Some basketball statisticians think Kevin Durant has been overrated through two seasons of work, a tunnel-visioned volume scorer. Others believe him to be The Second Second Coming, a future pantheon invitee getting his sea legs. Where's the truth?
We'll find out more this season, I'd bet ... but not without a war.
The Durant Divide has always been there, but it's reached a fever pitch this fall as KD enters his third season as the star of the Oklahoma City Thunder. You may be surprised to know that lightning rod sports economist David Berri -- of Wages of Wins infamy -- is not at the center of this conflagration. Berri did bemoan the honors bestowed upon Durantula based on his rookie season, but last season admitted KD deserved the Most Improved Player award. After two years, Berri's controversial metrics have bought in.
John Hollinger of ESPN always bought in. Hollinger, who is behind PER and other box-score driven metrics, believes so much in KD that he projects him to be one of the best players in the league this season. The folks at Basketball Prospectus -- Kevin Pelton and Bradford Doolittle -- also think highly of Durant. Buy their incredible book for details.
The dissenter in all this would be adjusted plus-minus, with the fanfare played by former Mavericks adviser Wayne Winston. Adjusted plus-minus, made available publicly at BasketballValue.com, rates Durant very poorly in both 2007-08 and 2008-09. Plus-minus measures how a team does when a certain player is on the court. If a player leaves the court after five minutes of play, and his team is up 10-7, the player is a +3. Yahoo!, NBA.com and others have this basic stat available in box scores these days. But the metric isn't useful until statistical adjustments are made -- adjustments based on who the opponents are, and who the teammates are. As the Sonics/Thunder have been poor during Durant's career, it's no surprise that Durant's raw plus-minus would stink. But it's bad even after adjustments are made. Real bad. Winston (who won't be consulting for the Mavs this year for the first time this decade as Dallas switches to an in-house analyst) did a set of talks with TrueHoop's Henry Abbott this month. In one of the exchanges, Winston -- a devotee and pioneer of adjusted plus-minus -- reveals how little he thinks of Durant's game.
Knowing that just about any NBA general manager would trade his own children for a prospect of Durant's caliber, I asked Winston if he'd advise his team to accept if the Mavericks were (in some alternate universe) offered Durant for free. "I'd say probably not," he replied. "I would not sign the guy. It's simply not inevitable that he'll make mid-career strides. Some guys do. But many don't, and he'd have to improve a lot to help a team."Durant's adjusted plus-minus is so bad a legit stathead says he wouldn't advise a team to take him for free. Meanwhile, another legit stathead (Hollinger) projects Durant as the fifth best player in the NBA this season. There is a Divide.
Some APM practitioners aren't as adamant as Winston as to Durant's shortcomings, while not all "box-score" devotees are as high on Durant as Hollinger has been. But there is a clear Durant Divide. What the kid does this season will go a long way toward giving the correct side a legitimacy boost.