Early in the season, about two weeks in, I asked a quick question in a Diary: Is there a precedent for Chris Kaman? His resurgence (emergence?) this year seems entirely unlikely and I was trying to think of other NBA players who had followed similar career trajectories.
I felt like it would be jumping the gun to write a lengthy post on the subject after 7 or so games. I mean, plenty of players go on hot streaks for a week or even a month, so the Kaman situation could have been a fluke. But 34 games into the season, I think we can safely say that new Kaman is not a fluke.
As it happens, I started this post before the revelation on Outside the Lines and elsewhere regarding Kaman's ADHD misdiagnosis and subsequent neurofeedback treatment. In fact, I had actually almost finished this post - it was already close to 2000 words. I'm hoping it's not only still relevant, but maybe even timely. Obviously Chris firmly believes that these treatments are a major factor in his improved play (the result of improved focus) this season, and it would be hard to argue. So maybe the explanation is as simple as that. Still, while it may explain why he's performing so well this season, it doesn't really explain what happened before. I mean, he was incorrectly labeled ADHD for four seasons - so why did he manage to improve for the first three seasons and then fall off so much in the fourth?
First of all, let's establish just how good he has been this season. He's currently third in the NBA in rebounding, within a few extra boards of second, and way ahead of Al Jefferson in fourth. It's also worth noting that Kaman's current clip of 13.8 rebounds per game would have been good enough to lead the NBA in each of the last three seasons. In other words, only a monster season from Dwight Howard is keeping Kaman from a realistic shot at being the best rebounder in the NBA.
Currently Chris is listed as fourth in the league in double-doubles. Yes, Chris has fewer double-doubles than Al Jefferson and Carlos Boozer - but his 25 double-doubles have come in 34 games, while Jefferson's 27 have been over 37 games and Boozer's 26 have come in 38 games. A more reasonable measure might be games without a double-double, in which case Dwight Howard would still lead the league with 5, Kaman would be second with 9, Jefferson third with 10 and Boozer fourth with 12. It's kind of a crap statistic, but let's at least report it in a reasonable manner.
And then there's shot blocking. More than anything else, this has been the biggest shock of Kaman's emergence. Chris Kaman has for four seasons been a good shot-blocker - never a great shot-blocker. His career high of 1.5 per game last season was good enough for 19th in the league, behind the likes of Andris Biedrins and Darko Milicic. He's averaging twice as many this season with 3 per game, which is good enough for third in the NBA. If Marcus Camby stays healthy, he's the likely NBA leader at the end of the season. But Kaman has been more consistent than Josh Smith and seems to have a realistic shot at second best. I find the area of defense particularly interesting as regards Kaman's improved ability to focus. As reported in Tuesday's LA Times by Jonathan Abrams, previously Kaman "could focus on the man he was guarding but not on weak-side defense." The ability to now see the 'big picture' on the basketball court has turned Chris into a monster of a help defender.
And while Kaman is definitely benefiting from playing a lot of minutes, he's also fourth in the NBA in rebounds per minute, 3rd among players who play at least 24 minutes per game, and he's top 10 in blocked shots per minute. So the next time a Lakers fan reminds you of what a beast Andrew Bynum is per minute, tell him that Kaman gets more rebounds and blocks more shots per minute than Drew.
All of these impressive, defense-oriented numbers would make you take notice if you were talking about a center of limited offensive abilities. The mere potential to rebound and block shots like this (potential, not actual results, mind you) is what led to Samuel Dalembert and Tyson Chandler signing massive contracts in 2005 - and neither of those guys can score AT ALL. Kaman is almost the opposite. His impressive offensive arsenal was probably blinding people to his other abilities. How many NBA players make you believe they're left-handed until they shoot a free throw? How many NBA centers can get a jump hook any time they want, from either block, with either hand? I mean, who had time to focus on the guy's rebounding last season when his shots just weren't falling? Here we have a 7-foot center who is an elite rebounder and shot-blocker, who also has a dazzling array of low post moves with either hand, and has now added a consistent 18 footer. Wow. I mean... Wow.
So that's where he is. He needs to make a higher percentage of his shots (currently at 48%) and he needs to cut down on his turnovers (over 3 per game). And that's pretty much it. By the way, the fact that he's been surrounded by 'The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight' this season clearly exacerbates both of these problems - he has to take more and tougher shots against defenses that only have to worry about stopping him, and he has to deal with constant double teams trying to slap the ball away from him. Killing Mr. Flippy (the guy who panics in the double team and flips the ball toward the rim when he should be dunking it) is the last step in his evolution.
Back to my original question. Has there ever been a player who has followed this career trajectory, or even something similar?
For three NBA seasons, Chris Kaman followed the 'promising project/solid starter' career path. His minutes and his productivity increased in almost every significant statistical category for his first three years in the league. After his 05-06 season in which he averaged 11.9 points, 9.6 rebounds and shot over 52% from the field almost everyone in ClipsNation and in the organization was pretty certain he was on his way to being a solid 15 and 10 guy who would shoot a high percentage.
Accordingly, Elgin Baylor and MDsr rewarded him with a contract extension of 5/$52.5M at the beginning of the 06-07 season. And he responded with a significant step backward. He shot a career low 45%. He played fewer minutes, scored less and rebounded less than he had the prior season. In fact, his scoring was lower on a per minute basis than it had been in his sophomore season in the league.
And now suddenly he's back, and better than ever, putting up numbers worthy of all star consideration. The progression is fascinating. If you replace 06-07 with a 15 and 12 season (a little better than we were hoping when he signed the deal), his improvement from his rookie season to now is a straight line - eerily straight.
But he didn't average 15 and 12 in 06-07. He averaged 10 and 8. And frankly, that doesn't happen.
NBA players are incredibly consistent as compared to other sports. The best players are the best players, and supporting players are supporting players, year after year. Young players gradually improve, and earn more minutes, and eventually they plateau, and that's who they are.
There a couple of exceptions to this. If a player goes to a new team, they might emerge in a new situation and play significantly better. Even in this case though, the player's per minute productivity does not usually change a lot. They put up more numbers as the result of more minutes.
There are also well-known cases of under-motivated players putting up great numbers in a contract year. Think Erick Dampier averaging 12 and 12 in 03-04. Or for Clippers fans, think Benoit Benjamin (if you can stand to think Benoit Benjamin).
This contract year phenomenon is what first comes to mind in trying to explain what happened to Kaman. Was it possible that he worked hard enough his first three seasons to earn the big money, and then stopped caring with $52.5M guaranteed? The circumstantial evidence was there... but that isn't Chris Kaman.
At any rate, the contract year argument is moot given his performance this season. If he stopped playing hard when he got the contract, how do you explain what's happening now?
So I keep looking.
The most important thing in looking for precedents is to decide who the real Kaman is. From a statistical standpoint, was 06-07 the data point that doesn't fit? Or over the course of his career, will 07-08 turn out to be the outlier? Was he on a progression to 18/14 that got interrupted for whatever reason? Or is he really a 12/10 guy, who plateaued in 05-06, had a minor setback last season, and is simply getting a Brand-less boost in his current productivity? Obviously, we're hoping it's the former.
If it's the latter, well stellar seasons in otherwise ordinary careers do occur from time to time. Chris Gatling averaged 19 and 8 for half a season in Dallas and made the all star team. His career averages were 10 and 5, and no other season came close to that half season in Dallas. But in his case you could explain the difference by the fact that he was on a different team. Christian Laettner was of course on the 1992 Dream Team and made one All Star team in the NBA, but for the most part his career numbers are pretty average. Likewise, Jamaal Magloire had a single season of 14 and 10 in a career of 9 and 7. And of course there are the contract year guys.
In this scenario, Kaman really is a 12 and 10 type player. His 06-07 season was only slightly worse than that, and his 07-08 is a complete anomaly achieved on a bad team where he has been forced to take a lot of shots and get every defensive rebound. It happens - Mike James averaged 20 points per game for a horrible Toronto team in 05-06. If you subscribe to this theory, Kaman's numbers will return to normal when Brand returns.
If on the other hand he really is as good as his current numbers, then there's basically no good explanation or precedent for last season. It doesn't happen - not in the NBA - not that I have found - not without an explanation like injuries or age or a trade or a new coach, or whatever. In any NBA career, one season or another has to be the 'worst', but as we said, NBA players are astoundingly consistent. You don't see healthy NBA players in the prime of their careers suddenly drop 20% in their per minute productivity. You'd think it would happen, but it doesn't. And significantly, once the decline starts, it doesn't stop. Guys like Steve Francis have dropped off... and they stayed there.
In fact the explanation probably lies in the fact that Chris Kaman is the anti-NBA star. He doesn't have any tatoos (his mom won't let him). He goes bow-hunting in the off-season. He owns a long-haul trucking company. As I mentioned prior to the Orlando game, he's very self-aware. Not to mention that we've learned in the last few days that his mind has a tendency to go too fast, not too slow. His medication made him look a lot like the 'big dumb jock' in High School, but he's anything but.
Quite contrary to 'Contract year phenomenon', Kaman was apparently stressed about actually EARNING his contract after he signed it (a novel concept). He felt significant pressure to justify the confidence that the organization had shown in him, and unfortunately he did not respond well to that pressure in 06-07. Basketball was fun on his rookie contract - suddenly it was business when they owed him $52.5M. He continued to work hard on his game, but he was pressing on the court. You could see his frustration grow. Game after game, the coaching staff would call his number in the first quarter, clearly hoping to get him off to a good start. And game after game, he'd watch good shots trickle off the rim, and his confidence sunk lower and lower. The fact that his brainwaves were constantly in the red zone no doubt contributed to his anxiety.
Are we seeing the real Chris Kaman this season? I believe so. Sure, Elton Brand is going to grab more rebounds than Tim Thomas, and maybe Kaman's numbers will decrease some there. But remember, EB's getting those extra boards from 8 other guys too, so we're not talking about 4 rebounds a game coming out of Kaman's pocket. And certainly his shots per game will go down with Elton on the court, but the quality of his shots should improve significantly. So while I can see his scoring decreasing, I would also expect a corresponding rise in his shooting percentage.
So I'm pretty sure this is the real Chris Kaman. And I'm absolutely convinced that there's never been anyone like him.