact explains a great deal of his significantly negative APM. He's still young, still rather inexperienced, still thin, still something of a tweener on D, and still lacks even a shadow of the every-night intensity brought by Kevin Garnett (a guy to whom he drew comparisons in high school & college because of his length and polished skills)... Few deny that, offensively, Durant is a beast, one of the league's most improved players last season. But look at 6'9" or taller, under-25 players who posted defensive box score numbers like Durant did last year:

Player Ht Season Age Tm G MP STL% BLK% TRB%
Rashard Lewis 6'10" 2002-03 23 SEA 77 3044 1.8 0.9 9.7
Peja Stojakovic 6'9" 2000-01 23 SAC 75 2905 1.6 0.3 8
Kevin Durant 6'9" 2008-09 20 OKC 74 2885 1.7 1.4 9.6
Marvin Williams 6'9" 2007-08 21 ATL 80 2765 1.5 0.9 9.6
Peja Stojakovic 6'9" 2001-02 24 SAC 71 2649 1.5 0.4 7.5
Mike Dunleavy 6'9" 2004-05 24 GSW 79 2570 1.6 0.7 9.2
Orlando Woolridge 6'9" 1983-84 24 CHI 75 2544 1.3 1.4 8.3
Tim Thomas 6'10" 1999-00 22 MIL 80 2093 1.5 1.1 9.3
Tim Thomas 6'10" 2001-02 24 MIL 74 1987 1.7 1.2 8.7
Hedo Turkoglu 6'10" 2001-02 22 SAC 80 1970 1.5 1 9.8
Vladimir Radmanovic 6'10" 2002-03 22 SEA 72 1910 1.8 0.9 10
Don Ford 6'9" 1975-76 23 LAL 76 1838 1.2 0.4 8.7
Tim Thomas 6'10" 1997-98 20 PHI 77 1779 1.6 0.7 9.3
Peja Stojakovic 6'9" 1999-00 22 SAC 74 1749 1.4 0.3 8.2
Detlef Schrempf 6'9" 1986-87 24 DAL 81 1711 1.4 0.5 9.6
Danny Ferry 6'10" 1990-91 24 CLE 81 1661 1.3 0.9 10
Pat Garrity 6'9" 2000-01 24 ORL 76 1579 1.3 0.7 7.4
Maurice Taylor 6'9" 1998-99 22 LAC 46 1505 0.6 1.4 9.5
Pat Garrity 6'9" 1999-00 23 ORL 82 1479 1 0.9 7.7
Jeff Turner 6'9" 1984-85 22 NJN 72 1429 1 0.3 8.6
Bostjan Nachbar 6'9" 2004-05 24 TOT 71 1341 1.2 1 8
Matt Bullard 6'10" 1991-92 24 HOU 80 1278 1 1 9.7
DerMarr Johnson 6'9" 2004-05 24 DEN 71 1232 1.8 1.1 7.1
Fred Roberts 6'10" 1984-85 24 TOT 74 1178 1.1 1 8.3
Hanno Mottola 6'11" 2000-01 24 ATL 73 989 0.6 0.6 9.8
Rodney White 6'9" 2003-04 23 DEN 72 985 1.7 1.4 9.5
Tim Thomas 6'10" 1998-99 21 TOT 50 812 1.8 1.2 9.3

Recognizing that Durant is still the youngest player on the list, doesn't this scare you about his defensive future? And if you swap the rebounding criteria on that search for PF/36 min < 2, you come up with Peja Stojakovic as Durant's closest comp. While no foul helps a team, aside from intentional ones late in games (and perhaps the occasional hack-a-Shaq), fouls are also often indicative of defensive effort (think of PF/36 as the hoops equivalent of "range factor" in baseball); they mean you're at least getting involved, getting your hands dirty. Durant has some potential tools defensively, sure, but no one thinks highly of his D right now, and the +/- scores back that up. So would it really surprise anyone if his defensive ceiling is that of a Peja, a Tim Thomas, a VladRad? And since defense is half the game, why is it so hard to swallow that Durant's overall impact, largely undetectable via conventional stats but apparent through point differential-based metrics like APM, is a net negative at this stage of his career?

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11 Responses to “A Quick Finder Search Regarding Durant’s Defense”

  1. Paul McLeod Says:

    Isn't the obvious problem with this search the fact that it will inevitably return a list of players who are worse than Kevin Durant? To find a list of guys comparable to him, you don't set a criterion just barely above his performance level and take all people below it; you set a range of criteria on either side of his performance level, extending for, say, a standard deviation, and you take anyone who falls within it. I mean, you can reverse all the criteria, finding people 6-10 or shorter with defensive stats as good or better than Durant's and find that he's comparable to a whole bunch of Hall of Famers and All-Stars: http://www.basketball-reference.com/fc/tiny.cgi?id=Bl4Tu

    Now, that list is more obviously not applicable to Durant on its face than yours is. But think about the physical abilities of the guys on your list. How many of their packages resemble Durant's at all? Stojakovic, Dunleavy, Radmanovic...none of those guys ever had decent athleticism. The ones most similar are probably Lewis, Williams, and Thomas (historical draft combine results suggest that Williams is about one step above Durant in raw athleticism, for what it's worth, whereas Dunleavy is way worse; couldn't find the data on those other four players). Lewis and Williams have proved to be capable defenders when placed in good systems with other committed defenders, while Thomas never gave a shit about anything whatsoever, and it showed in offensive game as well.

    I doubt that anyone as bad as Durant is now will ever be a dominant defender, and maybe that's a disappointment given his length and mobility. But I wouldn't be at all surprised to see him make himself useful on that end. And I think that taking all other players at any given Player X's level or worse, then putting Player X in that crowd, will always succeed in making Player X look worse than he is by association.

  2. Paul McLeod Says:

    Another way to think about it: Kevin Durant has the BEST stats of those guys at the YOUNGEST age. He's an outlier in this group, not the typical member. Given that some of those guys have turned out alright on defense, this isn't necessarily a bad sign for him.

  3. garron Says:

    I think what surprises people the most is that his offense is so good, it makes it hard to comprehend how bad his defense must be.

    I guess its hard because most don't watch OKC and only see KD's box score. I have watched some OKC games on league pass, and always attributed OKC to just have bad defense period. I guess next season a lot of us will really pay attention to KD's defense.

    Its just hard as there are players who you would think are bad at D but have nowhere near the negativ +/- that KD have, and are definitely not as offensively gifted; it puts things into a scary perspective

    One thing I do agree with though is what abbott said. KD shouldn't be ignoring this, and needs to actively work on it to become an eventual superstar

  4. Dave Hogg Says:

    fouls are also often indicative of defensive effort (think of PF/36 as the hoops equivalent of "range factor" in baseball)

    If that's true, why has Kevin Garnett always had low PF rate stats? Why did LBJ - praised to the skies for his improved defense last season - have a PF rate about the same as Durant's? Why does Shane Battier have such a low rate?

  5. Neil Paine Says:

    Obviously it's not going to hold perfectly for every player, but across the entire sample of NBA players there is a statistically significant correlation between PF/min and on-court defensive impact. And all of the players you mentioned have higher career pace-adjusted PF/min rates than Durant; among players with 1000 or more MP last season, KD had the 10th-lowest pace-adjusted PF/min rate of anyone in the NBA. Remember, I'm not necessarily saying "fouls are good" in and of themselves, but I am saying that, all else being equal, players with more personal fouls per minute tend to be more effective defenders. And that's another piece of boxscore-based evidence to back up APM's claim that Durant just isn't very good on D right now.

  6. Dave Hogg Says:

    I know the correlation between foul rate and defensive plus/minus. That doesn't mean I think it works as an indicator of defensive intensity. Not when guys like Garnett, Tim Duncan and Ben Wallace have such low rates. Yes, KD had one of the lowest rates last season - but he was higher than LeBron. Heck, of guys who played half their team's minutes, the lowest foul rate in the NBA was Tayshaun Prince. Yes, he slipped last season, but I don't think anyone is going to argue that he had the least defensive intensity in the league.

    To use a different example, Charlie Villanueva committed 5.8 PF/48 last season. Shane Battier committed 2.7. Which one do you want on the floor if you need a key stop?

  7. Mike G Says:

    Why refer to numbers (like PF) which MAY represent defense, when we have defensive APM numbers available? --
    http://basketballvalue.com/topplayers.php?year=2008-2009&mode=summary

    Sort by DefRtg (Net), and Durant appears 5th-worst in the league (over some minutes minimum).
    His presence is alleged to result in opponents scoring 7.85 more points per 100 possessions.

    Also appearing in the top (worst) 30: Prince (4.89), Billups (5.27), McDyess (5.67), Finley (7.50).

    Seeing several (unlikely) Pistons in this area, I see their better defenders include Iverson and Hamilton. Perhaps Durant can strive to be like these guys?

    Does anyone really know what to make of these numbers?

  8. Neil Paine Says:

    That's why we say "all else being held equal"...

    But perhaps "intensity" was the wrong word -- "activity" seems better, on second thought.

  9. Dave Hogg Says:

    Sort by DefRtg (Net), and Durant appears 5th-worst in the league (over some minutes minimum).
    His presence is alleged to result in opponents scoring 7.85 more points per 100 possessions.

    That means his presence turns the Charlotte offense into the Lakers offense. It also means that his defense is worth -20 wins per season. That's insane.

    And yes, of the 40 Pistons games I covered last season, not a night went by where I didn't think "You know, it's a shame that Antonio McDyess doesn't play defense like Richard Hamilton. He might have a career that way."

  10. Charrua Says:

    What is interesting is that a cursory look at the numbers suggest that the Thunder would improve greatly by trading Durant for Stojakovic, for example. Peja is the 5th highest rated player on offense and a much better (about as good as Kobe and better than Pau, apparently) defender.
    Hey, Matt Bonner would be a vast improvement!!
    Ok, sorry for the snark, but my impression from these numbers is that they show things you might want to look at (as why Pau looks like a poor defender, or why Peja looks so good on offense), not a definitive appraisal of value.

  11. Jae Says:

    Doesn't seem like an apples to apples comparison. By looking at players 6'9 and over, you're comparing KD to a bunch of PFs; stats change a lot when you're assigned to an interior player on defense instead of a perimeter player. More rebs, more blocks. What you see on that list is a combination of other tall sfs (who don't tend to get a lot of steals or rebs or blocks) and a lot of low effort PFs.

    Compare KD to guys who played SF/SG and I'd imagine the numbers are pretty typical. Especially if you omit the PJ Carlesimo games from the data set.