Kevin Martin: An Elite Player?

Kevin Martin is one of the best scorers in the NBA. This much is for certain. But can the lithe, veteran shooting guard from tiny Western Carolina, who averages roughly 19 points per game for his career, be counted among the game’s best all-around players? Is he someone who is depended on by his teammates to boost them in moments of doubt, or drain the winning bucket in a close contest?

I don’t think so. After a dreadful 1-10 shooting performance in Orlando on Monday night, which followed an equally dismal preseason, Martin bounced back in valiant fashion Thursday  with a 25-point game in a 105-85 blowout over the San Antonio Spurs. He made a trio of three-pointers in the first half and almost matched the total for the entire Spurs starting lineup. His ability to put up points in efficient bunches is proven. Martin is also coming off a fantastic two-year stretch for the Houston Rockets in which he averaged close to 25 points per game and shot nearly 90 percent from the free throw line. He almost led the league in three-pointers and free throws made in 2010-11, an unprecedented feat.

And after the win over the Spurs, Martin referred to himself as an “All-Star guard,” so this prompts discussion.

But the statistics do not measure how Martin performs in the clutch, the aura he emits in tense situations, the leadership his teammates gravitate toward, or the circumstances in which he makes these shots. The high percentage of threes and free throws may help fantasy owners, but anyone can score in the NBA. Martin did much of his damage against the Spurs last night on jump-shots. In fact, during a particular 15-point stretch in the first half, 13 of those points came from a series of jumpers, including standstill threes and long midrange makes with hands in his face. The best players in the NBA, the Wades and Carmelos of the world, can impose their will on a game, however, and not simply rely on making long perimeter shots. There will be nights when those don’t go in, and the best players still find ways to score. Dwayne Wade slithers into the lane for acrobatic drives and finishes, Kevin Durant demands the ball and shows a cold-blooded tenacity to make the winning shot in whichever manner possible, and LeBron James, well, despite his spotty resume in the 4th quarter, King James can still use his physicality to score at will. Martin has yet to show that he can utilize traits besides his jump shooting in close games, and although his quiet, laid-back demeanor allows him to move on from a bad performance, it also makes him passive and unwilling to demand the ball when his teammates need a crucial late bucket.

Rockets point guard Kyle Lowry said everyone was “worried” about Martin after the stinker in Orlando, and that his bounce back came down to “making shots.” But the best offensive players on their teams, across the league, cannot rely solely on outside shooting to score points and carry their squad. Martin does. When the shots are falling, it can be thrilling and overwhelming for the opposing team — Martin’s scoring surge helped Houston jump out to an early 20-point lead — but when they are not, the rest of the team is left scrambling to find a scoring option while Martin holds the ball in the corner and waits to hoist a long jumper. This happened in Orlando. Martin has the burst to drive to the basket and ability to draw fouls with nifty fakes, but until he embraces those skills more and stops relying on long-range bombs for all his points, he cannot be the elite scorer Houston requires night in and night out.

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