Image via Bleacher Report.
Image via Bleacher Report.
It's a tautology, if you use it right: “If you don’t like [proper noun] then you don’t like [related noun].” As skeptic-convincing rhetoric goes, it's more commonly used than it is effective. For instance, if I were to say: “If you don’t like Five Guys, then you don’t like cheeseburgers,” I'd only be right as far as it goes, and within certain parameters. Maybe you don't like delicious cheeseburgers. Maybe you like something else. Subjectivity is subjectivity, if we're doing tautologies, and so it's tough. Nine times out of ten, it doesn't necessarily work. That tenth time? Well, if you don’t like Kenneth Faried, then you don’t like basketball.
Which is not to say that Kenneth Faried embodies anything essential about the game. Every buzzword for a player living and playing above his head applies to Faried: heart, grit, raw, tough, hustle, drive; his motor is relentless and “he only plays at one speed.” But these are, paradoxically and wonderfully, not clichés where Faried is concerned. He's different.
On his worst day he’s Reggie Evans after funneling four Red Bulls, while strapped to a jet pack. On his best, Faried is pure violent delight, a not-yet-jaded 23-year-old Predator just beginning to learn the ropes of annihilation. But of course Predators don't have interns. Kenneth Faried is just Kenneth Faried, and as such still as good a reason to watch basketball as any player in the league.
Pull any possession from Faried’s career and in some order he will soar, crash, overheat, and explode. Catch him at the right (or wrong?) moment, and all these things will seem as if they're happening at once. He seems to be enjoying himself, and he is already very effective, but he also plays with all dials squarely in the red.
But to look at Faried and wonder what will happen when he "learns how to play" doesn’t quite work, either. Faried will get better—in areas like boxing out, setting screens, learning a post-move or two, and gaining overall insight on the defensive end—if not likely to the point of reinvention. He will never be Tim Duncan. This is not necessarily a bad thing, and those responsibilities will never intersect. His job, to stick with the tautological statement thing, will be to be himself, and he will always do it better than anyone else could.
Here, in one flailing example, is the classic Upside vs. Production argument that applies to virtually every young player who enters the NBA. On the offensive end Faried is reputed to be a wild ball of energy, but that isn’t always the case. He knows when to cut, how to get open, and what to do with the ball when it lands in his hands as he’s launching himself towards the basket; he's useful, if just barely, in the pick-and-roll. But the only time Denver actively looks to get him the ball typically comes on their first possession of a ball game. His footwork is uglier than Hannibal Lecter’s escape from custody at the end of Silence of the Lambs, but it’s a symbolic tact that says, "Thank you for all the ridiculously intense work you’re about to do for the next 30 or so minutes." After that, Faried rarely touches the ball outside what might be described as a Kenneth Faried Situation, and he does fine.
Despite being a nonexistent threat from the perimeter who rarely has the offense run through him—he’s tenth in usage percentage on his own team—Denver Nuggets head coach George Karl has found clever ways to get Faried involved away from the ball. One such way is to have him jog from the baseline towards the ball-handler—as if to set a screen—and then, once he reaches the foul line, dart back to the rim for an alley-oop. It's the best possible play to run for Faried, and he runs it very well. But in a vast majority of half-court sets, Faried roams the baseline, lurking, stretching the floor as best he can, waiting for Ty Lawson or Andre Miller or Andre Iguodala or Danilo Gallinari to find a passing line or take a shot. Then he strikes.
Offensive rebounds, well-timed cuts into space, and advantageous looks in transition all come against an opposition that’s disorganized and reeling. That’s when Faried is at his most dangerous; that’s his environment; that is the quintessential Kenneth Faried Situation. During these moments of general discharge, when chaos consumes the court, that Faried is perhaps better than anyone else in the entire league. It makes sense, in a way, that this chaotic bundle of verve and bounce would be at home in these moments of anarchy.
Three years from now, will Kenneth Faried be worth a max contract? Haha, no. But should his extension rival the financial compensation Steph Curry and Jrue Holiday have just received? And within his own team’s context, is he worth as much as Danilo Gallinari or JaVale McGee? These are not rhetorical questions: if Faried lacks the refined skills of any of the above, his value is increasingly inarguable.
His impact is untraditional but arguably just as significant: he’s the ultimate complimentary piece, capable of fitting into any offensive system or context. NBA basketball is a battle between two teams desperately trying to pull off offensive sets with precise execution. Those two teams are, with some exceptions, going to be roughly evenly matched at most times. But because players are human beings—and because there’s a defense trying to thwart their progress—proper execution often doesn’t happen. And in those numerous moments in every game where an on-the-fly Plan B is needed, Kenneth Faried can be seen swooping in, cleaning up messes and smoothing things out by dunking with that weird high yawp of his.
It makes sense, then, that Faried disappointed in the formalized setting of the Slam Dunk Contest during All-Star Weekend. Look instead at the destruction he rained upon the Rising Stars Challenge, where he grabbed as many offensive rebounds as the entire opposing team and scored 40 points in 22 minutes. It wasn't a fluke that Faried was one of the two or three best players on the court, Kyrie Irving aside. That exhibition by nature lacks cohesion and order, which is to say that it was built for Kenneth Faried. It was one long Kenneth Faried Situation, and he made himself at home.
Actual NBA games are of course not like that. But per Synergy Sports, Faried averages 1.01 points per possession, making him one of the 55 most efficient players in the league. Approximately 64 percent of his offensive production come from cuts, offensive rebound put-backs, and buckets in transition. His impact is undeniable, especially for someone who rarely dribbles the ball. In his one and only playoff series against the Los Angeles Lakers—going against a frontline featuring Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol—Faried averaged 10.4 points and 10.0 rebounds per game. Earlier this season, on the day after Christmas, he scored 21 points and grabbed 15 rebounds (nine offensive!) against those Lakers. Against the Miami Heat he scored 22 points (with just four missed shots) and grabbed 12 rebounds. This is not a fluke.
According to Basketball-Reference.com, he’s one of 10 players in NBA history to be 23 or younger and average at least 3.6 rebounds in under 29.5 minutes per game. Shawn Kemp and Kevin Love are the two most notable names on that list. These are interesting names, if not quite perfect fits—while this essay won’t get too in-depth with Faried's defensive deficiencies, they are numerous and on occasion glaring, even relative to Love. But he’ll get better on that end, as he has gotten better on offense. He is getting better right now, somewhere, as you read this. And his ability to grab offensive rebounds, combined with his age and contract, makes Faried one of the most valuable players in the league already.
He's not perfect, and wasn't built to be perfect. But he is unique, and wonderful, and improving. We don't yet know how good Kenneth Faried will be. But this much seems safe to say, regardless of where his game currently sits: if you don’t like Kenneth Faried, then you don’t like basketball.