Top 50: Kevin Martin, no. 41
The definitive ranking of the NBA’s best players.
by John Krolik
Alright, Let’s start out by playing one of these games. (TS=”True Shooting,” a FG% stat that takes threes and free throws into effect, TO=”Turnover Rate,” the percentage of a player’s possessions that end in a turnover.)
Player A: 24.6 PPG/3.6 RPG/2.7 APG/60% TS/11% TO/38 MPG
Player B: 25.3 PPG/6.5 RPG/2.8 APG/58% TS/11% TO/39 MPG
Player A is the subject of this writeup and #41 on SLAM’s list, Mr. Kevin Martin. Player B is Kevin Durant. (Spoiler alert: Durant is a good bit higher than this on SLAM’s list.) Now, before I ruffle any feathers, Durant is a lot younger than Martin, and has only been in the league for two years, has a ton more upside left while Martin seems to have just about topped out, and has a much more intriguing collection of tools. And Martin only played in 51 games last year. But look at those numbers again. There’s no cherry-picking in there (in fact, +/- based statistics are much less favorable to Durant), and apart from rebounding the numbers are nearly identical.
So why is Kevin Durant who he is and Kevin Martin who he is? Well, on just about every possible level, Durant is a more traditionally appealing player. His college pedigree is worlds more exciting, he’s the cornerstone of an exciting young franchise, he was a #2 overall pick, his skill-set and size are nearly unprecedented, and he’s fundamentally a gorgeous player to watch. Meanwhile, Martin spent three years at Western Carolina University, often wasn’t acknowledged as the best player on some atrocious Kings teams, and looks like he should be on a high school freshman team.
But more than anything, Martin’s game is just, for lack of a better word, weird. And not Lamar Odom “I scoff at your notion of positions” cool-weird; Martin’s game is just funky to look at. He’s obviously not very physically imposing, isn’t very explosive at all, doesn’t have a slick handle, doesn’t really even appear to have go-to moves from midrange, and he has a bizarre, left-leaning jumper. With his wonky game and his pedestrian 42% field goal percentage, it’s easy to miss just how amazingly good of a scorer Martin is.
Martin, along with Durant, might be the best pure scorer in the game in terms of combining scoring volume with scoring efficiency. Martin seldom explodes for a gigantic scoring night, but his 23.2 points per game last year was good for 6th in the league, the same spot he occupied in 2007-08.
But it’s Martin’s True Shooting, the best indicator of scoring efficiency available, that’s really incredible- his 60% TS last season is almost unprecedented for someone who scores as much as he does. Even more amazingly, that mark was Martin’s lowest TS since his rookie season, and a big step down from his last two seasons, when he recorded marks of 61.4% and 61.8%. Overall, Martin has the 2nd-highest career TS among all active players, trailing only Brent Barry.
To be completely clear: 60% TS for a #1 option is INSANE. LeBron’s never cracked 60%. Neither has Kobe, whose career high is 58% and average is 56%. Wade’s never done it. The last season MJ did it was the 1990-91 campaign.
Martin is a great scorer not because of superior skills but through a carefully crafted strategy to get points in the most efficient way possible. In a lot of ways, the best comparison for Martin isn’t a basketball player at all, but baseball’s Adam Dunn. Dunn is an athletically unexciting player with some serious holes in his game, but he’s a stat geek darling because of his ability to focus his hitting approach on hitting home runs and drawing walks-he’s long been one of the most statistically effective hitters in baseball despite his career batting average of .250.
Martin, as was mentioned, only had a field goal percentage of 42% last season, but is a ridiculously efficient scorer because of his focus on two of the most efficient ways to get baskets possible-from beyond the arc and at the free-throw line.
First, the threes. Most high-volume scorers in the NBA shoot many more mid-range jumpers than three-pointers, because it’s much easier to get a good look from midrange than three-point range when you’re the focus of an offense. However, statistically speaking, three-point jumpers are almost universally more efficient than mid-range jumpers, to a degree that would astound most fans. Jason Terry led the league last year by making 49.2% of his mid-range jumpers; effectively, that percentage is the equivalent of shooting 32.8 from beyond the arc, which is right around where Nate Robinson and Stephen Jackson shot from deep last season. So, over time, shooting threes is almost always a more efficient play than shooting midrange jumpers, but most players who score as much as Martin end up shooting a much higher proportion of mid-range jumpers than threes:
Dirk Nowitzki: 74% of overall attempts from midrange/10% of attempts from three
Kobe Bryant: 59%/19%
Dwyane Wade: 49%/15%
Chris Paul: 59%/14%
Kevin Durant: 56%/16%
Brandon Roy: 48%/16%
Carmelo Anthony: 50%/14%
In contrast, Martin’s ratio of midrange jumpers to threes is 45%/34%. Among high-volume wing scorers, really only Danny Granger has that kind of split, with a 42%/35% proportion of mid-range jumpers to threes. Taking such a high proportion of threes, and making them at an impressive 41.5% clip (the equivalent of shooting 62% from midrange), is one reason why Martin is a much more efficient scorer than anybody realizes.
But as nice as the threes are, the key to Kevin Martin’s effectiveness is definitely his incredible ability to draw fouls. Martin was fouled on an unbelievable 21% of his field goal attempts last season; Only Dwight Howard, Marc Gasol, Shaq, Gerald Wallace, and Devin Harris were fouled at a higher rate. (LeBron was at 19%, Wade was at 17%, Roy was at 14%, Durant was at 13%, and Bryant was at 12%, for some points of reference.)
Again, there’s absolutely nothing pretty about this part of Martin’s game-he goes past his man and drives directly into a defender near the basket, his 185-pound frame goes flying, and he gets the benefit of a whistle. Some think of it as boring, others think of it as downright underhanded, but the fact is that it’s an extremely effective way to put points on the scoreboard. Of course, the joke of the thing is that Martin isn’t even that great of a finisher if he doesn’t get fouled-he only made 47% of his layups last season, and only got 3.4 points per game on “inside” shots, while he got a full 9 points per game from the line. (A word of advice-if the Kings manage to get good in the near future and play your favorite team in a big game, put away all heavy objects, full bottles, significant others, or anything you find valuable. Kevin Martin will drive you absolutely insane. You will think the refs are absolutely insane that night. But realize that Martin gets those calls every single night, by design.)
The ability to draw fouls is a lot like the ability to draw walks in baseball-it’s unexciting, nobody really keeps track of it seriously, and fouls are seen as just as much of a mistake by the defense as a product of offensive skill. But it’s an important, even vital, skill in the NBA, and it often separates the good scorers from the chuckers. And nobody has mastered the undignified art of drawing contact in the NBA like Kevin Martin.
However, there is a downside to Martin’s offbeat effectiveness. Martin, as much as anyone else in the NBA, has turned efficient individual scoring into an absolute science. But basketball isn’t baseball, and can’t be broken down into individual matchups as easily. There’s a reason most scorers don’t base their games around threes and free throws; it’s almost impossible to get other players involved in the offense when the #1 option is shooting from beyond the arc, thus shooting before the defense has to adjust, or trying to draw a foul, where the goal is to go directly into the adjusting defense. Martin’s passing stats reflect this; his career assist % (defined by basketball-reference.com as the percentage of a teammate’s field goals a player assisted while he was on the floor) is an abysmal 10.3%, which is almost unheard of from a perimeter player who has the ball in his hands as much as Martin does.
In my last one of these, we considered the riddle of Baron Davis, who can lead a very good team and can change the flow of a 10-man game with the best of them, but struggles mightily when asked to play a one-on-one game. Martin is the opposite paradox: what do you do with a player who doesn’t have the skills that offenses are built around, but is way, way too good to be considered a role player? In a perfect world, Martin would come off the bench, where it wouldn’t be a problem that Martin was taking shots away from the other 4 players on the floor with him. However, Martin’s just too good for that; an offense of Kevin Martins would have been the most efficient offense in the league last season. (By the way, all of this applies to Kevin Durant, whose assist statistics are just as bad as Martin’s and is also a perimeter player who is the cornerstone of an offense.)
It’s really unprecedented for an effective offense to be built around a perimeter player as passing-adverse as Martin-Kobe’s career assist % is, at 23.6%, more than double Martin and Durant’s, and MJ’s career assist percentage is 24.9%. And they played in the triangle, where they were less responsible for creating shots for others than most #1 perimeter options. To find the last instance of something like this working, you have to go all the way back to the days of Dominique Wilkins and Bernard King, and the game’s changed a lot since then. Durant, with his more traditional game, still has a chance to grow into someone who can create enough opportunities for others to build an effective offense around; with Martin’s reliance on the three and the free-throw line, I’m not sure how it’s going to be possible.
So there’s Kevin Martin. He’s a lot better than most people think he is, and I mean a whole lot better, but he also probably doesn’t quite have the impact on a game that his numbers say he should.
• Rankings are based solely on projected ’09-10 performance.
• Contributors to this list include: Jake Appleman, Brett Ballantini, Russ Bengtson, Toney Blare, Shannon Booher, Myles Brown, Franklyn Calle, Gregory Dole, Emry DowningHall, Jonathan Evans, Adam Fleischer, Jeff Fox, Sherman Johnson, Aaron Kaplowitz, John Krolik, Holly MacKenzie, Ryne Nelson, Chris O’Leary, Ben Osborne, Alan Paul, Susan Price, Sam Rubenstein, Khalid Salaam, Kye Stephenson, Adam Sweeney, Vincent Thomas, Tzvi Twersky, Justin Walsh, Joey Whelan, Eric Woodyard, and Nima Zarrabi.
• Want more of the SLAMonline Top 50? Check out the archive.