Sunday, November 30, 2008

Close Readings - Bynum's D, Durant's O

I thought it would be nice to take a close look at a couple of early storylines as they play themselves out in game situations. For this episode, I'm interested in: Kevin Durant's offensive effectiveness since his move to the small forward position, and Andrew Bynum's defensive contributions against teams whose bigs stretch the floor.

Kevin Durant
One of the major changes in the Oklahoma City Thunder since Scott Brooks took over as interim head coach has been Kevin Durant's move from the shooting guard position to the small forward, where many observers feel he is a more natural fit given his skillset. The move allows the team to play another perimeter player (Damien Wilkins), creating more space inside and allowing Durant to work closer to the basket. Early in his career, Durant has struggled to be efficient as a scorer, and partly because of that the Sonics/Thunder have been a pretty poor offensive team in terms of efficiency.

Durant has now played 5 games at the 3 position under his new coach. It's still very early, but statistically, the results are promising. Under P.J. Carlesimo, Durant was shooting a pretty low 46.1 eFG% (recall that eFG takes into account the extra point that three-pointers are worth). Since the coaching change, he's improved that to a solid 52.4%. Further, he's getting to the free throw line 3 more times per game than he was before (7.8 attempts per game now, 4.8 before the switch). One unexplained stat is that Durant is attempting more three pointers per game (3.2) than he was before the switch (1.3), although he's maintained his impressive percentage (43.8%). His turnovers are also down since the move.

Here's a comprehensive look at Durant's performance at each of the two positions, including minutes played at small forward before the coaching change. It's a very small sample, but the fact that the team is 15 points per hundred possessions better on offense with Durant at the 3 as opposed to the 2 is encouraging.

All of that should, I hope, serve as some background. But I am aware that, this early in the season, with so few minutes played, not much can be concluded from a look at the numbers. So instead I decided to watch and take notes on Saturday's Thunder-Grizzlies game (hey, someone had to watch it, right?). These notes will only be about Durant's offense, so before I begin, I'll make a few random observations from the game: on defense, Durant repeatedly got left out of rebounding position without anyone to box out when a shot went up. He ended up with 7 defensive rebounds in 39 minutes, but the Thunder allowed Memphis to retrieve 31% of their missed shots, which isn't horrible but could be improved (league average is just 26.9% so far this season). Of particular concern were Greg Buckner and Javaris Crittenton combining for 4 offensive rebounds in 42 combined minutes, as well as a telling play in the first half: Durant was guarding Darrell Arthur, who went up to set a screen at the top of the key for Mayo; Durant hedged to slow Mayo down, but didn't recover quickly enough as Arthur rolled to the basket; Mayo drove all the way to the hoop and missed a layup, but by the time Durant arrived he was behind Arthur, who was in perfect position to grab the rebound and go back up with a dunk. O.J. Mayo had yet another brilliant game. This was the first I'd seen Crittenton this season, and I was impressed with his agressiveness (8 free throw attempts in just 18 minutes, and no turnovers). Russell Westbrook leads all point guards in the league in offensive rebounding -- this just seemed worth pointing out. Also worth pointing out -- Westbrook is one of the few players whose rebounds deserve to be highlights by themselves. And finally, the Section 209 Crew at FedEx Forum in Memphis have been giving life to a lifeless stadium throughout this year, and even though I'm only watching on television, I'm grateful for their presence.

Anyways, on to the game. It should be noted that this was the first game this season in which Russell Westbrook was the starter at the point. Below are specific offensive possessions in which Durant played an important role in a scoring attempt, although I've left out several transition buckets that Durant got:

1st quarter
At the start of the first quarter, with Darrell Arthur guarding Kevin Durant, the Thunder focus on getting the ball into Chris Wilcox in the post, working against Marc Gasol. Durant doesn't factor much for the first several minutes, and Wilcox didn't do that much against Gasol. I found the strategy odd, since Gasol is an excellent defender, but whatever.

Halfway through the quarter, Arthur went to the bench and was replaced by Greg Buckner, and Durant immediately began working in the post against the smaller Buckner.

Here's how his possessions went:
- Durant gets the ball isolated at the left free throw line extended and draws a shooting foul (he makes both FT).

- After a weakside block by Rudy Gay (I forget on whom), the Thunder grab the rebound and Durant drifts out to the left wing while Gay is still under the basket. Durant gets the ball at the arc and shoots the open 3-pointer with 10 seconds on the shot clock. Gay is late closing out, but Durant misses.

- Durant gets ball on the right wing, dribbles left around screen by Westbrook, puts up a contested 22 foot jumper and misses. Probably should have waited for a better shot here.

- Out of a timeout, Durant takes Gay off the dribble from the right wing, gets into the paint and kicks out to Damien Wilkins for an open corner 3, but Wilkins decides to pass up the shot and dribbles into the paint. Durant floats out to about 14 feet and misses a tough-angled shot off of Wilkins' penetration.

- Durant posts up Gay down low on the left block, backs him down for two dribbles and makes a right-handed jump hook over him. This seems like the sort of thing Durant should be able to do regularly against a lot of 3's.

2nd quarter
Durant sits for the first 4 minutes or so, returning with 8:25 left and is matched against Javaris Crittenton at both ends.

- At 7:36, he posts up Crittenton on the right mid post and calls for the ball. Crittenton tries to deny the entry and ends up fouling Durant. Immediately, Mayo comes in for Crittenton.

- Working off the ball, Durant comes off a Joe Smith baseline screen on the left side and receives a pass from the top of the key and he catches the ball at about 12 feet just left of the paint with an open shot. Darko Milicic comes out to challenge while Mayo continues to pursue Durant around the screen, leaving Joe Smith unaccounted for. Smith begins to roll to the basket and Durant throws a bounce pass perfectly leading him, but Mayo, recognizing the opening, grabs Smith's right arm and doesn't let him get to the ball. The foul isn't called, and the play results in a turnover and a transition dunk for Rudy Gay. This was a nice play, despite the result.

- Out of a timeout, the Thunder go back to the exact same play, and this time it results in a Durant assist on a Joe Smith dunk.

- After a Grizzly time out (and an O.J. Mayo basket coming out of it), the Thunder again go to the Smith/Durant baseline screen. This time, Durant runs up from the left corner to receive the pass at the left elbow as Smith screens Mayo. Marc Gasol is in at center instead of Milicic this time, and Gasol positions himself to shut down any driving lane for Durant, but doesn't give Smith an easy lane to roll to the basket. Smith comes off the screen and settles in at about 15 feet. Durant turns down the jump shot and passes to smith, who misses a baseline jumper that he can usually make.

After that play, we see a series of possessions that feature Durant isolated on the left high post against several different defenders.

- Durant is isolated in the left high post against Mayo. He turns and faces, but Mayo pokes the ball away as Durant begins his dribble. Durant recovers the ball and ends up taking a tough 17 foot jumper while falling to his left, which he makes. He's 3 of 8 shooting at that point, but he makes 5 of his next 8 shots and ends the day 8 of 16.

- The next time down, Durant gets the ball in the exact same place (left high post), isolated against Mayo again. This time he takes his time and backs him down into the paint. No help arrives, and Durant makes an easy layup over the much shorter Mayo.

- On the next trip down, the more physical Greg Buckner guards Durant. Durant has to work a little harder for it, but again receives the ball at the left high post. Buckner plays Durant closer and more physically, so Durant turns and faces and then easily drives baseline around Buckner straight to the hoop. No help arrives, so Buckner fouls Durant as he goes up. Durant makes one of two free throws. The last three possessions show some of the versatility in Durant's game that makes it hard to guard him one-on-one if he gets the ball in a position to score. While taller defenders might have a little more success, there aren't many taller players in the league who are quick enough to stay with Durant off the dribble. If Durant starts with the ball at the top of the key, on the other hand, there are a lot more ways to shut him down or force him into bad shots.

Anyways, during Durant's free throws, the Grizzlies bring Darrell Arthur back into the game.

- On the next offensive possession, Durant is again isolated at the left high post, this time against Arthur. Durant turns and faces, but Arthur steps back and gives him the shot. Durant takes the 18 foot jumper but misses (despite the miss, it's a decent shot). The Thunder retrieve the offensive rebound and get it into Jeff Green on the right side in the post against Rudy Gay. Green sees Durant open at the three point line on the left side, but the cross court pass is intercepted.

For the rest of the quarter, Durant mostly hangs out on the perimeter while the Thunder outscore the Grizzlies 6-4.

3rd quarter
- Darrell Arthur starts the 3rd quarter, but on the Thunder's first possession, Durant gets fouled by Arthur in transition and makes both FT. The foul sends Arthur back to the bench, forcing Gay to defend Durant again.

- Later, after a defensive switch caused by a Durant screen, Durant finds himself posting up Mike Conley. Unfortunately, Damien Wilkins can't get into position to get a good angle on the entry pass, so instead takes a tough 17-footer as the shot clock expires, and makes it.

After that, the Thunder again begin feeding Wilcox down low against Gasol. This takes up much of the next several possessions (with a little more success this time -- forcing back-to-back defensive 3-second violations leading to technical free throws for Durant) except for the following:

- At about 7:20, Durant gets involved again, getting a handoff from green at the right elbow and driving to the basket. From the paint, he kicks the ball back out to green, who misses a 3-pointer (leading to one of Russell Westbrook's breathtaking offensive rebounds -- he had 5 on the night).

- Durant passes from the top of the 3 point line into Wilcox at the left free-throw line extended, then cuts down to the baseline, rubbing his man off of Wilcox. He gets the pass back from Wilcox and hits the baseline jumper over Gasol.

- Durant gets a wide open dunk off a sideline out of bounds play, but I can't see how he got open because the camera was stuck on a closeup of O.J. Mayo's face for some reason.

After a few more Wilcox post-isolations, Durant gets involved again:

- At around 4:10, Durant ends up isolated at the top of the arc against Hakim Warrick, with the other four Thunder players spaced around the court. Durant takes a hard left-handed dribble and pulls up and makes the straightaway 20-foot jumper over Warrick.

- 3:36. Durant sets up in the left corner guarded by Gay, Green posts up Warrick at the right elbow, Earl Watson is in the right corner guarded by Mayo. Westbrook dribbles up to the top of the arc, guarded by Kyle Lowry, and makes the entry pass into Green, then runs down to the right corner and sets a screen on Mayo, forcing Lowry to switch onto Watson while Mayo chases Westbrook along the baseline up to the left corner, which Durant is in the process of vacating. Watson runs back up along the arc and gets the ball at the right wing from Green as Green screens Lowry, while on the weak side Durant runs up to the left wing while Wilcox moves down to the left elbow and Westbrook arrives at the left corner. Wilcox picks off Gay as he chases Durant, and Watson passes the ball to Durant at the wing. With Mayo sticking to Lowry in the corner and Gay stuck behind Green, there is a wide open driving lane and Durant doesn't hesitate, taking the ball straight to the hoop and getting fouled by Gasol as he goes up for the shot.

- At 1:45, Durant gets the ball at the right wing, and tries to drive. He loses the handle and the play results in a backcourt violation turnover. This is significant since it's one of the only times in the game he tries to attack from the right side, and it doesn't go well.

- :40, Durant gets the ball in the left post with good position against Gay and quickly turns and shoots and misses badly. I'm assuming he was going for the 2-for-1, because he could have gotten a much better shot if he had taken a little longer.

4th quarter
Durant sits out the first half of the quarter, and comes in at about 6:06 with the Thunder down by 1, 92-91. He spends the fourth quarter in a very small lineup with Jeff Green, Earl Watson, Russell Westbrook, and Desmond Mason.

- 3:20. Durant gets the ball in the low right post, misses a turnaround baseline jumper (there's that right side again).

- The next time down, Durant gets the ball isolated in the left high post, faces up and drives baseline, and gets to the basket easily with a left-handed drive, and is fouled in the act of shooting.

- On the next offensive possession, Durant gets the ball in the exact same position, and again easily faces and drives with his left to the hoop, but this time help arrives and Durant gets called for a charge at the basket.

After that, the Grizzlies turn the ball over and Durant gets fouled in transition. The subsequent free throws put the Thunder up by 7 with 48 seconds left, and after that it is a free throw shooting contest.

The Grizzlies' help defense wasn't great in this game (and even though Durant exclusively drove baseline when he drove, the Grizzlies were unable to shut off the baseline penetration), but it was still possible to see some of the possible advantages to playing Durant in lineups with an extra shooter. A lot of those isolations in the left high post were possible because there was less congestion down low, giving Durant the option of driving or backing his man down to the paint, in addition to taking the shot. Because the Memphis rotations were late most of the time, I didn't get a chance to see how well Durant would pass out of a double team if he got in close to the basket, but that will be key now that Damien Wilkins (shooting 40.9% from 3 this year) is in the lineup with him (in addition to Jeff Green, who is still shooting an impressive 46.9% from 3 this year). In this particular game, Oklahoma City went on runs of 10-0 and 5-0 in the fourth with the small lineup of Durant/Green/Westbrook/Watson/Mason. That won't always work, but it was nice to see the coach giving it a shot. Defensively, Durant might be better equipped to guard forwards instead of guards since he lacks the quickness to do the latter (in this particular game, Durant was able to spend a lot of time guarding Arthur and Buckner, who aren't really offensive threats, and that allowed him to rest/roam on defense. When he did end up matched up against Rudy Gay, he struggled). However, without an extra big in the lineup, Durant will be relied upon more on the defensive glass, and he'll need to improve there in order to make this change work.

On Sunday, the Lakers hosted the Toronto Raptors. I was interested in this game since the Lakers have recently struggled defensively a bit with teams who have bigs who can contribute from outside the paint. Coupled with penetrating guards, these perimeter bigs have drawn the Lakers' shotblockers out of the paint and left it open for smaller guards, exposing the Lakers' inability to stop dribble penetration. These weaknesses were apparent recently in games against Detroit and Sacramento. The Raptors don't have the sort of penetrating guards that would be able to take advantage of the vacated painted area that Detroit (Iverson) and Sacramento (Salmons, Udrih) have, but I thought it would be interesting to watch how the Lakers dealt with Chris Bosh and Andrea Bargnani anyways.

While the Lakers played decent defense overall, they occasionally struggled staying in front of Roko Ukic and repeatedly lost track of Anthony Parker. Altogether, the Lakers allowed 32 points in the paint. But even though I started out watching for guard penetration, what I was most impressed by and distracted by was just how well Andrew Bynum took to the challenge of guarding Chris Bosh.

Bosh has been making a case for himself as an MVP candidate this year, with 27 points and 10 rebounds a game and shooting 54% from the field. But Bynum held Bosh to 12 points on 4-13 shooting, and 4 turnovers in 37 minutes. With help behind him, Bynum kept Bosh out of the paint most of the night (with the exception of a couple of memorable Bosh dribble-drives along the baseline), and challenged shots much farther away from the basket than he's used to. Bosh shot 2 for 8 on shots outside the paint, excluding his lone three-point attempt (which he made), and shot 1 for 4 inside the paint. Some quotes:

And if you like what you saw, credit the Captain with a big assist. After watching Bosh draw a foul against Drew and can a 21-footer in his face in Toronto's early possessions, he gave Bynum some advice during the first time out. Smiled Bynum, "Kareem was like, 'Make sure that you stay within the arm length of him and play his left hand, before he even makes a move, play him on to he left side.' And it worked."

Bosh on the defense:

"They come from that bottom spot and take every pass away except the furthest pass, which is in the corner and the backboard is in the way. I have two seven foot defenders on me. It was very tough."
It remains to be seen how the Lakers will adjust if Bynum is consistently guarding a threat outside the paint and the opposition has a player who can regularly get past the perimeter D, but tomorrow night's matchup against the Pacers might be a nice test. With Rasho Nesterovic and Troy Murphy stretching the floor, T.J. Ford and Danny Granger should find plenty of opportunities to get into the paint without any shot-blockers there to meet them. I would worry specifically about Ford.

An unrelated aside
He's only played 13 games so far, but Devin Harris is averaging 25 points (on 49% shooting), 6.4 assists, and only 2.1 turnovers per game. His offensive efficiency -- 129 points per 100 possessions -- is unheard of for such a high usage (he uses 28.4% of his team's possessions) player. Historically, the only players who've ever kept up anything close to that level of efficiency at such a high usage rate for an entire season are Michael Jordan (1990-91) and Adrian Dantley (1983-84). We can probably expect Harris to come down to earth a little bit at some point, but you might want to keep an eye on him just in case.

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