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Durant, Nowitzki: Similarities, Differences And A Special Series

I’ve touched on Kevin Durant in articles before, but we’re seeing something remarkable from him this year in the 2011 NBA Playoffs.

After struggling through last season against the Lakers, Durant has left an indelible imprint on this year’s postseason with some incredible performances. Having shot about 35% FG% and 29% 3P% in last year’s postseason (despite scoring 25 ppg), Durant is currently leading the playoffs with a 29.8 ppg scoring average and in stark contrast to the 49.9% TS% he posted last year, this season he’s doing it on 60.8% TS. His other peripherals are similar; just under eight boards a game and around 2.5 assists per contest. His ratios for rebounding and passing remain similar but he’s even stingier than ever about giving up the ball, turning the ball on less than an estimated eight possessions per 100 played. He’s even touching the ball a lot less; Durant put up 20.5 FGA/g against the Lakers last year and this year is taking only 19.8. It doesn’t seem like a lot, but there’s a dramatic difference in his usage ratio, down to 28.9% from 34% last postseason. 

In any event, we’re witnessing Kevin Durant operating on a rather impressive level and the series against Dallas helps us see him with another stunning tall perimeter player in Dirk Nowitzki. Both of them are face-up forwards, though Durant is two inches shorter and theoretically a small forward while Nowitzki is a power forward. They exhibit stylistic differences (Nowitzki, for example, is a much better shooter who uses the post a lot more, while Durant is considerably more athletic and far more adept at getting to the line… usually), but watching them play, especially in a series against one another, one can’t help but appreciate how impressive are their respective offensive games.

Nowitzki is coming off of an historic scoring performance, but lost in the glamour of the win and that incredible efficiency is that Durant put up 40 points on excellent efficiency as well. Those two had a duel, one that had a feel to it that, to me at least, recalled Dominique Wilkins/Larry Bird back in 1988 in the Eastern Semis. It was the third time this postseason that Durant has registered 40+ points… and just the game before against Memphis, he put up 39. He’s in the middle of an offensive zone right now where just about no one can guard him. 

It’s terrifying, then, to note that Dirk is actually outplaying Durant. 

Scoring 28.5 ppg himself, while adding 8.2 rpg and 2.9 apg, Nowitzki is managing his points on 64.3% TS, leading the postseason with a 60% 3pt shooting rate, leading the playoffs in PER at 29.2 and in WS/48 at .289. It isn’t even a fluke, by the way; Dirk led the playoffs in WS/48 last year .291. He is an absolute playoff monster. The fact that Durant is even close to what Dirk is doing right now, especially in this specific season, is utterly amazing and represents the kind of staggering comeback performance people said he needed to have in order for his reputation to recover from his rather abysmal playoff debut against the Lakers. 

There’s a myth out there that Kevin Durant is an incredible shooter.

He isn’t; Dirk Nowitzki is an incredible shooter. Durant is simply a good shooter, and that skill is more impressive than normal because he’s 6’10" instead of 6’6". He’s shooting 46.5% FG right now in the playoffs, and 38.1% 3P% (up from 46.2% and 35% in the regular season).  Those are good numbers to see, but they aren’t transcendent. More importantly, he’s shooting about 40% from 16-23 feet, which is about the same as LeBron shot the two seasons prior to this and is 5% lower than James shot this season. It’s OK, but nothing incredible, unlike the 52% Dirk shot on a like number of attempts per game. That is a staggering number, Dirk’s percentage on those shots, the more so because it’s not the first time he’s done it, the volume of shots he takes from that distance is huge and that they are typically lower-percentage shots. 

Kevin Durant, then, cannot be fairly called a “shooter” in the sense one uses the term to describe players like Ray Allen, Reggie Miller, Steve Nash and the legion of other players whose primary weapon is their perimeter jumper. Instead, it’d be fairer to call him an off-ball slasher. He shoots well, but he’s a demon going to the rack and when he gets there, he finishes at an incredible rate (over 77% FG at the rim in the regular season) and he typically gives you better than .400 FTA/FGA, which is quite good.

Durant is particularly adept at moving without the ball, and not just curling around screens to get jumpers, which is how most people think of that concept. No, more like Amare Stoudemire, he’s really good at using screens and cuts to get himself into position for passes that lead him to the basket. Against Memphis, more than once, he had some plays where he screened, then turned around and set a back pick, then rolled to the basket and was essentially wide open for a dunk. That kind of action makes him an incredibly dangerous player, because you know you have to defend him on iso plays, you know you can’t let him spot up and now you also have to worry that, if all else fails, he’s going to go out there and do big man things that will leave him open as your defense scrambles to contain the guys he’s freeing up with his screens. The only thing he does not bring to an offense is a great deal of on-ball shot creation for others. Which is fine, really; like Dirk, he has little need to be the primary on-ball player and can content himself with the types of offensive possessions he gets now. Like Kidd to Dirk, Russell Westbrook handles most of the on-ball action and the dynamic usually works out pretty well. 

We should appreciate this series a little more than most probably are at the moment; we’re watching two of the more unique talents this league has ever seen playing against one another. More than just that, not only are they playing against one another, but they playing in a dominating fashion that it truly is like watching a clash of titans.

Help For Dirk

The Mavericks defeated the Lakers on Friday in Game 3 by a final score of 98-92. It was a taut thriller, a vicious back-and-forth battle. For a while in the third, it seemed like the Mavericks were about to let the game slip away, with the Lakers going up by as much as seven points in the period and then up by as much as eight early on in the fourth quarter. But then something happened, something pretty special.  

Dirk Nowitzki, who had been dominant all night to that point but largely alone, finally got some help. 

Peja Stojakovic missed all but one of his five shots in the first half but he and Dirk found a way to connect in devastating fashion. As Nowitzki led the way with an aggressive push, Stojakovic ended up 4-for-6 in the fourth quarter, scoring 11 points and joining Dirk (himself with 9 points and an assist), and the three Js (Jasons Terry and Kidd, as well as Jose Juan Barea) in scoring the team’s 32 points, while holding the Lakers to 20 in the quarter. 

There was Tyson Chandler stealing a Kobe Bryant pass.

There was Kidd assisting on a Nowitzki three and sticking a pair of free throws.

There was Nowitzki driving into the paint and kicking out to Peja for three.

There was Jason Terry sticking a three from Kidd and two pairs of free throws.

In the fourth, it seemed that every time they needed it, the Mavs got a bucket. They wore away at L.A.’s lead until Dirk drew a foul on Andrew Bynum and converted the pair, helping Dallas take the lead at 88-87 with 2:40 to go. They didn’t look back from there.

Dallas has been much maligned as a team of choke artists by many, especially after the 2006 Finals and Nowitzki’s performance in the first round the following season against the Warriors. Few seem to remember the 2006 Western Conference Finals, or that he’s typically a dominant playoff performer or that since 2007 he’s turned himself into one of the most dominant mid-post players in the history of basketball to overcome his struggles against smaller defenders. Or that he plays on a team without a legitimate second option, most especially since Caron Butler when down due to injury earlier this year.  

The Mavericks have failed to do for Nowitzki what San Antonio did for Tim Duncan and Los Angeles did for Kobe, which is to put a legitimate second All-Star next to him. They put a guy who used to be that type of player a half-decade ago, but Kidd’s closer to 40 than to 35 and it makes a difference, even if the savvy veteran point guard was a big part of the fourth quarter action.  

Still, it remains true that the Mavs have made a statement in this series; they’re going to come after you. They’re going to come after you hard. And with the defensive presence of Tyson Chandler added to the team, and maybe a few more contributions like what we saw from Peja in the fourth quarter, this team has a chance to make a lot of noise. They can start by closing the Lakers out on Sunday and take it from there. 

The Reality Of Rose's MVP Candidacy

Much of the buzz these days around the NBA has to do with Derrick Rose. A well-deserving All-Star on a good Chicago team battling near the top of the Eastern Conference, there have been whispers of “MVP” from some of the collected talking heads and quite a lot of chanting in various arenas around the NBA.

At the same time, some people are comparing him to a former MVP, Allen Iverson, often in a disparaging manner. I’m not typically an Allen Iverson fan by any stretch of the imagination, so some of what I say here may be a surprise, but right now, Derrick Rose is having a season that’s strongly comparable to Allen Iverson’s 2001 MVP season.

I won’t go so far as to say he deserves the MVP, nor do I believe Iverson deserved it in 2001, but now as then, a player can be considered in the MVP vote without really deserving to win it. I think that’s the case here with Rose, I think he’s one of the top-10 players in the league this season and that his name very much should be in the mix in the MVP discussion. I don’t think he should win the award, but he should finish top-5 in that voting. 

So what is he doing that’s so remarkable?

Statistically speaking, you can’t ignore what’s going on for him this year. At a basic level, you see him playing well. Rose has a PER of 22.9, .193 WS/48, top-10 in APG, sixth in the league in PPG, seventh in win shares so far, tenth in defensive win shares, he’s popping up all over the place statistically speaking. He’s a little under league average in terms of TS%, which is problematic, but he’s at 111 ORTG, which is noticeably above average. More importantly, his seasonal TS% is mostly the product of a 10-game stretch shooting 39.6% FG so far in March. He was at 54% TS before this month, so that’s a 0.4% overall shift in his scoring efficiency just from these last 10 games, which is pretty significant. When he comes out of this stretch and wakes up again, and he surely will, it’ll even him out back to average efficiency or perhaps a little higher than that. His three has abandoned him over the last 21 games or so, he’s shooting under 26% from downtown in that stretch and that’s been quite atypical compared to the first 44 games of the season. You have to expect that to come back a little as the season winds down, which should help him. 

This level of efficiency is why people want to compare him to Iverson, but they forget that prime Iverson was often quite far below league average in TS% (frequently under 50% TS), and that he was shooting a higher volume as well, not sharing quite the same or interacting quite as well with scoring teammates compared to how Rose is performing in Chicago. 

Beyond this, Chicago is winning. A lot. They’re tied for the first seed in the East and they are tied with Boston and the Lakers for the second most wins in the league at 49. This has happened while Boozer and Noah have played 45 and 37 games, respectively. With such an injury-ravaged frontcourt, this is still one of the best teams in the league and that’s largely been on the strength of them being the best defense in the league and still being average on offense despite lacking two huge parts of their offense for significant stretches of the season. A lot of this has to do with Rose being an effective playmaker who doesn’t turn the ball over a lot at all. This is especially true when you consider that he’s second in the league in usage and eighth in AST%. That means he’s using a whole range of possessions as a scorer but he’s still managing to be one of the eight most prolific passers while he’s on the floor, which is impressive. Rose is intimately involved in the Chicago offense and though he’s struggling at the moment, the Bulls are still succeeding. Not just succeeding, they are excelling.  He’s a huge part of that, and that means that while he may not deserve to win the award, he has certainly earned consideration.

Again, we’re talking about the lead player on one of the four best teams in the league and he’s playing a pretty strong brand of basketball.  The value of the shots he creates and the shots he takes is significant. It’s not enough to totally overcome the fact that his efficiency is still mediocre, but he also isn’t as far apart from league average as was, say, Allen Iverson. In any event, even Iverson was a good player. Not as good as some of his fans would have you believe, true, but still a useful player, especially in the 2000-2001 season. 

Likewise, Rose isn’t the best player in the league, the best player on the best team, or any of the other rotating definitions used to justify MVP selections. He shouldn’t win it, Dwight Howard is doing a far more compelling job as a statistically dominant force on a very good team without nearly as much help even if you factor in the injuries to Boozer and Noah. One could also make compelling arguments for a number of other players (such as Dirk, Lebron, maybe even Kobe), even including Nash if you reach a little (as a fringe candidate, mind, not a legit chance to win). Rose would fit in more with someone like Nash than with Dirk, Dwight, etc. 

There is just so much going for Rose right now that it would be a fool’s game to ignore his performance. You don’t have to reward someone with the actual reward in order to discuss their candidacy and if you fail to recognize what he’s doing, you have a fundamental failure in your criteria for the award. He definitely appears on the radar when you’re looking at team achievements, individual achievements, all of those things. He’s a newer player, he isn’t hyper-efficient and he isn’t a dominant big man, all some of the many reasons people are resistant to the very idea that this guy (who wasn’t at all on the MVP map last season) should suddenly be a significant candidate this year. Well enough, he shouldn’t win, but we discuss possibilities for the MVP award for a reason, in order to give those their due who have earned our attention and respect for what they have achieved in an NBA season.

Derrick Rose has certainly authored a more than respectable campaign, one deserving of the kind of attention he has received. Enjoy the game, he’s playing a pretty good brand of basketball with an interesting mix of volume scoring and playmaking. When Boozer comes back, it’ll make life a little easier for him, and maybe help him boost his efficiency a little bit. Then the real crucible begins as the Bulls enter the playoffs. That’s when we’ll get a really good feel for him. In principle, the MVP is a regular season award, but in practice we evaluate the validity of an MVP based on the player’s performance in that postseason. Rose may not win the MVP in the regular season, and shouldn’t, but if he has a really good playoff run with Chicago this year, then he’ll be looked upon in a different light next season and we will accept him into our limited pantheon of potential MVPs for next year. 

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