Kevin Martin's personal coach, David Thorpe, was at Arco Arena on Wednesday night.
It was a rare appearance that just so happened to coincide with the Kings shooting guard hitting 1 of 10 shots and mustering just five points in what was easily his worst game of the season.
So, I asked Martin in joking fashion afterward, was Thorpe the bad luck charm?
"He's been here plenty of nights when I've played well," Martin shot back.
He's done more than that, though. Thorpe - who heads the Pro Training Center in Bradenton, Fla. and is also an ESPN.com analyst - has been with Martin since the virtual beginning, back at Western Carolina college when so few knew what Martin would become. He's worked with him for six years (which is loosely-referenced here) and knows his game like no other. Thorpe, who was in town to analyze Seattle rookie Kevin Durant for ESPN and can be read here, was nice enough to sit down for a lengthy chat about his client. With no space limits on the World Wide Web, it's the rare Q&A that is published in its entirety for the most hardcore of hoops fanatics.
Question: It’s been well-chronicled by myself and others around the country how much you and Kevin work together during the off-season, but what are you looking to help with during a mid-season visit like this?
Answer: Probably not so much on this trip, but – in general – one of the things Kevin likes me to do is really give him direct analysis on his play, literally on a shot by shot basis. Yesterday at lunch, Kevin said, ‘I know I took a couple shots in the last game that you didn’t love.’ And he was wrong, actually. I only didn’t like one of his shots. He did a left hand, one-dribble, top of the key three that he’s going to make about twice in his career. And it’s a stupid shot. He shouldn’t shoot it. But he wants that.
I think he feels like his coaches here do such a great job with everything, but they’ve got to worry about a lot of guys. They’re probably not going to criticize every single play, but Kevin loves that. He wants direct feedback.
I’m here talking about the quality of the shots he’s getting, how hard he’s working to get better shots. One of the things Kevin wants to be is a better playmaker, so I’ll watch games and look for opportunities where I think he could maybe do a better job of being an all-around playmaker, especially when defenses orient towards him more.
We talk a lot about defensive intensity, how to play better defense, and he’s as open to criticism as any player I’ve coached in 20 years.
Question: The numbers speak for themselves this year. But as a guy who knows his game inside and out and knows him as a person inside and out, break this year down a little bit for me.
Answer: Outside of the groin injury, I would say it’s gone as scripted. We got together a lot this summer on the court, talked even more on the phone about the kind of year he wanted to have and making the impact everywhere. In some cases, I think he has a lot of room to improve on in regards to leadership. Leadership is defined as breathing spirit into the hearts and minds of others, and I think Kevin’s done an OK job of doing that but he can do much better.
It’s not just about what he does on the court that we have to look at, but we expect growth in all areas. He’s far from his peak athletically. He’s far from his peak as a basketball player, so you can expect general improvement. One thing that I’ve always stressed with Kevin – like I do with every player I coach, whether it’s NBA or European pros – is you should get better at everything. That’s what you should expect out of yourself. You should be a better rebounder, a better passer, a better ballhandler, a smarter player. This is what you should do. It’s no different than me wanting my accountant to be sharper every year and I want my gardener to be better every year. If you’re a pro, you’re a pro. You get better. You’ve got to be a better writer, Sam. I’ve got to be a better analyst. Why should a player be any different? Until your body starts breaking down, and you can literally can’t physically do the things to make you better, then it’s up to you to continue to get better. That’s your job.
Question: He spoke publicly recently about how he has no problem admitting he wants the ball, that he wants a significant role. He hit the game-winning shot against Seattle, and to me – in general – there’s a demeanor about him that wasn’t there a couple of years ago. Have you seen fairly significant strides and a new chapter in his career even in the last couple of weeks?
Answer: Actually, no. I think it’s more of an acceptance from his teammates. I’ve known Kevin six years, and he’s always wanted the shot. He’s never had a problem being ‘The Man.’ In college, he had no choice but to be ‘The Man’ for (Western Carolina) to be even mildly competitive. I think that he was very cognizant of the star power when he first got here. This was a great program with a lot of great players. Why would Kevin come in here and think any different than what he did? Each year, he’s improved as a player and his numbers and production have gone up. There has to be a recognition, equally, from both he and his teammates of shot selection late in game and responsibilities. We’re here tonight watching Seattle play. And you know, Sam, that there’s some thoughts going on because their rookie (Durant) is taking an inordinate amount of shots for a rookie – no matter what pick he was – and veterans have a problem with that. Whether it’s right or wrong, it’s reality.
So I think Kevin’s evolution has gone about as expected when you consider that he wasn’t picked No. 1 like LeBron James, or No. 5 like Dwyane Wade. He’s got to wait his turn and earn his spot, and I think he’s done exactly that.
Question: Are you beyond the stage of shaking your head at the notion that this kid from Western Carolina has reached this level in the league?
Answer: Every once in a while, he and I laugh at what the heck has gone on in both of our lives, really. I was a relatively anonymous – outside of my area – basketball coach who decided to get back into skill development, and things have gone a little crazy for me. He was a skinny dude from Zanesville (Ohio) who’s now one of the best players in the world. But most of the time, I’m not surprised by it.
After the Seattle game, for example, he had that tip-in. Well, he and I do tip drills. And literally, 90-plus percent of my workouts always start with tip drills. It’s just something I do no matter what position you play. I think it’s important to be able to tip the ball in. You never know when you’re going to need to tip the ball in, but you’re not going to be able to do it unless you practice. I texted him after the game and said, ‘Now you understand why we do the tip drills every day in the summer time.’ He wrote back and said, ‘I thought about that as soon as I did it.’ So it’s pretty rare that I’m surprised, but every once in a while I think about what has happened and it makes me smile.
Question: Efficiency is such a huge part of his game and a growing trend in the league. Earlier (on Wednesday), you were talking to one of your clients about the (baseball) book (Moneyball). How aware is he, when he’s on that floor, of the overall picture of shot selection, efficiency and really making the most of every single possession?
Answer: I think that, really, it may be the most overlooked aspect of a player’s game and it’s something that we really stress at my Pro Training Center. That’s just making basketball plays, making the smart play, and the smart play isn’t necessarily what looks like the best play or what feels like the best play. It’s also, ‘What do the odds suggest? What do the statistics suggest?’ If someone’s open at the three-point line on the left side, and someone’s open inside on the right side – maybe at the 10-foot mark – and the guy on the right side is a very poor offensive player and the guy on the left side is a 45 percent three-point shooter, you’ve got to make the pass to the guy on the left even though the guy on the right might be more open. That’s all part of it. Shot selection directly ties to your percentages. If you take bad shots – no matter how good of a shooter you are – your numbers are going to go down.
I hope that it’s engrained in Kevin, especially since we’ve been talking about it for six years. No one wants to watch a chucker play, especially the fans who come in and pay a lot of money and want to see a winner. It’s hard to win when you’re chucking shots, so I hope that never changes.
It doesn’t mean he won’t take a bad shot every once in a while because of confidence, but Kevin can balance that and make sure he’s taking good shots and making good plays.
Question: Is that ever a balancing act of making sure (the player) is keeping that on your mind but not getting obsessed by it. I feel like some players might do that – like it’s the third quarter and you look at your box score and you’re 7 of 15 and you’re upset because you’re below the 50 percent mark. There have been games, even with Kevin, where it seemed like – while that’s always going to be on his mind – he’s in a flow. And if he misses a few shots, then you’ve got to just play. Is that something you guys ever talk about?
Answer: Oh sure. I think that’s a great point Sam. I said to him a year ago to forget about shooting 50 percent from the field if you want to score 20 points a game. It’s just not happening with two-guards in the NBA. Defenses are too good, you’re forced to take shots at the end of the shot clock. I think he’s helped a little bit by his talented teammates. The reality is that he doesn’t have to take a ton of bad shots late in the clock because he’s got guys like Ron (Artest) and Mike (Bibby) and Brad (Miller) and John (Salmons), even (Francisco Garcia). These guys aren’t afraid to shoot the ball late in the clock either. I think that’s where Kevin’s numbers are slightly inflated is because of that.
Whether you scored 28, 29, 30 points a game – which clearly he’s capable of – you’ll probably take a few more bad shots and the percentage points will probably drop a little bit more. I think the balance is pretty good. I think he’s very comfortable in that role of being the guy who’s trying to take good shots instead of being the guy who’s just trying to get points.
Question: If you had to pick one or two guys who his game compares to style-wise, who are they?
Answer: Statistically speaking, I think Reggie Miller and Reggie Lewis – the tragic situation with the guy who died in Boston. If you study their stats, I think they’re the most similar to Kevin’s game historically. Sean Elliott is a guy who historically had a game that’s similar to Kevin’s. But there’s a uniqueness to Kevin. Reggie Miller is one of the best three-point shooter’s in basketball history at any level. Kevin doesn’t deserve that title yet, but he’s obviously a terrific shooter. I’m not sure Reggie was quite as good as Kevin at getting to the free throw line and the slashing game, but he also played under different rules. Kevin benefits more than Reggie did.
I think Reggie Miller is a guy who played a long, long time, was able to adapt his game as his body changed, and was always a threat. He always took care of himself. I think Kevin could play until he’s 40 years old if he continues to improve his shot and his overall basketball IQ and take care of his body.
Question: Do you see him as an All-Star caliber player or a possible MVP type player? Is he Michael Jordan or Scottie Pippen?
Answer: In terms of MVP, I think he’s much more likely to get MVP of a championship series than he is MVP of the league. The way the league is, the guys who win the MVPs are going to be high usage guys. And I think Kevin is someone who’s never going to be a real high usage guy because he’s too efficient. He’s just going to make the right play, get other people involved and play off of people – passing and cutting, which he’s obviously one of the best in the league at that.
So I don’t think I would ever see him as an MVP unless he played for a team that really had no other offensive weapons and he scored 30 a night, which I think he could do.
As for Jordan or Pippen, he’s not going to be the greatest player of all time, but Pippen was Top 50 of the century. I don’t know if Kevin will ever get there, but it’s certainly a worthwhile goal.
I think that he likes playing with these guys. Whether it’s Spencer (Hawes) here who develops or Beno (Udrih) or Mike (Bibby) gets his groove back and becomes a key guy. Kevin is obviously an All-Star caliber player. So is Brad Miller, now that he’s playing this way. If they got another guy in the backcourt who really demands a lot of attention and all of a sudden Kevin’s game goes up another notch. - Sam Amick