Durant's Sonics Earn First Win Versus Listless HeatMiami Heat Coach Pat Riley did not mince words about his team's effort on Wednesday after the Seattle Supersonics earned their first win of the season with a 104-95 victory over his squad: "I don't see a team that really feels like they have anything at stake here. They come out and play, they get beat, they go home. They go into the night...People who don't think they should ever be benched might have to be benched to turn this thing around." Who exactly might Riley be talking about? Starting shooting guard Ricky Davis did much shooting but little guarding or making (19 points on 5-18 shooting); starting point guard Jason Williams had one assist while scoring 14 points on 5-13 shooting; swingman Penny Hardaway knows how to play but his body will no longer permit him to do so (two points on 1-6 shooting, four assists); Shaquille O'Neal is in perpetual foul trouble (four fouls in 16 minutes) and is too old, too out of shape, too hurt or too "all of the above" to be dominant (10 points on 4-4 shooting, three rebounds). Has there ever been a championship team that retained its two star players and had a quicker, steeper fall from grace?
While Miami is crashing toward an inevitable rebuilding project, Seattle expects to soon be a team on the rise, powered by first round draft picks Kevin Durant and Jeff Green. The Sonics led the Heat by 20 at halftime in Miami, which should have been deeply embarrassing to the Heat but, as Riley indicated, the players no longer seem to have any pride (or feel any shame, to be more precise) about their performances. Durant scored 18 points but shot just 6-16 from the field and had as many turnovers as rebounds (five each). In 33 minutes he had just one assist. Yes, Durant has some obvious physical skills, skills which apparently cause non-stop drooling among television announcers and other members of the media, but it is not clear why it is seemingly forbidden to mention a couple very obvious facts about Durant: he is shooting a very poor percentage and his well-advertised all-around game has yet to show up in the NBA. Durant's rookie season is more than 10% over and he has yet to have a significant impact in the won/loss column or in any individual statistical category other than field goal attempts; he has jacked up 173 shots in nine games, the fifth most in the league--and he ranks second in field goal attempts per minute. That, combined with his .382 shooting from the field, makes his 20 ppg average less impressive than it may seem to be at first glance.
All of the observations and predictions that I made about Durant's game during the summer league have been validated so far: I pointed out that he seems to be below average in every area other than free throw percentage and that even that will be of limited value right now because he is not going to draw a lot of fouls in regular season play; I concluded that Durant would need to attempt a lot of shots to average 20 ppg as a rookie, that he would not attempt a lot of free throws, that his floor game would not be great and that he would commit a lot of turnovers due to his high dribble. Sure enough, Durant is averaging 4.9 rpg, 1.8 apg, 1.3 spg and .8 bpg--very pedestrian numbers for such a highly touted player. He has only attempted 41 free throws; his free throw percentage (.780) is good but hardly exceptional and his three point percentage (.302) is not great. Durant is also 10th in the league in turnovers per game (3.44), which is a high number for a shooting guard who is essentially a catch and shoot player; his low apg and free throws attempted numbers show that he is not producing a lot for his team off of the dribble to compensate for how much he loses the ball.
Durant appeared on TNT's halftime show during the first game of Thursday's doubleheader and made a couple interesting comments. One, he admitted that everything about playing in the NBA is harder than he expected, including getting open to shoot and trying to get rebounds. Two, he said that the NBA game is much faster than he expected based on watching games on TV. The latter is something that casual fans--and even great college players like Durant--don't understand about the NBA unless they see some games in person: NBA players are much faster (and bigger and stronger and more skilled) than they may appear to be on TV. Without seeing the players in person it is difficult to gauge their size and speed because they are all so big and so fast that on TV these traits tend to be obscured; in person you realize just how big these guys are and just how fast they are moving.
Durant may very well blossom into a great player at some point--but he clearly is not one now. The Sonics have done him a disservice by placing so much on his shoulders so soon (by getting rid of All-Stars Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis) and the media has compounded the problem by continuing to call him a "sensation" when in reality he is a talented college player who is struggling to adjust to the NBA game. It is true that it takes a certain amount of talent to even get off 20 shots in an NBA game but that level of talent should be a given for the second overall pick in the draft. Instead of making assumptions about how great Durant is going to become, why can't we just let his development take its natural course?
It is far too early to say what kind of career Durant will have, so I won't make the same mistake that the breathless commentators have. All that I have predicted regarding Durant is what kind of game he would display during his rookie year and so far my prediction has been closer to the truth than any others that I have heard or seen.
posted by David Friedman @ 3:59 AM