Thursday, August 26, 2010

LeBron James vs. Kevin Durant: Public Enemies & Public Opinion in the Global Arena

After Kevin Durant led Team USA to an 86-85 win over Spain, Henry Abbott of TrueHoop suggested he could be a more traditional superstar for fans to embrace if they have “soured on the new breed powerbroker LeBron James”. Fans and writers can argue all day about the differences in how LeBron and Durant handled their contract extensions but I’m more interested in how they compare on the court. Has Durant’s summer with Team USA lived up to the hype so far? Has his play against international competition in 2010 been comparable to LeBron’s run in 2008? Hell no! Despite Durant’s advantages in public opinion, he can’t see LeBron or his Public Enemies when it comes to production against international competition. Follow me as I break it down using the statistical model for Win Score and estimated Wins Produced (EWP) developed by Prof. David Berri from the Wages of Wins Journal. All of the stats in this post came from boxscore analysis of Team USA in 2008 and 2010.

Team USA Leaves Spain Thunderstruck
Durant was hailed for his performance against Spain last Sunday and I can’t knock his hustle in that game.  Besides the two blocks that saved the game, he was also the most productive player on the floor with an estimated wins produced of .529 in 36.6 minutes. Durant’s estimated wins produced per 40 minutes (EWP40) was .578 against Spain – more than 5 times better than the average player would be expected to produce in the game (average EWP40 is .100). While Durant was great, Russell Westbrook’s performance got lost in the hype. Westbrook was the most productive player for Team USA on a per-minute basis with an EWP40 of .658 against Spain. With such a high rate of productivity, Westbrook was able to be the second-most productive player for Team USA with .214 EWP in just 13 minutes of playing time. In fact, the Oklahoma City Thunder teammates were the only above average players for Team USA in the game. Figure 1 illustrates the EWP40 and EWP for both teams.
Figure 1 - Team USA vs. Spain, 8/22/10
[click figure to enlarge]

Global Warming: Heat Beats Thunder
Kevin Durant did his thing against Spain but was his performance worthy of comparison to LeBron? As Figure 2 illustrates, the answer is, “Hell, yeah.”

Figure 2 - Comparison of Durant & LBJ vs. Spain
[click figure to enlarge]
Against Spain, Durant was more than worthy of a LeBron comparison. When I said he couldn’t “see LeBron’s production” maybe it’s because he can’t see behind him. Durant outplayed LeBron in the areas of scoring, rebounding, turnovers, shot-blocking and fouls which resulted in a higher level of overall productivity but the margin is not as large as the table makes it seem. The position adjustment for LeBron is double the adjustment for Durant because the average forward in the 2008 games against Spain was more productive than the average forward in the 2010 game. For example, Rudy Fernandez played guard in 2008, but Durant was able to exploit a matchup with him at forward in 2010. Carmelo Anthony and Tayshaun Prince also played better than Andre Iguodala and Rudy Gay, which raised the average productivity at forward. If LeBron played with, and against, the same talent as Durant, then his EWP40 would increase from .217 to .491 which brings him a lot closer to Durant’s .578 EWP40. But this is where LeBron’s South Beach advantage comes into play. While his productivity trails Durant, Public Enemy No. 3 surpasses it by nearly the same margin. Durant was better at free-throw shooting, rebounding, turnovers and shot-blocking but still trailed Wade’s .649 EWP40 because he couldn’t match the efficiency and volume of his scoring. Basically, Dwyane Wade is like the Wu-Tang Clan - he ain’t nothing to fuck wit’.

So Durant's play against Spain was more than comparable to LeBron’s but does it continue to measure up if other common opponents are considered? There were four common opponents between the 2008 Olympic schedule and the 2010 exhibition schedule – China, Lithuania, Spain and Greece. The differences between the common opponents’ 2008 and 2010 rosters are as follows:

  • China – Five players on 2010 roster played 50% of available minutes against Team USA in 2008 and 60% of available minutes against Team USA in 2010
  • Lithuania – Five players on 2010 roster played 40% of available minutes against Team USA in 2008 and 2010
  • Spain – Eight players on 2010 roster played 71% of available minutes against Team USA in 2008 and 83% of available minutes against Team USA in 2010
  • Greece – Six players on 2010 roster played 61% of available minutes against Team USA in 2008 and 69% of available minutes against Team USA in 2010

Despite roster changes, both versions of Team USA played significant chunks of time against the same players on China, Lithuania, Spain and Greece. Figure 3 compares Durant’s productivity versus those teams to the Public Enemies’ productivity in 2008.

Figure 3 - Durant & LBJ vs. Common Opponents
[click figure to enlarge]

When the analysis is expanded to common opponents, things get complicated. On the surface, Durant’s performance appears to be comparable to Lebron’s against common opponents. Durant still scored more points than LeBron but was much less efficient with an adjusted shooting percentage 20 points lower than The King. Durant also maintained a significant advantage in turnovers and on the boards, but once again the position adjustment comes into play. If Durant faced the same competition as LeBron, then his EWP40 would drop from .350 to .197. As for the rest of the Public Enemies, forget about it. Wade and Bosh posted insane shooting percentages and an EWP40 that was more than .400 and .200 points higher than Durant.

If the public opinion follows TrueHoop’s suggestion of Durant, then the public won’t be getting a “traditional” superstar, according to Wins Produced. Typically, a superstar would be considered a player with an EWP40 greater than .300. Durant is on the threshold of superstardom with a .285 EWP40 and led Team USA with 1.3 Est. Wins Produced (EWP) after seven scrimmages and exhibition games this summer. But once again, his per-minute productivity was surpassed by his Thunder teammate. Russell Westbrook is the only player on the Team USA roster with more than 100 minutes that has actually produced like a superstar with .320 EWP40 and 1.0 EWP (honorable mentions go to Eric Gordon with .299 EWP40 and .8 EWP in 100.8 minutes and Kevin Love with .671 EWP40 and .9 EWP in just 55.3 minutes).  As Team USA begins the quest for its first gold medal in the World Championships in 16 years, Durant could simultaneously stand at the threshold of greatness and in the shadow of the international thrones for the Three Kings in Miami. In 13 games (from the first exhibition to the gold medal), the Public Enemies produced as follows:

  • LeBron James - .372 EWP40 and 2.8 Est. Wins Produced
  • Dwyane Wade - .653 EWP40 and 4.1 Est. Wins Produced
  • Chris Bosh - .494 EWP40 and 2.5 Est. Wins Produced

So the public can hate on the Heat all it wants, but they’re only cheating themselves. And if the Heat and Thunder meet next summer (like some bloggers hope), then it could be a matchup between the five best players from USA Basketball in the last two years but the Public Enemies will probably transfer their dominance abroad into infamy at home and the public will have to find a new fan favorite next summer. So get down or lay down – the Heat is coming.

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