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:
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?