Greg Oden or Kevin Durant?

Posted on April 2, 2009 by

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Two years ago this was the question. Both the Memphis Grizzlies and Boston Celtics – the two teams with the worst records in the NBA – were dreaming of Greg Oden and Kevin Durant.  And accusations were flying that at least the Celtics were doing whatever they could to land one of these two talents.  Unfortunately, the lottery gods failed to smile on Memphis or Boston.  After the lottery balls stopped bouncing, neither team was able to land one of the top two slots in the draft. 

Boston and Memphis after the Lottery

Despite this misfortune, one could argue that both of these franchises did better – at least in 2007-08 — than the teams that won the lottery.  The Boston Celtics – who had the fifth choice in the 2007 draft – used that selection to trade for Ray Allen.  The acquisition of Allen led to the trade of Kevin Garnett, and in 2008 Garnett led the Celtics to the NBA championship.

An NBA championship remains a distant dream for Memphis fans.  The Grizzlies won only 22 games in 2006-07 and matched that record last year.  In 2008-09 the team has 20 victories after 74 games, so the team doesn’t appear to be any better (and in terms of efficiency differential it’s actually getting worse).  But if we focus just on the 2007-08 campaign, the Grizzlies did better in the draft than the two teams that actually ended up paying Oden and Durant.  With the fourth selection the Grizzlies took Mike Conley.  Conley finished last season with 1.5 Win Produced.  Although this level of production is quite low, it was actually more than twice the combined production of Durant and Oden.

This year Conley is even better.  After 74 games Conley has produced 6.7 wins (only Marc Gasol with 6.8 Wins Produced has more on the Grizzlies).  And with a WP48 [Wins Produced per 48 minutes] of 0.147, it appears the Conley is developing into a sold NBA player.

Despite Conley’s rookie year production (again, double what Oden and Durant did together) and his leap forward his sophomore campaign, one suspects most fans of Memphis would rather have Durant or Oden today. And the numbers – at least the Wins Produced numbers — agree.

Oden and Durant in 2007-08

It should be noted, again, that Durant and Oden didn’t offer much in 2007-08.  Obviously Oden offered nothing since he was hurt the entire season.  Durant did actually play. But despite being named Rookie of the Year and nearly being a unanimous choice for the All-Rookie team (selected by the coaches), Durant’s play – as detailed in Kevin Durant was not the Best Rookie — did not result in many wins.   When the season was over Durant had only produced 0.7 wins with a 0.012 WP48.

The initial returns on Durant and Oden contradicted the pre-draft hype.  And these returns also contradicted the college numbers these players posted (see Looking Back at the NBA Draft, Part Two). 

The sophomore years of these two players, though, remind us why teams were so anxious to acquire the services of of these two players.

Oden and Durant in 2008-09

Let’s start the 2008-09 story with Durant.

Table One: The Oklahoma City Thunder after 74 games in 2008-09

As Table One indicates, after 74 games the Thunder players have combined to produce 23.3 wins.  Of these, 9.6 of these Wins Produced can be credited to Kevin Durant. And his 0.178 WP48 suggests that Durant is now one of the better small forwards in the NBA.

Before we get to Oden, we should note that Jeff Green — the player the Thunder took with the Celtics 5th pick in 2007 – has also improved.  Unfortunately, he’s still below average.  The below average story would also be told about most players in Oklahoma.  Once you get past Durant, of the eleven players who logged at least 500 minutes, only Nick Collison has been above average.  This is why, despite the play of Durant, the Thunder are still not very good.

A different story is told about the Portland Trail Blazers.  Portland is currently second to the Lakers in the Western Conference (albeit a distant second) in Efficiency Differential (offensive efficiency minus defensive efficiency).  When we look at the individual players – reported in Table Two – we can see why Portland is likely to win 50 games this year.

Table Two: The Portland Trail Blazers after 74 games in 2008-09

Like the Thunder, eleven Blazers have logged at least 500 minutes.  Unlike the Thunder, though, the majority of these Blazers – six to be exact – have posted above average WP48 marks (none of these are named LaMarcus Aldridge).  One of these above average players is Greg Oden.  Injuries have caused Oden to miss 21 games.  Despite missing nearly one-third of the season, Oden has produced 4.8 wins and posted a 0.199 WP48.

Answering the Question Today

So Oden and Durant are above average.  But let’s go back to the original question.  Who would a team rather employ today? 

If we look at Table Three we can see why Durant and Oden are so productive in 2008-09.  Durant has improved with respect to shooting efficiency and rebounds.  Oden is not quite as efficient a scorer as Durant and he has a real problem with personal fouls. But Oden is extremely good on the boards.

 Table Three: Comparing Kevin Durant and Greg Oden

Despite Oden’s per-minute performance, though, he still has trouble staying on the court.  And until he shows that he is going to play on a regular basis, Durant might be the better player to employ going forward.

Let me close this discussion by responding to one of the reactions people had to my many previous comments (listed below) on Durant. 

July 17, 2007: Disappointing Durant

July 21, 2007: Durant Disappoints Again

October 31, 2007: Will Kevin Durant Be the Best Rookie?

November 16, 2007: Choosing the Best Rookie in November

November 27, 2007: Evaluating Future Stars in Baseball and Basketball

November 28, 2007: The Top Rookies, Again

November 29, 2007: Re-Hashing Durant, Melo, and Stack

December 31, 2007: Should the Rookie of the Year Help His Team Win More Games?

February 13, 2008: The Assistant Coaches Choose the Best?

March 25, 2008: Horford Also Tops Durant in March

Many people (well, at least a couple) looked at my evaluations of Durant as a rookie and argued that someday Durant would prove me wrong.  But that is not possible. 

Okay, let me clarify.  It is possible that I could be wrong.  But on this issue…the future performance of Durant cannot change what he did in the past.

The data from Durant’s rookie season is quite clear (see Table Three above).  Durant did not play well as a rookie.  And if the Rookie of the Year is based on what a player does as a rookie (which seems obvious to me), then Durant should not have been given this award (or named to the All-Rookie first team by the coaches). 

We now see, though, that Durant’s numbers have changed.  So is it a contradiction to say Durant is “good” now but “not good” last year?  I think it’s important to emphasize that the evaluations posted last year were statements about how Durant was playing in 2007-08 (a point made last year).  And the evaluation based on this year’s numbers is simply a statement about this year’s performance.  What these two evaluations tell us is that Durant has clearly improved. 

This improvement, though, does not change what happened last year.  No matter what Durant does the rest of his career, his production from his rookie season will remain below average.  And I will continue to think Durant should not have been Rookie of the Year.

One last note… David Biderman had a nice story on NBA assists in the Wall Street Journal (which quotes a certain economist at Southern Utah).  My post on Sunday will be on this column (at least, that is the plan at the moment).

– DJ

The WoW Journal Comments Policy

Our research on the NBA was summarized HERE.

The Technical Notes at wagesofwins.com provides substantially more information on the published research behind Wins Produced and Win Score

Wins Produced, Win Score, and PAWSmin are also discussed in the following posts:

Simple Models of Player Performance

Wins Produced vs. Win Score

What Wins Produced Says and What It Does Not Say

Introducing PAWSmin — and a Defense of Box Score Statistics

Finally, A Guide to Evaluating Models contains useful hints on how to interpret and evaluate statistical models.

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