Kevin Durant's phenomenal improvement on defense has been one of the most consequential stories of the first half of the season. It is the single biggest factor in the Thunder's rapid elevation from doormat to playoff contender. And it heralds Durant's transition from a volume scorer with loads of potential into a genuine star who one day could become the most important player on a championship team.
Just a few months ago, the book on Durant was that he was a wonderfully potent offensive player and a disaster on defense. He also became something of a lightning rod in the ongoing debate over how to measure and judge a player's performance. Because he scored with such seemingly effortless, silky athleticism, he was especially attractive to fans who favor emotional impressions of what they see over calibrated statistics on the page. And because this point-making dynamo cost his team more on defense than he delivered on offense, stat geeks wanted to puncture his hype.
But Durant has made that a moot debate this season. By any measure, the guy has suddenly become a stalwart individual and team defender. For those who prefer visual evidence, consider Monday's game against the Knicks. In one sequence, Durant left his man, Danilo Gallinari, to intercept a pass on the wing, only to discover that he'd fallen for a fake and the pass was going to Gallinari for a three-pointer in the corner. He stopped in his tracks, wheeled around and leaped, up and sidewise, far enough to block Gallinari's quick-release jumper. Gallinari, who came into the game averaging 14.5 points, was shut out (on 0-for-7 shooting) in 32 minutes.
The statistical evidence is just as dramatic. To appreciate what a huge difference Durant has made, we need to compare this season to his first two years in the league. First, the statistics show that while his impact on his team's offensive performance was negligible during those first two seasons, his club's defense suffered whenever he was on the court.
In his rookie season, the then-SuperSonics permitted a whopping 113.4 points per 100 possessions the 70 percent of the time Durant played, compared to 104.6 points per 100 possessions the 30 percent of the time he sat. That's a difference of 8.8 points per 100 possessions -- large enough to make a valid claim that Durant was hurting the team on defense.
Last year continued the pattern: The Thunder allowed 8.2 more points per 100 possessions when Durant played than when he didn't. To understand the effect, consider that in the 1,074 minutes Durant sat last season, the Thunder actually outscored their opponents by a single point. But in Durant's 2,885 minutes, Oklahoma City was outscored by 501 points.
This season's numbers reveal a shocking amount of improvement. When Durant is on the court, the Thunder are yielding just 103.4 points per 100 possessions -- 10 points fewer than when he played during his rookie season and 9.2 points fewer than last year. It's also 3.7 points fewer than the Thunder allow when Durant is out of the lineup. He has transformed himself from a weak link to a vital component of his team's ability to stop opponents.
The difference is reflected in the won-lost column. After finishing 20-62 in Durant's rookie year and 23-59 last season, the Thunder are 21-16 following Monday's victory against New York. Make no mistake: Oklahoma City is winning with defense. It ranks 20th in offensive efficiency (points per 100 possessions), ahead of only the Timberwolves and the Clippers in the Western Conference, and 18th in scoring. Yet if the season ended today, the Thunder would be in the playoffs because they are seventh in defensive efficiency, ahead of everyone but the Lakers in the West. They also rank third overall, behind only Cleveland and the Lakers, in opposing field-goal percentage, and seventh in points allowed.
In other words, as much fun as it is to watch Durant flick jumpers through the net in the way most of us toss wadded paper into a wastebasket, or finish on the break while baiting opponents into body contact (he's made more free throws than anyone this season), what he does on defense is at least equally important.
"Anyone with his length and wingspan can be an above-average defender by putting in the effort," a Western Conference scout said. "This year I noticed he's more engaged. He's getting into his stance much sooner and not standing around, and getting back [in transition]. That's great because he's still very young -- he just turned 21. When you're that gifted offensively as a teenager, you just don't think about defense that much. I give a lot of credit to [Thunder coach] Scottie Brooks for getting him to buy in."
Brooks said that process began in earnest during last year's postseason play.
"I spent time with Kevin watching the NBA playoff series and talking things over this summer," Brooks said. "There were so many great moments where great players were the ones defending -- Kobe, Carmelo, Paul Pierce -- and so many times the winning basketball play was on defense.
"Kevin always had the effort, but he didn't have the knowledge or the physicalness in his body to go through an entire NBA season playing defense. This summer he got his mind and his body right. He understood that if he was committed, we would be a much better team. We focused on defense from Day One, and when one of your better players is one of your better defenders, it makes coaching easier. I mean, he leads our team in rebounding, steals, blocks."
Without a classic center as the last line of defense, the Thunder have instead emphasized their length and versatility at other positions. As the bridge between Russell Westbrook and Thabo Sefolosha on the wings and Jeff Green and Nenad Krstic down low, Durant is a linchpin in this strategy.
"I didn't want to load too much on him last year, but Kevin is smarter and knows the tendencies [of his opponents] better now, so I'm comfortable putting him on smaller players because of his length and bigger players because of his quickness and agility," Brooks said. "Having him on the perimeter is a big asset for us."
The coach is especially pleased with Durant's weakside defense.
"Knowing when to stay with your man and when to help out is one of the hardest things for young players coming in," Brooks said, "because you think you're playing defense if you're guarding your man, but you also have to be aware of what might happen three passes away.
"We like to be as disruptive as possible, pushing people to the baseline, defending tight in the paint and closing out on shooters. We constantly talk about having a hand up in guys' faces -- you have to contest to make NBA players miss. And we like to force extra passes and get deflections. Kevin is a big part of all of that."
In addition to checking Gallinari against the Knicks, Durant spent time chasing 5-9 Nate Robinson off the three-point arc and jousted with 6-9 Al Harrington on the perimeter and low block. Along the way, he and the Thunder held New York to 38 percent shooting and 88 points, just a point above the Knicks' season low.
"They were impressive and long and got after us, and I think we were a little shocked at first," Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni told reporters after the game.
Oh, yeah, Durant also had 30 points, on the heels of a 40-point performance two days earlier against Indiana. Yet for all exploits on offense, the only time he complained to the officials in either game was when he couldn't break through Indiana center Solomon Jones' illegal moving pick to get to the shooter. Defense is the priority -- and the winning formula.