But first, who is the real Kevin Durant, and why do we care so much?
The Man Who Wasn't There: Dateline, this week on the Internet. Tommy Craggs, writing for that hotbed of skepticism Slate, asked whether we've gone too far with the whole Kevin Durant, Goodness and Light, thing. Nate Jones, social media expert for the Goodwins -- Durant's representation -- weighed in the next day, via Twitter, with his thoughts on the article.
The first leg of disclosure: I am a big fan of Craggs, especially his writing for Slate; I think Jones is one of the best at what he does, and frequently consult him when social media issues invade the NBA news cycle.
The rest of it: I consider both of them friends, or at least web-pals. Tommy and I get together when I'm in New York, and Nate and I have been on-and-off colleagues for years. I finally met him in person the other night. Then I accidentally knocked over a table on press row at Key Arena. It was the table's fault.
So yeah, it goes without saying that I have to give my two cents about this one.
Craggs (I'm going back to last names, so this doesn't get any more awkward) writes what someone should have written a long time ago: Kevin Durant is depicted as the ideal athlete, a supremely gifted, unselfish, polite, too-good-to-be-true, ego-less phenom who provides a convenient antidote to LeBron James. Since media and fans never truly know athletes, we have no reason to assume this is the case. Furthermore, James -- the anti-Durant -- has at various times displayed exactly the same kind of behavior that KD is so lauded for today. But in today's black and white world, and in the midst of an open siege on LBJ, such details only get in the way.
Jones, who has taken to Twitter in the past in defense of former client Dwight Howard, responded. Here's where things get tricky: Jones, more or less, works for Durant. Yet he also knows the guy better than any media members making dramatic pronouncements about the kid. Unlike the Howard incident, in which a long exchange led Bill Simmons to brand him a "digital attack dog", Jones put forth a fairly straightforward proposition. Durant, no matter what he's been made into, or how much it may add to his commercial value, really is that low-key, down-to-earth dude who burns white-hot for the game of basketball.
In the wake of Craggs's piece, the natural reaction is to pull a full-on David Hume: if we really can't trust our experience of Kevin Durant, why exactly would we ever buy even the most modest claims about him? What's more, the problem is exactly that Durant comes off as ordinary. That's what the myth is made of, where the deception takes root. Consider it the Sarah Palin effect.
But what Kevin Durant is or is not only really becomes a problem when he's put into a corporate or journalistic context as a foil for others. His goodness is amplified by LeBron's pure evil, and vice versa. Maybe Durant is exactly who Jones says he is; that's also very much who we need him to be. In the age of LeBron, for an athlete to turn out this way represents a minor miracle, which is why Craggs returns to the question of whether any athlete is truly without ego? It's a rhetorical question, but one that shows you how Durant -- plausible in a vacuum -- becomes an outright absurdity against the backdrop of today's NBA.
The solution -- as if this were remotely possible -- is to let Durant be Durant without it coming at the expense of, say, LeBron. This drains him of much of his moral valence, and leave you with an athlete who neither triggers all sorts of suspicions simply because of our day and age, nor one whose image can't absorb, say, the wearing of a mildly lewd t-shirt on a night out.
In a way, Craggs and Jones are talking past each other. Craggs scoffs at the way Durant has been deified -- prematurely, naively, and with little regard for the historical record. Jones doesn't want our cynicism to prevent us from letting Durant just be himself, regardless of whether or not it helps his career. As someone who actually knows KD, this is his right -- even if he has to recognize that doing so as part of the Goodwins' operation does raise some eyebrows.
In other words, if you're writing about Kevin Durant these days, try and keep a little perspective. Otherwise, we run the risk of making both too much and too little of this budding superstar. If that happens, everyone loses. Except for the terrorists. (BS)
Worlds Atlas: Group play has ended at the FIBA World Championship, with the 24 contestants being pared down to 16. Both as an appreciation of those contenders we've lost and as a look forward to those who remain, it's time to look at some objective measures of performance.
I crunched the group play numbers to put together a map of per-possession offensive and defensive production.
Teams with superior offensive production trend to the right, and teams with strong defensive play trend upward. You want to be in that top-right quadrant.
You'll notice three teams really stand apart: the United States , Turkey and Serbia . Serbia had a beautiful offense, scoring more efficiently than any other team -- the U.S. included -- in the ground round despite missing starting point guard Milos Teodosic for two games and starting center Nenad Krstic for three. Team USA was also fantastic, finishing group play with the second-best defense as well as, perhaps surprisingly, the No. 2 offense. Turkey claimed the top defense through group play, with the No. 7 offense, despite Hedo Turkoglu's incredible struggles.
There's a definite second tier evident here: Australia, Lithuania, Spain, Brazil, Argentina, Greece, Slovenia, Russia and New Zealand are all bunched together. Each team performed better than average on either offense, defense or both, and if they did not perform well on one side of the ball, they weren't too far off the average there. Spain and Greece look like the best teams from this tier. Unfortunately, the squads meet up Saturday night in the Round of 16, so one of the top-5 teams in the tournament will be gone way before the Final Four.
Where's Angola ? Not so good -- one of the seven worst performers in the group round. Team USA should have little problem in their own Round of 16 match.
We can also look a bit at style, or speed. This map shows teams' pace and offensive performance.
Pace, figured by calculating how many possessions a team used in a 40-minute game, is a good indicator of the speed at which a team's offense plays. Faster teams trend toward the right, and better offensive teams trend upward. As expected, Team USA has put the pedal to the floor in Worlds play, ranking as the highest pace team by a solid margin. Spain, Cote d'Ivoire and New Zealand follow. As you can see, pace is not indicative of offensive performance: CIV played quite fast, but had one of the worst offensive performances in the tournament through group play.
France was the slowest team that advanced to the knockouts. It'll be no surprise to folks familiar with European basketball that Russia and Greece were fairly slow, as well; it should be noted in previous tournaments Greece would be as slow as or slower than Tunisia by this metric. Turkey, perhaps Team USA's likely Final matchup, plays methodically as well, whereas Serbia played at average pace.
One thing I find fascinating through both maps is how similar Brazil and Argentina end up looking. Brazil is coached by Ruben Magnano, who led Argentina to the 2004 Olympic gold medal in Athens. If not for Spain-Greece, the Round-of-16 matchup between these South American neighbors might be the most intriguing of those set.
There's one other note that struck me while compiling the statistics for these maps. In the NBA, plenty of teams score efficiently without racking up many assists. In fact, assist rate has a negligible correlation with offensive efficiency at the team level, year after year. There is a small positive relationship between assist rate and field goal percentage, but once you mix in free throws and turnovers, the relationship essentially shrinks to nothing.
Not the case at FIBA. Look how much higher the correlation between assist rate (percentage of made field goals assisted on) and field goal percentage is at the Worlds versus last season in the NBA.
The theory I'd posit is that worse players need more help scoring. So these teams full of sub-elite players -- Australia, perhaps -- need a strong playmaker to help the less-than-amazing finishers score. At the NBA level, (almost) everyone can score, so the assist is not as important. (This all says something about Ricky Rubio, who has been passing up a storm at the Worlds but can't -- or won't -- score. I'm not sure what, but it's in there.) (TZ)
The Company She Keeps: Last week, I attempted to put into words how awesome a player the Storm's Lauren Jackson is. On Thursday, before the first game of Seattle's second-round series against the Phoenix Mercury, Jackson received her third MVP. Here's a lead that writes itself: in a 82-74 win, LJ went for 23 points and 17 rebounds, reminding everyone why she was handed the trophy in the pregame. The Mercury let Jackson have the three, and she responded by making 3 of 8. She added two blocked shots, including one stunner off the backboard that left the crowd, well, stunned.
The game wasn't as close as the final score suggests; nor were the Mercury's two comeback runs particularly dynamic. Plus, Diana Taurasi had one of her trademark off-nights, and she's bound to bounce back for Game 2. But when Jackson's on her game, as she was last night, she's a match-up nightmare with no discernible weakness. Push her out to the perimeter, and she sinks the jumper from anywhere on the floor. Let her get inside, and it takes several opponents to even hamper her shot. When she rushes toward the basket from the top of the key, Jackson's combination of size, strength, agility and speed make her nearly unstoppable.
With three MVPs, Jackson enters truly elite company -- no matter what the sport. Sheryl Swoopes and Lisa Leslie each won three. In the NBA, the only players to win the award three times are Jordan, Kareem, Russell, Wilt, Bird, Magic and Moses Malone. For the NFL, it's Jim Brown, Johnny Unitas, Brett Favre and all-time record holder Peyton Manning.
Baseball has Barry Bonds, Yogi Berra, Roy Campanella, Joe DiMaggio, Jimmie Foxx, Mickey Mantle, Stan Musial, A-Rod, Mike Schmidt and Pujols. Since the MVP rarely goes to pitchers, let's include the three-time Cy Young winners, too: Clemens, Randy Johnson, Steve Carlton, Greg Maddux, Koufax, Pedro, Jim Palmer and Tom Seaver. Hockey's list: Gretzky, Gordie Howe, Lemieux, Bobby Clarke, Bobby Orr, Eddie Shore and Howie Morenz.
In other words, that's how good Lauren Jackson is. All of these names are first-ballot Hall of Famers, players who lorded over their respective eras. Yes, many years the MVP is circumstantial; just as often, the race is so close that the award never really sticks. While Jackson had a season for the ages, there are some who insist that Cappie Pondexter deserves this year's trophy. Then again, Jackson has missed time the last two seasons; who knows, she might be on her fourth by now if it hadn't been for these injuries.
The good news is, Jackson is nowhere near done, and by the time her career is over, she might well be seen as the greatest player the WNBA has ever seen. As things stand, she's certainly got the hardware to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the game's immortals. (BS)
Readers on Ramadan: We got more than a few e-mails today about NBA players and fasting, and at this point I figured it was best to let a few of them speak for themselves:
First, Kareem Elzein, who stressed that this schedule still provides you with three meals a day: "I don't really think that fasting during Ramadan really affects energy in a significant way, or that its worst effects can't be avoided with proper care ... an NBA player who can access some of the best nutritionists and health professionals is probably at little risk of over-exerting themselves during the season. As you alluded to, it might be interesting to find out what type of lifestyle changes Muslims in the NBA make to accommodate their professional and spiritual responsibilities."
Later, Amin Vafa pointed out that the typical NBA player's routine was actually fairly conducive to fasting during the day: "The hydration part (since you can't drink any water during daylight hours either) is probably the most difficult. But the fact that the majority of games are at night (any day games usually occur during the winter and spring, meaning daylight doesn't last longer than 12 hours), players can probably hydrate right before and during games. However, I could see practices and workouts being tougher on fasting than actual games: all that daytime conditioning has to hurt more when you're fasting."
Amin also added some common sense to my "when would they make it up" question: "A player like Hakeem, who often played deep into the playoffs, ostensibly had only three months a year without rigorous physical activity. Posed with the alternative of spending part of the offseason fasting, an NBA player might prefer to get done with it."
Keep the e-mails coming. This issue is fascinating, and as I'm learning, doesn't really offer up any easy answers. (BS)
The Works is a daily column written by Bethlehem Shoals (@freedarko) and Tom Ziller (@teamziller). Their Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History will be available this October.