The Fundamentals: Durant grows his game and the Thunder grow accordingly
By Rob Mahoney
Kevin Durant is a scorer, and that he will always be. His jumper will always be effortless, and the backspin on his shot will always make a subtle splash in the net upon its landing. The instincts and abilities that have made Durant the most potent scorer in the league over the last few seasons won't soon wane, and defenses will always be forced to account for his scoring potential from the moment he steps on the court.
But as Durant is proving this season, there's a world of difference between being a scorer and being just a scorer. Though Durant may be a doctorate-level scholar in the bucket-getting arts, he's clearly put a lot of effort into building out his game to LeBron James-like extremes. Durant is averaging a whopping 10.6 rebounds and 4.0 assists in seven games -- numbers that, believe it or not, have already cooled a bit since his unbelievably hot start (through three games he was averaging 14.3 rebounds and 6.6 assists). But even as the sample size increases, Durant's emphasis on creating shots for his teammates and cleaning the glass should yield similar returns in terms of his season-long individual production.
That's great for Durant's résumé, but possibly even better for the Thunder. For one, Durant's rebounding work has already made it more palatable for coach Scott Brooks to slowly embrace the inevitable. Center Kendrick Perkins' growing irrelevance has made the value of small-ball in Oklahoma City painfully apparent, and the Miami Heat's title run with James as a nominal power forward gave the concept some concrete validation. Long, talented wing players are only bound by their coach's creativity, and though Brooks had been reluctant in the past to use lineups without two true big men, he's used Durant plenty in the LeBron mold this season.
The Thunder's scoring efficiency in those configurations has been predictably great, but the more startling trend is OKC's rebounding dominance with Durant as a power forward. We're talking about shutout work on the defensive glass and a total rebound rate somewhere in the mid-60 percent range -- values well above what the Thunder have done overall and what we could otherwise expect. The specific values will settle in as the season rolls on and the minutes played by those lineups tick upward, but this is a trend that could end up making a remarkable difference. Provided that Durant can continue to outrebound and defend opposing bigs, Brooks may finally be compelled into using his team's most explosive lineup possibilities.
Even when Durant isn't playing the 4, the Thunder are benefiting from a solid bump in overall rebounding -- a margin that has little risk of sampling error. Durant is grabbing out-of-position boards and doing much better box-out work than before, and those kinds of differences in approach will help the Thunder whether Durant is used as a big man or a wing.
Durant's passing -- and adjusted role -- may offer even greater potential for the Thunder. Though his assist totals have mellowed over the last four games, Durant's understanding of how he affects the movement and attention of defenses has very clearly evolved. The changes may be relatively subtle, but one can see a significant improvement in the way Durant now reads ball pressure:
Even as recently as last season, Durant would have gone about those kinds of double-team scenarios in an entirely different fashion. He might have made a quick outlet to Russell Westbrook or James Harden, trusting in them to redirect the possession. Durant may have retreated off the dribble and finally seen the open man a moment too late. Or he may have forced up a shot in an attempt to draw a foul or turned the ball over in the same pursuit. Durant didn't do a poor job of dealing with added defensive pressure last year, but he often let the extra defender cloud his view of the floor despite his 6-foot-9 vantage point. That obstruction and any hesitation have now been erased completely, as Durant seems to see each additional defender drawn for the playmaking opportunity that they present.
One can trace a similar passing logic through Durant's decisions in drive-and-kick situations:
Having Durant as an alternative dribble penetrator helps to further blur the lines and roles between him and Westbrook, thus better conforming to the fluid offensive concepts on which the Thunder rely. Within the context of this specific team, complementary skills and redundant ones aren't so different; there's a give and take to much of what Oklahoma City runs, and a wholly benign trade-off between the team's two superstars when it comes to creative responsibility.
That's because the Thunder have never relied too heavily on structure, opting instead to draw whatever efficiency they could muster from some smart individual play calls and the massive talent of their core players. That isn't likely to change even with the Harden trade resulting in a net loss in overall talent, meaning that Durant and Westbrook will simply be responsible for an even greater portion of the Thunder's offensive load. It thus behooves both players to find ways to fully exploit their talents, and in this case, it helps for Durant to have a greater command of his all-around game.
A look at some of the relevant quantitative trends and tidbits emerging around the league.
• The league leaders in true shooting percentage -- a composite percentage that takes into account the number of made two-point field goals, three-pointers and free throws, weighted accordingly -- are typically spot-up shooters and catch-and-finish big men. But atop the current list is Dallas center Chris Kaman, who is very much neither. Although Kaman certainly gets his fair share of open layups or dunks as a result of poor defensive rotation, he's traditionally been a high-usage and relatively inefficient scorer as a result of his penchant for taking mid-range jumpers and difficult hooks. But Kaman has been outstandingly efficient on his post-up tries and pick-and-roll opportunities so far, in part because of the Mavericks' pristine spacing.
• Raptors swingman DeMar DeRozan still can't make three-pointers or create very much for his teammates (excepting one seven-assist night that can only be explained as body-snatcher science fiction), but he has managed to virtually cut his turnover rate in half early this season. Turnovers weren't a huge problem for DeRozan a year ago, but his rate was a bit high considering that he doesn't have any playmaking responsibilities and primarily executed low-risk solo shot creation scenarios. It's hard to find any specific reason for his more measured usage, but in some cases the numbers do speak for themselves: DeRozan miraculously totaled just two turnovers in a combined 85 minutes against the Mavs and Sixers last week.
• Qualified leaders who have made all of their free throws to post 100 percent from the line: Alonzo Gee (20 attempts), Mo Williams (16), Richard Hamilton (15) and Jason Smith (12). Honorable mention to Serge Ibaka, who has made a shocking 90.5 percent of his 21 attempts, up from 66.1 percent last season.
THOUGHTS FROM AROUND THE ASSOCIATION
1. The Rockets' true scoreboard
In-arena video boards have a limited amount of space on which to display very select information. As such, every team is left with the often overlooked decision of which stats -- or other bits of information -- are important enough for fans to have access to constantly. The number of times a player has scored and fouled is relatively standard. Some arenas offer a collection of basic team numbers: total rebounds, overall field-goal percentage, etc. It's also not at all uncommon to see teams show "hustle stats" in a separate display, or some other specific categories that in some way fit the identity of their team.
But the Rockets did just about the best thing imaginable with a small slice of displayable real estate on their new video board, using it to show a live-updating evaluation of the Four Factors, the hardly "advanced" stats that articulate why teams win basketball games. These are the kinds of little things that, over time, breed smarter and more informed fans. Kudos to the Rockets for fighting the good fight and bringing even more awareness to the importance of context-adjusted stats.
2. The Hawks' new starting lineup
Coach Larry Drew has shuffled through a few starting lineups already in Atlanta, but his latest venture -- which shifted Josh Smith to small forward and added Zaza Pachulia to the mix against the Clippers -- will provide quite a test for the Hawks' offense if that unit manages to stick around. After all, playing Smith on the wing with both Pachulia and Al Horford doesn't just tempt him to shoot outside shots, but actively displaces him on a lot of possessions. Horford frequently works from the high post or the top of the key, but Pachulia occupies a space on the floor that Smith badly needs access to in order to be effective. That doesn't mean that the offensive concessions won't be worth the potential defensive gains (pending favorable matchups) and boost on the boards, but it does put a lot of pressure on the three functional bigs to provide spacing for both their own individual games and Jeff Teague's pick-and-roll operations.
3. The Spurs, and the phenomenon of consistent pressure
When his team is facing a substantial deficit at the beginning of the fourth quarter, coach Gregg Popovich traditionally employs a lineup of all reserves -- anchored by Manu Ginobili -- to put San Antonio's opponent in an impossible situation. It's natural for any team winning by double digits to let up with a seemingly certain outcome just minutes away; hard close-outs become token ones, concerted box-outs become lazy and shot selection becomes a matter of convenience. But this all-subs lineup consistently applies pressure in games that should already be decided, while also offering Tim Duncan and Tony Parker an early exit in the case that the comeback effort is for naught. It's a perfect use of San Antonio's depth. The Spurs have such an effective bench that they can actually push opposing starters into end-game stumbles, and Popovich is brilliant enough to let his bench go to work against opponents already battling fatigue and human nature itself.
4. Eric Maynor's passes to the front row
It wasn't long ago that NBA fans were legitimately campaigning for Maynor to take Westbrook's job and minutes in the midst of a Thunder playoff run. Worse yet: I'm sure plenty of Westbrook critics still hold that stance today, despite the complete lack of quantitative and qualitative justification.
Nonetheless, Maynor is an important player for the Thunder, and a crucial playmaker on the now Harden-less second unit. That makes it a bit distressing that Maynor, while a perfectly solid passer in most regards, has consistently struggled this season with leading passes. Standstill shooters and teammates cutting directly opposite him from the weak side provide easy enough targets, but when trying to throw a pass ahead of a rolling big man or a curling shooter, Maynor often misses his mark. No one expects Maynor's passing game to be perfect, but the ability to find teammates on the move is essential for next-level playmaking. This is likely to be more of a drag on Maynor's next team (supposing he's overpaid in free agency next summer) than the Thunder, but it seems odd that an otherwise accurate passer would lose control in such an important aspect of playmaking.
5. Keith Smart: Lineup visionary
I'm not even sure that a blowout loss and two suspensions (DeMarcus Cousins and Thomas Robinson) are reason enough for Sacramento to play Travis Outlaw and John Salmons, much less a reason to play them together.
6. Dorell Wright tests the waters of "too much"
The good news: The Philadelphia swingman's free-throw attempts per minute have nearly doubled since 2011-12. The bad news: Wright is also hoisting more shots than ever while converting just 33.8 percent of them (for a gross 43.4 effective field goal percentage) and turning the ball over more than twice as often as he did a year ago. The Sixers are strapped for shot creation without center Andrew Bynum, but Wright is inching closer and closer to overextending his game. For now, Wright is doing enough (grabbing more boards, his aforementioned work at the free-throw line, playing decent defense) to offset his dip in shooting efficiency, but one more step in that direction and his utility could take a tumble.
7. Another concern for Doc Rivers
Rajon Rondo is one of the few Celtics for whom minutes wouldn't seem to be a primary concern; 26-year-old stars don't often have much reason to watch their playing time over the course of the season, and are generally free to play as much as their coaches demand.
But Rivers -- faced with an underperforming offense -- has thus far taken that notion to a bit of an extreme. Rondo has averaged a whopping 41.3 minutes in six games, more than four full minutes greater than any of his previous season averages. Perhaps Rivers is simply leaning on Rondo early in the season as the Celtics sort out some of their on-court quirks, but one can't help but ponder the significance of the precedent. If Boston's struggles drag on into December and January, does Rondo keep running himself into the ground just to be this team's safety net? And if not, at what point does Rivers start to curb the minutes of his most important offensive player?
8. Rise of Milwaukee's middle class
To most fans, the Bucks are defined by their dueling ball-dominant guards. Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis are the unquestioned headliners at the Bradley Center and wind up controlling a majority of the team's possessions. Those two lead their team in points per game, field-goal attempts per game and usage rate, to say nothing of the fact that they're easily the most recognizable figures and names on Milwaukee's roster.
But this Bucks season has been all about the role players. Mike Dunleavy has played essentially perfect basketball on the offensive end and managed well on defense to boot. Larry Sanders is playing some of the best ball of his career, averaging a monstrous 16-point, 12-rebound double-double per 36 minutes. And Beno Udrih is so consistently underrated and gives the Bucks a shot in the arm with his pull-up jumpers and playmaking. Who would have thought? Statistical support for this post was provided by NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.