Thursday, September 20, 2007

Comparing Kevin Durant

So last Sunday, I voiced my doubts about Kevin Durant. What was intended to be a fun point-counterpoint article with one of my colleagues on the site I work for (Cavalier Attitude at ended up getting picked up by TrueHoop, linked by FanHouse, (Shoals liked it, which makes me very happy), and ended up on about a million message boards. In a way, it was my "breakout" post, but part of me would really like to break back in. If you've never experienced tons of faceless people calling you an idiot and a hack, let me tell you, it's interesting. On a related note, my nicotine consumption has quadrupled since Sunday.

Hence, it's positivity week here at TBF, and the first thing we're going to attempt to do is find some sort of comparison for Kevin Durant, one of the most unique players to come into the league in the last several years.

Whenever I engage in an exercise like attempting to project Durant, I think about the movie Pi. If you've never seen it, the movie is about a numerologist who charts the stock market obsessively, attempting to find some sort of predictable trend that would allow him to crack its code, only to eventually fail, go insane, and drill a hole in his own head. (In between, there was something about a secret number, a lot of shaking camera, and loud, weird music. I hated it; naturally, it's considered a triumph of independent cinema.)

The NBA is ridiculously difficult to figure out, because each player is, to an extent, a special snowflake. While there are some general trends that pop up, there are always players that fail or succeed for seemingly no reason at all. If we were to try to be an absolute judge of an NBA player's potential and grade prospects on a 12-category 1-100 scale, we'd all end up drilling holes in our own heads. (By the way, this is why I find skill-by-skill breakdowns like Bill Simmons' take on Oden-Durant ridiculous.)

The only way to judge players is to judge them as individuals, attempting to fit them into what we know as well as we can and using our own imaginations to project what they will do as their own unique player. This is what I did with Kevin Durant; I cannot empirically prove that I'm right, but I do stick by my opinions.

So anyways, here are the best comparisons I can come up with for Kevin Durant, in no particular order:

1. Kevin Garnett

Why they're alike: Like KD, KG came into the league at an extremely young age, was a skinny boy with ridiculous length, and possessed the type of "guard skills" that big men just aren't supposed to have. He has many polished moves from the mid-to-high post, a nose for the ball on the boards, and a reliable fadeaway jumper that he falls in love with at times. Also, he possesses the type of intensity that KD supposedly has, although Durant may have one-up on him already between the shoulders, as he seems to be comfortable with being "the man" and taking the last shot.

Why they're not alike: KG is a four, and has been nearly his whole career. He's tall enough and wiry-strong enough to play the position, and has proven himself to be one of the best rebounders in the NBA. He is also enough of a defensive stalwart that the Suns seriously considered trading a younger, more explosive Amare Stoudamire for him for the sole purpose of a defensive upgrade.

Durant is clearly a 3 at this point in his career, and while KG works from the mid-to-high post, never taking 3s, Durant prefers to operate from the perimeter facing up, like a shooting guard, and the 3 is a major weapon is his arsenal. Also, he's a defensive liability. However similar their bodies and movements may appear to be at first blush, KG is at heart a big man, and KD is at heart a perimeter player. Also, Garnett has never been a volume shooter, preferring to score 20 a game, do the little things, and defer, while KD loves to get his shots.

2. Dirk Nowitzki

Why they're alike: Like Durant, Nowitzki is a big man whose primary offensive weapon is a deadly jumper. Like Durant, Nowitzki is neither fast or strong, but is an offensive weapon due to his ability to compliment his jumper with a series of moves to keep defenders off-balance and get to the hole. Like Durant, Nowitzki is an absolute liability defensively.

Why they're different: For being similar in their ends, Dirk and Durant couldn't be more different in their means. Dirk is methodical and deliberate in everything he does, from that slow-back down to that goofy, slow release on his jumper: Durant makes quick moves and has a hair-trigger release. Nowitzki disrupts the flow of defenders by having no flow whatsoever; everything is herky-jerky and bizzare with him, and doesn't look like any other player's movers. Durant emanates polish and smoothness with his moves.

Dirk's game is sharply scripted(witness his meltdown when the Warriors hit him with a new defense, one predicated on knowing exactly what he was going to do), while Durant's is all about improvisation. Despite Dirk's reputation as a 3-point gunner, he made just under 1 per game last year; Durant made more than twice as many per game. Saying Durant and Nowitzki are similar is like saying that Kanye West and Weird Al Yankovic have both become best-selling musicians by using humor in their lyrics; it's technically correct, but at the same time, it's way off.

3. Keith Van Horn

Why They're Alike: Drafted No. 2 behind the two "safest" big men of the last 10 years; 6-10 and skinny. Excellent shooters. Slightly lacking in athleticism. Plays with a smoothness. Poor passers. Able to post-up and score on the block. Tends to fall in love with his jumper. Poor defender.

Why They're Different: Van Horn was always a "soft" player, and all the reports on Durant highlight just how much of a cold-blooded killer he is, someone who will never let himself get in the way of reaching his potential. While I take a lot of those reports with a grain of salt, because it's hard enough to properly assess what a player is doing on the court without trying to be armchair psychologists, Durant does clearly seem to be one-up on Van Horn between the shoulders. Also, as I mentioned, every player is his own snowflake, and subtle differences in their athletic ability and quickness of their moves could make all the difference. Other than that, the amount of similarities between the two of them should be troubling, but I'm definitely not ready to write off Kevin Durant as Keith Van Horn, Mark 2 yet.

4. Toni Kukoc

Why they're alike: Both are best described as 6-10 shooting guards, although Kukoc preferred to distribute where Durant prefers to score. Beautiful outside stroke, smooth athleticism, suspect defense-a lot like Keith Van Horn.

(Interestingly, Jerry Krause loved Van Horn and Kukoc more than any other players during his time with the Bulls-he scouted and signed Kukoc himself, labeled him an "untouchable" when he was coming off the bench, and clearly planned to build his Magnum Opus, the post-Jordan Bulls, around Kukoc. He was also infatuated with Van Horn, and tried to essentially trade Scottie Pippen for him straight up. I'll bet you Jerry Krause loves Kevin Durant.)

Why they're different: Again, Durant may be slightly more athletic, but the main difference is that Toni Kukoc was a giant vagina in Chicago, and Durant seems bred to be a basketball killer.

5. Pistol Pete Maravich

Why They're Alike: Both had games predicated on moves built through hours upon hours of obsessive practice. Both made up for their relative lack of speed with a devastating assortment of those moves, combined with a quick, beautiful shooting stroke. Both have been "the man" on their teams for as long as they can remember, and have always been the 1st offensive option, which makes them unafraid to bomb away. Both looked eternally boyish.

Why they're different: Well, Pete was a 6-4 combo guard, while Durant is a 6-10 small forward. Also, while Pete loved to play flashy (check out his YouTube), Durant seems uninterested in flash for flash's sake. Additionally, Pete's obsessiveness about basketball caused him to eventually physically and mentally crumble and descend into alcoholism and self-hatred, and wished that aliens would take him away from the world he hated. (I know everyone's read articles on Michael Jordan and Larry Bird, but maybe all-consuming obsession isn't always the best thing to wish on our favorite athletes.) Durant doesn't seem unhappy, or have a Press Maravich-like father. (Quick aside-Kevin Love does.)

6. Tracy McGrady (Current Incarnation)

Why They're alike: Both came out of high school ridiculously skinny and weak (McGrady apparently was even worse at the bench press than Durant), both have a hair-trigger jumper that they will fire anywhere, at any time, both will have relatively low shooting percentages (McGrady is a career .439% shooter), but will be the focal point of the offense and able to generate quick bursts of scoring; both have smooth games and good-but-not great athleticism.

Why they're different: Again, Durant is supposed to be a frontcourt player, which is a big difference. And while McGrady has proven himself able to run an offense (6.5 assists per game last year), Durant is primarily a pure scorer at this point in his career.

7. Rashard Lewis

Why They're Alike: When Durant was just starting to blow up at Texas, a few people, including myself, started saying, "wait, if Durant is supposed to be a franchise player with the type of game we've never seen before, isn't he a lot like Rashard Lewis?" He's got power-forward height but will probably never play the four because of a lack of bulk and ability to bump inside, can shoot 3s and score inside well, has good but not freakish athleticism, and is an absolute defensive liability.

The Sonics apparently thought along the same lines, and made it clear that Lewis was no great loss after they drafted Durant. (I'm not saying that they would have paid him max-money without Durant, but they would have tried to keep him. Also, I will forever be mad at the Sonics ownership for not giving us a lineup of Ridnour/Allen/Lewis/Durant/Wilcox. That would have been epic. 163-181 games? 50 3s in a game? What would have happened? Sadly, we'll never know.)

Why They're different: Maybe it's because of the media's ability to warp my brain (remember, I'm a smoker), but the comparison just seems ridiculously invalid. Flipping around the Nowitzki comparison, where they use different means to achieve the same ends, Durant and Lewis use the same means to achieve different ends-think DMX and Busta Rhymes. For all his talent, Lewis seems unmotivated to take over games, is adverse to creating his own shots, and generally scores on catch-and-shoot or catch inside-and-score situations.

Durant, on the other hand, is used to being the man, and Seattle is grooming him to continue that role. He loves to create his own shot, and has created a wide variety of moves to allow him to do so. He will be the focal point on offense, just like he always has been, at least in the beginning, and he will never fly under the radar like Lewis has for so much of his career.

8. Michael Redd

Why they're alike: Both have good jumpers that they're not shy at all about firing off, get to the rim with the threat of their jumpers and smooth attack moves instead of pure explosiveness, both are liabilities defensively and pure scorers instead of shot-creators.

Why they're different: Redd likes to operate off screens, while Durant is going to have the ball in his hands a lot. Also, Redd is a shooting guard. Durant is 6-10. Sorry if I keep repeating this.

9. Larry Bird

Why they're the same: Under-athletic. Jump shooting forward. Focal point of offense. Killer drive and instinct, with ability to take over games. Extremely polished skills. I'm repeating myself a little by now, so I'm keeping it short.

Why they're different: Larry's best offensive skill was arguably his court vision; he was as much a passer and a scorer, and passing is the one part of Durant's offensive game that's underdeveloped. Additionally, Larry may have been slow, but he was strong and tough-as-nails, and was always able to successfully bang inside for tough buckets and boards.

While just how well Durant will do this in the pros is a source of much debate, as he was able to do it in college, but not in summer league, and he could or could not gain 30 pounds of muscle in the next few years, I personally lean slightly towards the school of thought that he will stay a perimeter player at the NBA level.

Also, remember that Larry never made more than 90 3s in a season, while Durant will probably make from 150-200 his first year in the pros. Most importantly, I just don't think we're ever going to see another player quite like the Hick From French Lick-the most unique superstar in the game today, Nowitzki, is the only one that comes close, and even he lacks Bird's ability to run an offense. I'm not comfortable calling Kevin Durant the next Larry Bird because I don't think there's going to be another Larry Bird. Players like Nowitzki and Bird are exceptions to the rules I've learned from following this game, and I can't confidently say that a player will become an exception. And I'm not going to dignify the Adam Morrison comparison with its own heading, but basically he was the evil Larry Bird.


So there you have it: 1 Legend, 1 Franchise Player with no ring, 1 Hall-of-Fame Second Banana with no ring, 1 Hall-of-fame doomed scoring champion who never got a ring, 1 complimentary player on a championship team, 1 leading scorer who's never made it past the 1st round, 1 great scorer who chose being the man on a bad team over being the 2nd option on a great team, 1 second banana who has never found himself in a winning situation, one bust who found redemption as a bench player, and one mega-bust whose youth gives him a shot at eventual redemption. I encourage you at this point to use those comparisons to form your own opinion on where Durant will fall, as there's a wide range of possibilities up on that board.

Here's what I think will happen: Durant could be doomed to being "the man" on a lottery team for the rest of his life, because I don't think he's a good enough player to carry a franchise to the promised land by himself like the best players in this league can. He could be an amazing 2nd or 3rd option on a quality team, as he would be deadly if defenses left him alone, knocking down open shots and finding seams in unsuspecting defenses, and eventually finding his way inside on a team's 2nd or 3rd best defender and getting a few put-backs and post-up points. I don't think Seattle was wrong to take him, but I do think they'll need to pull off a Pippen-like miracle in order to make a rebuilding project centered around him to work. (If it works out that they get a top 5 pick in next year's draft, that could be very good.)

Kevin Durant is not MJ, LeBron, Wade, Kobe, Tim Duncan, or Larry Bird. But he's not Adam Morrison or Keith Van Horn either; I'll be watching Kevin Durant's career with extreme interest. Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go drill a hole in my head.


Howard u said...

The Keith Van Horn comparison is interesting. I recall he was a pretty big deal coming out of Utah. The Nets thought they had the next Larry Bird...
His second season he averaged 21.9 ppg and 8.5 rpg.

By the way, the rumor is that the Sonics may try playing Durant at the 2 this year...

Ritchie said...

Your concerns about Durant's athleticism remind me of when Truehoop was running articles on Leandro Barbosa's experience getting to the NBA. One of the articles outlined how Marquis Daniels was absolutely owning Barbosa in sprints until they asked the two players to sprint while dribbling, then Barbosa completely owned Daniels. Obviously Marquis Daniel's handles suck but think about that. Basketball isn't about pure speed and athleticism. It counts for a lot what kind of crazy things you can do with a ball in your hand.

I also once heard a story that Steve Nash bet the entire Suns team none of them can run a 4.6 40 and they couldn't. There are plenty of late round NFL draft picks who run a 4.6. Basketball players can dominate with skill. Durant's career is going to be interesting.

spike said...

Hollinger made a big deal about how Durant averaged 2 steals and 2 blocks per game as a freshman, which indicates that his athleticism is not as poor as you consistently make it out to be. I find it interesting that you call him a defensive liability over and over, yet he did lead his team in blocks, steals and rebounds. Also, the kid is still 18.

The one liability that I would agree with is his poor court vision. But you also seem to underestimate how terrible a coach Rick Barnes is. I think Durant's work ethic combined with actual quality coaching will iron out some of that, too.

RJ said...

Of your list I think Durant starts out more like a higher usage Kukoc. Kukoc could pass and playmake some but his assists per game hasnt that high at less than 4 per game.

Durant's rebounding rate will be a key factor is who he truly compares too. He will probably be far closer to Kukoc's than VanHorn, Nowitski. Whether he can match Lewis is open question though the earliest hints arent positive at NBA level and from a perimeter position.

Kukoc is the most successful 6-10 guard ever to my knowledge.

Mike Dunleavy hasnt spent a lot of time there but has been tried there including recentlyin Indiana with not great results.

I expect Durant to be far better than Dunleavy or Morrsion and even Kukoc but it is possible he might be pretty inefficent his first year or two.

And his defense will tell a good part of the story. Jordan was Jordan for his offense and defense and team leadership. McGrady has had dramatically different team results. Tracing it back to exactly what and how much to each cause is a large story I won't enter in depth. But right now I think Durant reminds me more of McGrady than Jordan.

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