The Fundamentals: How Kevin Durant, other proven vets are handling bigger roles
• Per-minute production, a fairly basic measure of performance, can’t account for very real factors such as fatigue, scouting, lineup fit and quality of competition. Rarely is it quite as simple as extrapolating a player’s production per 36 minutes over 36 actual minutes per game, leaving a void between that simple system of projection and reality.
There are exceptions, of course, and Andre Drummond is among the most notable. The Detroit center’s rookie season was 60 games of intrigue: an outrageous line of 13.8 points (on 60.8 percent shooting), 13.2 rebounds, 2.8 blocks, and 1.7 steals per 36 minutes, doled out in portions of merely 20.7 minutes per game by then-coach Lawrence Frank. Drummond, 20, is playing much more under Mo Cheeks this season — his minutes are up to 32.5 — while maintaining the same, ridiculous per-minute standards. Drummond’s function within the offense remains relatively small, but that jump alone brings the sophomore big man within range for All-Star consideration.
• It’s a delight to see a player as unapologetically joyful as Leandro Barbosa back in the league, particularly after he looked to have played his way out as a Celtic last season. That was an ACL tear ago, and while Barbosa’s defense remains a problem, he’s done remarkably well for a player signed in a pinch. Phoenix needed precisely what Barbosa has been able to provide: a sound 10 points and 2.4 assists per game with few turnovers. What makes Barbosa so unusual among minimum-salary types, though, is his capacity to create offense for himself. Eighty percent of Barbosa’s field goals have been unassisted, an impossibly high mark for a player picked up from Brazil midseason.
• Gordon Hayward’s offensive efficiency has dipped this season, but worry not: Most every indicator on the board seems to suggest that he’ll be just fine once he stabilizes into a form-fitting role. For one, spot-up three-point shooting was a big part of Hayward’s game last season, and this year’s Jazz simply don’t have the means to support him in that way. Rookie point guard Trey Burke is capable of driving and drawing bits of defensive attention, but nothing on par with the help thrown at since-departed big men Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap last year. Beyond that, Hayward has largely been left to his own devices as a creator, where his skills are very evidently a work in progress.
Along those same lines, it’s not all that surprising that Hayward’s turnovers have increased since assuming a larger role, particularly with how often he’s been handling the ball in pick-and-roll situations. Utah only dabbled with using Hayward off the dribble last season, which effectively steepened the slope of his learning curve as he looks to create for a lesser team. One of two things will happen: Either Hayward will stop committing turnovers on almost a quarter of his pick-and-roll possessions (per Synergy Sports), or he’ll stop being used in that manner.
NOTES FROM AROUND THE ASSOCIATION
1. The haze of Philadelphia’s chaos
Of all the players to assume more responsibility with their respective teams this season, I find myself most leery of Philadelphia’s Evan Turner. There’s no question that the fourth-year guard is playing better; he seems to have a better grasp of his own abilities and is channeling his off-the-dribble game in interesting ways. But the outright insanity that is the Sixers’ offense makes everything a bit difficult to gauge, especially the work of one of the team’s primary ball handlers. I don’t write off those putting up good numbers on bad teams as a rule, but contextually Philadelphia is unusual enough to inspire some doubt.
No teams employs a style more fast and loose than this. With all that freedom, Turner has posted some minor personal bests. But he’s still fundamentally a player best served by having the ball in his hands who can’t maximize a team’s scoring chances when in control. He still neither thrives around the basket nor from beyond the arc, and his career high in free-throw attempts is under suspicion given the Sixers’ transition-heavy bent. Turner was already a weird player, but to put him in an offense this idiosyncratic makes it all the more challenging to read the tea leaves of his performance.
2. Timofey Mozgov finds footing in Denver’s imaginary depth chart
The Nuggets’ three-year, $14 million offseason deal for Mozgov was odd at the time and remains curious. But Mozgov has worked his way into a nice role through effort plays and low-risk decisions, earning an impressive 20.1 minutes in one of the most erratic rotations in the NBA. Seriously: Anyone who manages to play that much for Brian Shaw deserves the utmost respect, as it is only they who have cracked the code. Things might be very different if JaVale McGee were healthy, but Mozgov has done rather well under the circumstances to give Denver a conventional, rotation-worthy presence at center — something of a surrogate Kosta Koufos.
3. Holding the reins tight with Jonas Valanciunas
Toronto has been taking things slow with Valanciunas in his first two seasons, but I can’t say I mind the patience much. Valanciunas’ absence seems glaring at times, and at other times he appears to be held to different standards from other Raptor big men. But I also think there’s something valuable in a coaching staff setting objectives for young players and holding them accountable — which seems to be the situation here. This isn’t a player flailing against some arbitrary expectation, but a case of coach Dwane Casey expecting certain things form Valanciunas that he has yet to perfect, such as defensive positioning.
The 21-year-old big man is still averaging 28 minutes, up four from last season. He’s still used in a variety of situations, has started every game he’s played this year and is an active contributor to the Raptors’ success. Valanciunas’ time will come, and by the time it does I suspect the fact that he assumed a prominent role gradually will be to his benefit.
4. A public inquiry regarding the future of the Milwaukee Bucks
Just a thought: If John Henson and Larry Sanders are going to be fixtures of the Bucks’ frontcourt (and, hey, maybe they’re not), might it be a good idea to play them more than 36 minutes — a tenth of Sanders’ total minutes this season — together?
5. The history of Samuel Dalembert repeats itself
Dalembert had a clear opportunity to play big minutes in a primary role for the center-deprived Mavericks this season, but let’s not pretend as if his failure to do so is at all unexpected. After all, Rick Carlisle is but the third coach in two seasons whom Dalembert has rubbed the wrong way. Those who expect consistent effort from their bigs (as was the case with Scott Skiles and Jim Boylan in Milwaukee) are bound to be disappointed by Dalembert’s flightiness, which has been a problem in most every one of his basketball stops. This is just who he is and what he does, and yet as long as there is some team desperate for size, he will continue to gain meaningful — and profitable — NBA employ.
Statistical support for this post provided by NBA.com and Synergy Sports.