Trying to wrap my arms around last night’s loss keeps me staring at the box score several hours later. I had been thinking about writing about the distribution of shots with the way the team is currently constructed, and after last night, the time seems to be right.
Kevin Durant dominated the play of the Thunder last night to a degree we haven’t yet seen. His statistical contribution to the team was monumental: 46 points, 15 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 steals and a block. Those are definitely eye popping numbers to be sure. But after digesting that, the next thing that pops out is the incredible amount of usage KD had. He attempted 23 field goals and 26 free throws, and gave the ball to others in the form of an assist 4 more times. The computation for individual possessions is long and complicated and I don’t want to get into it, but it’s fair to say he had the ball in his hands a whole lot last night.
To be sure, Kevin Durant will be an all star, and he is the unquestioned scoring leader on this team. It’s not too much of a stretch to think that KD could one day lead the league in scoring if that were his goal and the coach gave him that much latitude. But what I am interested in focusing on here is whether or not letting your star dominate the ball so much is a good thing for the TEAM’S success. Will the Thunder as a team be better off if KD begins to so thoroughly dominate the offense on a regular basis?
In today’s Oklahoman newspaper recap of the loss last night, at the bottom of the article are a couple of quotes from Coach Brooks and Kevin, and the emphasis is mine:
“Kevin was terrific tonight. You can’t take away his performance,” said Brooks. “He’s improving. He’s working at it, and we need that from Kevin.”
Said Durant: “To break records feels good, but I would have much rather have the win and score 15 points. I think guys around here respect me for that. I’m all about my teammates. It feels good, but at the same time I wish we would have won.”
If that is truly KD’s goal, I think it is doable, but there would need to be a shift in the way the team goes about distributing the shots and how it shares the ball. The team seems to be sort of a “big three” configuration right now, with KD, Green and Westbrook being the focal points of the offense, with KD being the most prominent of the three. For the season the shot distribution looks like this:
Player FGA/game Usage%
Durant 18.7 27.9%
Green 13.3 20.9%
Westbrook 12.4 24.9%
As you can see, Durant is averaging almost 19 shots per game, while Green and Westbrook get little more than 13 and 12 respectively. That means Kevin Durant, while part of the big three for the Thunder is taking 42% of the big three’s shot attempts. Usage% is the percentage of the team plays used by the player while he is on the floor. Kevin dominates the ball more than the point guard Russell Westbrook.
It’s not uncommon for the “star” player to dominate the ball in the NBA these days. Lebron James takes 19 shots per game and has a usage % of 33.9%. Carmelo Anthony takes fewer shots (17) but also has high usage than Durant at 30.7%. Dwayne Wade probably epitomizes this “star/usage” connection; he takes almost 22 field goals per game and has a usage of 36%. You would see similar high shot attempts and usage on a number of teams by it’s star or stars. Most of these you would also find to be on winning clubs as well, but not all of the time. Antwawn Jamison on the Wizards, Kevin Martin on the Kings and Zach Randolph on the Clippers stick out as antithetical examples.
But back to Durant’s comments in the Oklahoman. He says he values the win more than the gaudy stats. I think a case can be made that sometimes teams with bonafide MVP caliber stars don’t necessarily need to dominate the ball to such a degree, and that by not doing so allow their teams to be more successful. I immediately think of the recent success of the Boston Celtics.
Player FGA/game Usg%
Pierce 13.6 24.4%
Garnett 13.3 22.9%
Allen 12.7 20.2%
These are the numbers from this year, but the numbers from last year aren’t much different. Rather than play with the “star dominates” model, the big three in Boston had a more equitable distribution of shots and usage.
How about the Spurs championship team from 06-07:
Player FGA/game Usg%
Duncan 14.1 27.9
Parker 14.2 27.4
Ginobli 11.4 27.1
Again, the star of the team didn’t really dominate, in fact Duncan took fewer shots per game than Parker. Each of the Spurs big thee used the ball about the same amount, and created offense for each other very evenly.
But if we take this analysis one step further, one thing that jumps out at me about the Thunder and it’s “star player” Kevin Durant as opposed to the star players on other teams is his assist %. Assist % is the percentage of teammate field goals a given player assists on while he was on the floor. Naturally the point guards dominate this stat because it is their job to distribute the rock to the shooters and scorers. But if you take our ball handlers out of the equation (Watson, Westbrook and Weaver) Kevin Durant leads the rest of the team with 12% assist rate. He assists on 12% of his teammates shots while he is on the floor. That sounds great right? Actually, it’s not, and that might be part of the problem with games like last night against the Clippers and the “star dominates” model we see so much in the NBA.
Kevin Durant is the only player on the Thunder (outside of the point guards) who is in double digits on assist % at 12%. Every one else on the team is in single digits. What does that say about how the team shares the rock? To me, it says that the team needs to go back to the classroom. If one guy is going to so thoroughly dominate the ball, it becomes much easier to defend that team. You know who is going to take the abundance of shots, you know that him and his teammates don’t really share the rock that much, defending that team becomes less complicated.
- By way of comparison, the Celtics have seven players other than Rondo who are in double digits in assist %. Their stars Pierce, Garnett and Allen are each above Durant’s assist % of 12%, plus so are many of their teammates.
- Half the roster of the 06-07 Champoionsip Spurs were in double figures on assist%, including Ginobli and Duncan.
- The Jazz have 6 players in double digit assist % taking the point guards out of the equation.
- Kobe is the star of the Lakers. His assist % is 25.1%-more than double what Durant’s is. All the major contributors on the Lakers (Odom, Walton, Bynum, Gasol plus the point guards) have much higher assist % than Durant.
- Lebron James assists on 35% of his teammates shots!
- The 95-96 Bulls, my most hated team of all time, who beat the Sonics in the finals are the #4 most efficient offensive team of all time according to Dean Oliver, had every regular rotation player with double digit assist %, and MJ himself was over 20%.
- The 96-97 Bulls were also prolific at sharing the rock. MJ was up over 21%; Pippen and Kukoc were over 24%
When you look at the model the Thunder are currently playing under, viewed historically, it seems like we need to get the Thunder players to spread the wealth a bit. Durant and Green are nice passers. I think the team could really benefit if it would begin to make that extra pass. Kevin Durant is really impressive leading a fast break or driving to the basket, but you really don’t see him give up the ball that much. Desmond Mason only assists on 6.4% of his teammates shots. Jeff Green only 9%. I read all of the articles in the paper this year how Green reminds many of Scottie Pippen. Scottie assisted on 24% of his teammates shots in those championship years; a far cry from Green’s 9%.
It may be that with such a young team, and with Durant so heavily dominating the offense, that when a guy like Mason or Wilcox get the ball, which they do much less than in past years on different teams, they are less likely to give it up to a teammate, and instead call their own number.
This is by no means the last and final word on the subject of shot selection and sharing the rock, rather just some opening thoughts that have been percolating in my brain. I’m not really sure if I am on to something or not. Success leaves clues, and so does failure. A commenter (Tobasco, and Crow earlier) raised questions about shot selection and shot distribution. and It would seem that shot distribution is less important than assist %. Team’s with the “star dominates” have won championships (MJ and the Bulls) and the more balanced shot distribution also has won Championships in the mold of the Celtics and Spurs. What they each have in common is the much higher assist % from a bigger chunk of the rotation. I would love to hear opinions.