Hey, I’ve got something I’ve been wanting to get off my chest for a little while, so I’m just going to come out and say it:
Kevin Durant is a great scorer of the basketball. Phew. I feel better.
OK, so we all know that much. Durant’s got the scoring titles, he’s got the points per game, he’s got the 50-40-90, he’s got that e-word (efficiency) that everyone likes to say all that time.
But why is he a great scorer?
Kirk Goldsberry of Grantland, who is doing the Lord’s work on advancing the way we understand basketball, has what might be the definitive piece on scorers and shooters, what makes a great one great. Do yourself a favor and become a smarter observer by reading the whole thing, but I’m gonna do the blockquote thing and talk mostly about Durant after the jump:
First, two simple questions Goldsberry asks:
1) Who is the best shooter in the NBA, and 2) what metrics would you use to justify your answer to this question?
When it comes to shooting stats, one would think there would be a spreadsheet somewhere on the Internet that delineates “great shooters” like Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant near its top, and “bad shooters” like Monta Ellis and Josh Smith at the bottom. But there’s not. We still rely on hunches and vague reputations to make our assertions about “pure shooting” skill in the NBA. Amid the chatter of an ongoing revolution in basketball statistics, the notion that we still can’t effectively measure shooting ability is troubling — but it’s also correctable.
The issue is, almost every NBA player’s overall FG percentage will always have more to do with where he shoots than how well he shoots.
The inconvenient truth is that every NBA field goal attempt has its own level of difficulty that’s determined by several factors, including the shooter’s location on the court. Even though previous approaches have mostly ignored this thorny reality, thanks to relatively new forms of NBA data we can now begin to understand it.
Reading that paragraph, I can’t help but remember what KD told Lee Jenkins of Sports Illustrated last season about good shots and bad shots.
“Let’s say you’ve got 40 apples on your tree,” Durant said. “I could eat about 30 of them, but I’ve begun limiting myself to 15 or 16. Let’s take the wide-open three and the post-up at the nail. Those are good apples. Let’s throw out the pull-up three in transition and the step-back fadeaway. Those are rotten apples. The three at the top of the circle — that’s an in-between apple. We only want the very best on the tree.”
Goldsberry has a metric — ShotScore — which essentially quantifies how much a shooter’s shots are worth. (The fancy explanation is, “the difference between a player’s actual point yield and his expected yield.” High number = good, negative number = bad.) The highest ShotScores in the league last season: LeBron (+231), Durant (+204) and Stephen Curry (+164).
As noted, even Durant’s “bad” spots are above the NBA average. Even Durant’s rotten apples are delicious.
(Other thing: The top 10 outside shooters per 100 attempts has names like (in order) Jose Calderon, Kyle Korver, Steve Nash, Stephen Curry Dirk Nowitzki and… Serge Ibaka. That’s right, Ibaka was sixth in outside shooting in terms of ShotScore last season.)
The whole idea here is that we need to redefine what we think of as a great “pure” shooter. The historical classification of that has typically been the spot-up (white) guy that shoots 40 percent and plays the role of marksman. But realistically speaking, Kevin Durant is probably the league’s best shooter. Because as Goldsberry notes, what if Durant was the one camped in the corner waiting on some other player to draw defenders and kick out to where he was standing wide open? Say Durant took five 3s a game and four were wide open; what would he shoot from there?
Basically, I think we use the word “pure” to disguise the things players aren’t capable of doing. If you’re a “pure” shooter, it means you’re merely a spot-up guy that’s got a great stroke but can’t create your own look. If you’re a “pure” point guard it means you suck at scoring but can effectively throw a bounce pass or run a pick-and-roll. So by that measure, Carmelo Anthony is a “pure” scorer; Kevin Durant is simply a great one.