I guess I must be on an Oklahoma City Thunder kick right now, because it seems I'll be writing about them for the second week in a row. Because immediately after my in depth look into James Harden's star credentials last week came the news that the Thunder had agreed to an extension with Russell Westbrook, which meant that they had now locked up both Westbrook and Kevin Durant to long-term deals. This was my reaction on Twitter (@ProfessorDrz):
Glad to see Westbrook get his extension. Durant/Westbrook remind me of what Minnesota wanted Kevin Garnett and Stephon Marbury to be 15 years ago.
And the more I've thought about it, the more I see the similarities. The two Kevins, Garnett and Durant, are both extendo-limbed unique hybrid players with the potential to define their own positions, while Marbury and Westbrook are both score-first point guards with the ability to get to the rim at will and finish consistently among the trees. In fact, let's begin this comparison with the point guards because Marbury and Westbrook are almost eerily similar at this stage of their careers. Take a look at a boxscore comparison of the first three seasons of the point guards and the first four seasons of the Kevins:
Westbrook is averaging 17.8 points on 42% FG (14.8 FGA) with 7.1 assists. Marbury averaged 17.9 points on 42% FG (15.1 FGA) with 8.4 assists. Marbury was a bit more of a natural point guard than Westbrook, while Westbrook is more athletic with better defensive instincts than Marbury. On the whole, though, they had very similar impact with very similar styles and ultimately would never be the defining stars on their teams. No, that distinction always belonged to the Kevins - who have vastly different playing styles.
Durant has quickly ramped up to one of the premier scorers in this league, with the skills of a shooting guard in the body of a developing power forward. He's already got two scoring crowns (becoming the youngest scoring champ in history in the process), as his ability to volume-score from the 3-point line combines with his ability to get to the rim off the face-up and a natural knack for drawing fouls (7.9 FTA per game for his career) to make him into a scoring machine. Garnett was never the scorer Durant is, but instead was a combination of skills and physical ability that can almost be described as a point-power forward on offense. The Timberwolves routinely let him be the decision maker on offense, and his fourth year was the first of what would be nine consecutive 20/10/4 (20-point, 10-rebound, 4-assist) seasons. The next season he would begin a string of six straight 20/10/5 efforts that would break the all-time record once held by Wilt Chamberlain and Larry Bird. Both Durant and Garnett were major impact players on offense, but for Durant to reach his full potential he also needs to follow Garnett's lead and become a major impact player on defense.
According to Professor Steve Ilardi's (currently analytics consultant for Suns) six-season adjusted plus-minus (APM) study from 2003 – 2009, Garnett measured out as the biggest impact player in the NBA by a huge margin. A different decade-long APM study by Professor Wayne Winston (former statistical consultant for Mavericks) also tabbed Garnett as the highest impact player of the decade. Why? Well, even though Garnett was a great offensive player, he stayed at the top of the impact rankings because every multi-year APM study agrees he has been the best defensive player in the NBA for the last decade. By a lot.
This, then, is where Durant has the ability to take his own game and his team to the next level. The Thunder this year are currently fifth in the league in team offensive rating, but only 13th in team defensive rating. This is a carbon copy to last season, in which they finished fifth on offense and 15th on defense. And if you look at their best players, this isn't surprising. Westbrook and Harden are already fixtures in the top-25 of the 2007 – 2011 multi-year APM study, and after a slower start impact-wise, Durant overtook them last year near the top of the 2011 single-season regularized APM study. But if you follow those links, you'll see that by-far the lion's share of the impact for all three players comes on the offensive end (which matches the obvious intuition, as all three are great offensive players). The Thunder have filled out their other rotation players with solid defensive role players like Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins and Thabo Sefolosha, but as the team defensive ratings showed this hasn't been enough to get them into the defensive elite. But I believe Durant has the ability to get them there.
Durant is listed at 6-9, but in telecasts the announcers often refer to him as 6-11. He has absurdly long arms, and the same quickness that gets him to the rim at will could just as easily make him a devastating defender of the pick-and-roll. Durant is on his third consecutive season averaging more than a block and a steal each per game, and he has shown brief snippets of potential to play lock-down defense when challenged (most notably for a couple of games against Kobe Bryant in the playoffs). He'll never be Garnett on defense, but Durant has all the tools he needs to become a reasonable defensive anchor.
In summary, 15 years ago the Timberwolves thought they had their championship nucleus in place with a superstar Kevin and a scoring point guard, only to lose that guard prematurely to another team. The Thunder have the opportunity to get it right where their fellow small-market team came up short, as they have their duo locked up for well into their primes. For them, all they need is for their Kevin to emulate the other Kevin just a bit on defense in order to get to the Promised Land.
Around the League
• Nowitzki's exhaustion: Dirk Nowitzki was shut down last week for at least four games due to exhaustion and the need to get in better condition. He is three games into his layoff, but the length of the absence was left open-ended enough that there's no guarantee he misses only one more. In the long-run, though, this break should be a good thing for Nowitzki owners because he obviously has not played to potential this year. Right before the layoff was announced, I tweeted this about Nowitzki: "Nowitzki is free-falling down my rankings. Under 20 points in 8-of-9 games and only one double-digit rebound game on season will do that." With the time off to get his legs under him, Nowitzki should presumably look a lot more like himself after he returns.
• Older players slowly awakening?: In one of my earlier Labs I pointed out that the lockout seemed to have been much harder on the older veterans than it was on the younger players. Along with the afore-mentioned Nowitzki and his Mavericks teammates, we saw the veteran-laden Celtics, Spurs, and Lakers all come out looking as though they had aged 10 years since the end of 2011. Slowly, though, the vets seem to be rounding into shape. Kobe Bryant and the Lakers woke up first, but his 30-something league mates seem to finally be joining him. On Sunday Paul Pierce exploded all over the Wizards. On Monday I watched Tim Duncan drop 28 points, including the game-winning shot with a second left, and then flipped to the other station and watched Kevin Garnett absolutely lock up Dwight Howard 1-on-1 as the Celtics demolished the Magic. Steve Nash dropped 14 assists on Wednesday. Elton Brand is shooting 54% from the field in his last nine games after shooting 41% in his first six. The point is, for those that like prospecting, the window for getting the underachieving vets at bargain-basement prices might be starting to close.
• James and Bosh without Wade: Dwyane Wade has missed eight games in the last three weeks with an ankle injury, and in that time the Heat have won seven of eight times. More importantly for fantasy owners, with Wade out Chris Bosh has gone nuts and joined LeBron James at the top of the food chain. Over the past two weeks, Bosh and James are ranked No. 1 and No. 2 (in that order) by average according to the Y! player rater. Bosh has been a throw-back to his Raptors days, averaging 25.3 points on 59.8 percent shooting from the field in that stretch. This is just more proof that the Heat still haven't quite perfected getting all three of their stars going offensively at the same time, but when any of those stars sit the others are more than capable of going off.
• Flip-flopped to Witmann - again: The Wizards have fired head coach Flip Saunders after their extremely slow start, and replaced him with assistant Randy Wittman. If that sounds familiar, it's because Wittman's last gig in Minnesota came (a year) after Saunders was fired. The situations are very different, as the Timberwolves roster experienced a lot of turnover between their tenures, but Saunders' last four Timberwolves squads ranked in the top-six in team offensive rating while Wittman's first year Wolves ranked 25th in team offensive rating. Saunders' offensive schemes in general work a lot better than Wittman's have historically, which would not bode well for the fantasy prospects of John Wall, Nick Young and the other Wizards. On the other hand, the Wizards this year were already ranked a shocking dead last in the NBA in offensive rating, so in this instance perhaps they really can't get much worse. Plus, one strength that Wittman has over Saunders is as a disciplinarian. With the Wizards being so young and immature, perhaps Wittman's firmer hand will actually be a benefit. But I'll have to see it to believe it.
• Howard's heart in it?: After the Celtics demolished the Magic on Monday, Dwight Howard seemed to question his own effort level: "I don't think we came out as a team with the right attitude and the right energy," Howard said. "Even myself; there's no way KG (Kevin Garnett) should be beating me up and down the floor. There's a couple of plays where he beat me up and down the floor, and there's no way. You know, he's 40 and I'm 25 (actually 35 and 26, respectively). I just can't allow that to happen." This is timely self-criticism, as Howard currently ranks well outside of the top-100 in the Y! rankings (No. 143 by average), and over the last two weeks he is even worse at No. 224 by average. Much of that is due to his well-documented issues from the line, but he's been shooting even worse than usual, a Ben Wallace-like 46.7 percent from the stripe this year on almost 12 attempts per game, far below his usual slot near 60 percent. There have been rumors Howard isn't as focused this year because of his desire to change teams. I can't speak to that, but whatever his issue is, Howard is not playing anywhere near his ADP of 6.7 overall in Y! drafts this year.
• Bargnani's calf: Andrea Bargnani aggravated his left calf injury on Wednesday, and says the injury is "much worse" than the last time he hurt himself that caused him to miss six games. He will likely have an MRI on Thursday, but it sure sounds like he's going to be out for a while. In his last absence Ed Davis showed some positive signs, and somewhat surprisingly Leandro Barbosa helped step into the scoring void.
• Bogut the risk: Last week I started to write a blurb with the title "Bogut the risk", to point out how well Andrew Bogut has played when healthy (No. 55 by average despite two injury-shortened efforts that have dragged his averages down), but how he was always a risky player to rely on due to his tendency to miss games. I ultimately decided against it due to column length, but lo and behold, a week later Bogut is out again with another injury which has allowed me to use the title after all. This time a twisted ankle is expected to keep Bogut out a week or more, his third session of missed games in the first month of the season.
• Gortat the man: Marcin Gortat is in the midst of a career-high streak of nine straight double-doubles and six straight games with 12 or more rebounds. Over the last two weeks he is averaging 18.4 points on 57 percent FG with 12.9 rebounds and 2.0 blocks. His only weakness is his free-throw percentage, but he only takes three foul shots per game so that isn't prohibitive. All told, Gortat is solidifying himself as an elite roto center this season.
• Rondo's wrist and Allen's ankle: Rajon Rondo has missed the last three games with a wrist injury, but Celtics coach Doc Rivers said he could return on Thursday. Rondo at least traveled with the team to Orlando for the game. The same can't be said for Ray Allen, who missed Monday's game with a "jammed" ankle and did not make the trip to Orlando.
• Deng's wrist: Luol Deng tore a ligament in his left wrist and is considered "week-to-week". He hopes to avoid surgery, but that is not yet a guarantee. In his absence Ronnie Brewer and Rip Hamilton could both play larger roles, with Kyle Korver as another who could get more opportunity.
• Thornton's thigh: Marcus Thornton will miss 1-to-2 weeks with a bruised left thigh, which has opened the door for rookie Jimmer Fredette to play well in his absence. Fredette has his own fan base and could be a larger part of the Kings' future plans than Thornton, so this injury could be costly for Thornton's playing time even after he returns.
• Hickson this year (dharvey34): In the comments of last week's Lab, Dharvey34 asked me to talk about J.J. Hickson and his struggles this year. It really appears Hickson just isn't a good fit in this Kings offense, especially next to a player like DeMarcus Cousins that shares a similar style game but does it a lot better. In Hickson's first couple of seasons in Cleveland he was a spark plug scorer at good percentages in limited minutes, but in his last two seasons those shooting percentages fell off when he had more of a feature role in the offense. In Sacramento he has alternated between starting and a bench role, in a system that doesn't suit him, next to a player in Cousins that sets up and scores from all of the places that Hickson is most comfortable. The end result is a Hickson that isn't really worth owning in most fantasy formats.
• Marcus Camby (44% owned in Yahoo leagues): Camby has had difficulties with injuries this year, but he currently has 38 rebounds, five blocks, and three steals in his last two games. When he's on the court, he's still putting up huge defensive numbers.
• Landry Fields (40% owned): After a very slow start to the year, Fields has scored in double-figures in five straight games and is averaging 14.8 points, 4.0 assists, 3.5 boards, 1.5 steals, 0.8 treys and shooting 57.5% from the floor over the last week.
• Jimmer Fredette (37% owned): Fredette has stepped up in recent games with Marcus Thornton battling injury, averaging 13.8 points with 3.0 made treys over the last week. Fredette could be a bigger part of the Kings' long-term plans than Thornton, so a stretch of good play in Thornton's absence could earn Fredette a larger slice of the pie as the season progresses.
• Leandro Barbosa (28% owned): Barbosa has scored 13 or more points in eight of his last nine outings with made treys in seven of those games. He stepped up his scoring rate the last time Andrea Bargnani went down, and with Bargnani expected to be out for another stretch with a reinjured calf the stage is set for Barbosa to keep producing.
• James Johnson (24% owned): Johnson makes this list purely on defensive potential, as he has 13 blocked shots and six steals in his last four games. He also has intermittent bouts of scoring, with a 23-point and an 18-point effort sprinkled in among the two and four point outings, but if you pick him up it should be with the expectation of defense and not much else.
• Tiago Splitter (21% owned): Splitter was one of my sleepers for the 2011 season, but an early injury derailed his whole rookie year. This season he is playing very well in limited time, and with the condensed schedule veteran Tim Duncan will be getting more rest days. In Duncan's last rest day Splitter went off for 25 points and 10 rebounds, and he is currently on a streak of five straight double-digit outings overall.
• Ronnie Brewer (10% owned): Brewer is looking at a larger role while Luol Deng is sidelined with a torn ligament in his wrist, and in the first game Deng missed Brewer responded with 20 points, 10 boards, five assists and three steals. Those numbers aren't sustainable, but at the very least he's worth a short-term stint on the fantasy radar.
Best Players in NBA history
In this section of the Lab I pick one of the top players in NBA history as voted on in this project and discuss some of his career accomplishments - in other words, what made him so great that he deserves a spot among the greatest? This week's player is Tim Duncan, who is on the short list of best players ever despite the fact that he doesn't get nearly as much mention as he should. Duncan's case, as you might expect, is based on very simple, fundamental reasoning.
1. Duncan is one of only five players in NBA history with multiple MVP and multiple Finals MVP awards. The other four are named Jordan, Magic, Kareem and Bird.
For the rest of Duncan's highlight facts, be sure to check out the blog.
Keeping up with the Professor
If you're interested in my takes throughout the week, you can follow me on Twitter @ProfessorDrz. Also, don't forget that you can catch me on the radio on Rotowire Fantasy Sports Today with Chris Liss and Jeff Erickson on XM 87, Sirius 210.