The net positive of Kevin Martin and the journey we'll all take
There was an awkward moment during Kevin Martin’s press conference that made me pretty curious about his impact on the court. After discussing how Martin felt like he could score 17 or 18 points per game in his sleep and the impact he could have being back in Rick Adelman’s system, someone in the media section asked (and I’m paraphrasing) if Martin was capable of having a big enough impact on offense to make up for a lack of impact on defense.
It was at this point that Flip Saunders talked about defending as a team and how this isn’t a one-on-one league. I fully support this. Regardless of what you want to make out of his short time on the job (and you know how much I love that “intelligent” conversation), what he’s said there is completely true and something that I’ve been saying as soon as we realized this team was going to have Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic as the two big men going forward. While Pek showed a lot of big defensive improvements last year and Love’s defensive missteps are a little overblown (other than when he’s complaining to an official and not getting back on defense, which isn’t as often as people make it out to be but is still too often to be acceptable), their inability to protect the rim means the perimeter defenders have to be pretty good.
And by all accounts, Martin isn’t that good of a defender. In fact, he’s bad enough for a member of the media to ask Flip Saunders in front of Kevin Martin how they’re going to do defensively with Kevin Martin on the court. It made me wonder just what kind of impact Martin has on his teams.
Defensive concerns with this Wolves team are valid. I’m curious how they’ll be able to defend as a team and what type of game plan Adelman will have most nights to get them to defend as a team. I’d imagine a lot of it is simply asking guys to be in help position, build a wall an isolation player will be hesitant to drive into, hedge hard on pick-and-rolls, fight through screens, recover to the middle, and rotate to the shooters. Then use one of the best rebounding big man duos in the NBA to end possessions and start your projected stellar offense the other way.
It sounds simple, and in many ways it kind of is. But it’s also not a guarantee because of potential injuries, guys not fully buying in, and simple tasks in the NBA being hard to complete because of the level of scheming and competition.
I want you guys sitting down for this next bit of analysis because it has been known to blow minds before. Well, you’re likely reading this at a computer and rarely do people stand while they read a computer so I’m pretty sure you’re already sitting. Here we go:
The key for the Wolves winning games this year is scoring more points than their opponents.
That’s some pretty professional analysis right there, but it’s absolutely true. The Wolves will have to defend next season but they technically don’t need to be a top defense or even a defense in the upper half of the league to truly make a splash and compete for the 8th seed in the West. It would be nice and quite helpful if they could remain in the upper half of the league defensively. Last season, the Wolves finished 14th in defensive rating, but their 25th ranked offense failed them too many nights.
Where we’re going to see Martin’s impact on the floor is on the offensive end, and defensively I don’t believe his reputation/production will be all that detrimental on its own.
I decided to go back and look at the net offense and net defense Martin’s teams have had when he’s on the court since the 2007-08 season (picked that season as the starting point because it’s as far back as I could go with detailed on/off numbers that I trust). I wanted to see if his positives with the offensive boost he gives teams were worth more than the negative impact his defense supposedly had when he was on the floor.
Net Positive Chart
Take a look at the chart below. The blue line is the impact he had on offense. It’s measuring the difference between the offensive efficiency when he was on the bench compared to the offensive efficiency his team saw when he was on the floor. The red line is the negative defensive impact he had. While it looks like a positive number, it’s actually a negative number so that we could see if the defensive issues ever outweighed/intersected the offensive production.
As you can see, the good with Martin being on the floor for teams often outweighs the bad and there is a wide range of team profiles to show us that this is pretty much the norm no matter what kind of team Martin is on.
Context for the chart’s numbers
The 2007-08 Sacramento Kings were a pretty decent team. They went 38-44 on the year (not great but hey, 38 wins sounds like a nice way to spend a season at this point) and had the 14th best offense to go with the 26th best defense. They were 5.9 points per 100 possessions worse defensively with Martin on the floor (he played just 61 games) but they were 8.8 points per 100 better on offense. In the games he played, Martin was overall a -1.4 points per 100 possessions when he was on the floor for the season (third best on the team, not counting the 25 games Dahntay Jones gave them).
With the 2008-09 Kings, we saw pretty much the same type of difference with Martin being on the floor, except this time he was on the worst team in the NBA. Those Kings went 17-65 on the year and had the worst defense in the NBA. The offense received a boost of 7.8 points per 100 with Martin on the floor but they were 5.0 points worse defensively when he was out there. The thing here is they were an atrocious defense (109.4) even without Martin on the court but with Martin out there, they were almost unfathomably bad (114.4).
In 2009-10, we saw the worst impact Martin has ever had on a team when he was on the Kings to start the season. I actually covered this Kings team and saw everything first hand. They brought in Tyreke Evans with the fourth pick in the draft and allowed him to do whatever he wanted once they saw some special production with his play. In the process, Martin got pushed out as the offensive focus and pouted a bit more and more as the season went on. The offense was horrendous with him on the court for once (down 4.9 points) and he still had the same negative defensive impact he often does (-4.3).
Eventually, they traded him to the Houston Rockets in a deal that brought back Carl Landry. Once he hit Houston, he seemed rejuvenated by being in Adelman’s system (he played his first two seasons under Adelman, making the playoffs both times) and started showing a bigger impact on his new team than he had on his previous teams. The offense jumped up 6.8 points per 100 while the defense surprisingly improved with Martin on the court (3.8 points).
The next two years were a bit different. The impact Martin had on the 2010-11 Rockets wasn’t as great as when he joined the team via trade the previous season, but he still had that positive net differential when it came to his impact on offense vs. his impact on defense. They jumped 5.9 points on offense and dropped 2.9 points on defense when Martin joined the lineup. The Rockets won 43 games and missed the playoffs by three games as the ninth best record in the West. Adelman was replaced by Kevin McHale as the coach and that’s when we saw Martin’s impact drop quite a bit.
The next year, there was almost zero impact both positive and negative with Martin on the court. Their offense was 0.4 points better with him on the floor and the defense was 0.8 points worse. Martin’s shooting percentages, free throw attempts (partially due to the change in the rip move), and scoring took significant drops under McHale and they were just a solid team with or without Martin on the floor.
Last year in Oklahoma City, Martin joined the Thunder as a pseudo replacement for James Harden. They were a good team with and without him on the floor as they secured the number one seed in the Western Conference. They were stellar defensively when he wasn’t on the floor (97.1) and still really good when he was (101.0). Offensively, the Thunder were good (107.2) without Martin and amazing with him (112.7).
What it all means
Going into last season, we seemed to think that the team was going to be a great offensive squad and have to figure out how to defend. Somehow, everybody was pretty much cool with this because the team was loaded with talent and it looked like the deepest team we’d ever seen for the Wolves. Turns out they were injured all the time, could barely find nine healthy guys on a lot of nights, and defense wasn’t the problem at all. The problem was making shots at an acceptable rate.
For some reason, this season is being treated differently as we start gearing up for training camp. Maybe it’s the worry of being just two years away from Kevin Love opting out and possibly leaving the organization. Maybe we’re starting to worry that all of the losing will eventually mean the loss of Ricky Rubio. Or maybe nine years of missing the playoffs by a wide margin, regardless of the reason for missing the playoffs, has just become too much for one fan base to handle.
I look at this addition of Kevin Martin with more positivity than negativity right now because that’s typically what he brings to the table. He’s had a true shooting percentage over 60% in four of the last six seasons (only going back that far because of the data and chart but it’s actually been more than that). And while defensively he’s not in a defensive stance long enough and just kind of swipes at the ball more than he moves his feet, his offensive production and impact seems to have more weight for his teams.
Aside from the portion of the season he spent with the Rockets after being traded in 2009-10, his impact is usually around three points in terms of being a net positive, according to the chart above. It’s not a huge impact, but it’s enough of an impact to win. The last time he and Chase Budinger played together under Rick Adelman, the team outscored its opponents by 8.3 points per 100 possessions (112.4 on offense, 104.1 on defense). With a lineup of Kyle Lowry, Kevin Martin, Chase Budinger, Luis Scola, and Chuck Hayes (their second most used lineup that season), the Rockets 114.8 points per 100 possessions and gave up 104.4.
That’s not exactly a lineup of stellar defenders. It’s a really good defensive point guard, two wings with inconsistent defense, a sleek scoring power forward who isn’t regarded as a good defender, and a rock of a center who is good at pushing people out of position but isn’t a shot-blocker by any means. Does any of that sound familiar with this Wolves team?
There are going to be defensive problems for the Wolves this year if they don’t all buy in and play smart team defense most of the time. But maybe the offensive production and impact that someone like Kevin Martin has on a team will end up being a positive. The Wolves will need to find a way to remain a middle of the pack defense (probably no lower than 18 or 19) while trying to shoot up into the top 10 in offensive efficiency. If that’s the case, this team might not see a decade straight of missing the playoffs.