Last we saw Kevin Durant before this season began, he was at the absolute peak of his powers, carving up the eventual NBA champion Bucks with full understanding that to win, the Nets needed just about every possession to revolve around his decision making. The urgency elevated Durant to a higher echelon. Even in defeat, he was coronated as the best player alive, earning the awe and adulation that was overlooked (fairly or not) after winning two Finals MVP trophies.
Kyrie Irving missed the last 3.5 games of that classic Eastern Conference semifinals with a sprained ankle, and for its entirety, James Harden was severely hampered by a torn hamstring. Today, with a remodified supporting cast—one that’s prioritized outside shooting and experience over independent shot creation—Irving is once again absent as Harden finds himself adjusting to a dramatically different relationship with the referee’s whistle.
Until further notice, not only does Durant not find himself where he was five months ago, but his surroundings are similar to those that compelled him to favor the Warriors over the Thunder back in 2016.
The Nets find themselves trying to navigate this need to utilize the world’s top player as much as they want to or could in a perfect world, knowing he’s a 33-year-old drawing as much or more defensive attention than ever before. Durant has an unprecedented combination of size, grace and supreme confidence that can single-handedly generate quality offense, but the sustainability of it all is another question.
“It’s hard not to use Kevin Durant,” Nets head coach Steve Nash says. “There's the choice to use him and then there's just, the ball finds Kevin Durant because he's so difficult to defend. So it's not all us being like 'Let's go to Kevin. Let's go to Kevin.' ... Part of it is just how talented and supernatural he is. But definitely we're aware; we want the whole group to play well together and find combinations and lineups that can be effective offensively, so it's not hyper dependent on Kevin and we don't over-rely on him.”
There’s a huge difference between one or two playoff rounds and a colossal 82-game regular season. And watching the inevitability of Durant’s influence jibe with such demanding circumstances is one of this early season’s most fascinating and important developments. As great as Durant is, the degree of difficulty he faces on a nightly basis is as high as ever.
Much of Durant’s legacy boils down to how compatible he is without ever sacrificing his own numbers in any glaring way. His mere presence enhances everyone around him; place Durant in any situation, with any four players, and he’ll alleviate all concern, be it roaming off the ball, setting a brush screen, running a pick-and-roll, isolating at the mid-post, backing someone down on the block, defending the opponent’s best player or calmly drilling pitiless jump shots in pressure-packed moments. Durant’s greatness has come to be defined by his ability to blend in without ever needing to hijack his team’s entire offense.
“He's evolved in every way that you can evolve,” Pacers head coach Rick Carlisle said Friday before a loss at Barclays Center. “He's a scoring, point 3, 4, 5. He's a one-of-a-kind player. I think just from a pure scoring standpoint, I mean, I've never seen anybody do it easier. … It's just, you know, some people's abilities are beyond mere words. I don't know how else to say it.”
But in the first couple weeks of his 14th season, Durant is the catalyst on more plays than he likely anticipated he’d ever have to be when choosing to join Irving on a deep Nets roster that once had self-sufficient players like Spencer Dinwiddie and Caris LeVert. In addition to scoring in droves, Durant now must set the table for pretty much all of his teammates, none of whom beyond Harden can consistently generate quality looks for themselves or others.
His assist rate, 31.1%, is a career best, and when Harden isn’t on the court it jumps to a whopping 45.5%, which is more than what Luka Doncic, Trae Young or Chris Paul posted last season. If maintained, that would be uncharted territory for someone whose passing ability has long been overshadowed by his elegance as a scorer. (When Durant played without Russell Westbrook in 2014, his assist rate was only 28.7%.) Right now he is one of eight players whose assist and usage rates both clear 30%.
Durant is also making more baskets per 36 minutes than at any other point in his entire career, with a remarkable 66.3 True Shooting percentage that was only topped last season. His career-best-tying PER equals what it was when he won the MVP award in 2014. Last year the share of Brooklyn’s made baskets Durant could claim responsibility for when he was on the court was 29.5%, the same as it was during his second season in Golden State. Now it’s at 37.4, which would also be the highest of his career.
Some of the numbers that illustrate how taxing Durant’s start really is don’t even compute: 46.5% of his shots are pull-up twos, up 12% from last year and nearly 20% higher than it was when he was the league’s MVP.
Durant is unhurried excellence. As he dribbles, the relationship between him and his defender is that of a boot to an ant. But even he can’t make over 60% of his mid-range shots over the course of an entire year, or an absurd 70% on longer twos. (Especially when triple-teamed.)
Durant has impeccable balance, a high release and the handle to get where he wants to go. But so many of his shots are still tightly contested, seconds after he’s had to evade his man off a screen with a hand in his face. There are bumps and holds and hand checks. He’s constantly fading and leaning, springing off one leg, twisting his seven-foot frame into tight pockets of space that many others wouldn’t dare explore.
In other words: Nothing is easy. And Durant’s migration away from the three-point line helps illustrate how hard he truly has it. In his final year with the Thunder, about 20% of Durant’s shots were catch-and-shoot threes. A year later, ensconced in Golden State’s whirring system, off-the-bounce two-point jumpers were evenly balanced by spot-up threes (both accounted for about 21% of his offense). Today spot-up threes are down to a mere 7.9%.
The percentage of his shots that are assisted is just 30%, by far a career low and more than half of what it was in 2011 and 2017. Durant is also isolating more than he did last season (24.4% of his possessions, up from 14% in 2021, per Synergy Sports), and is the most efficient isolation scorer in the entire league.
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Even though Brooklyn’s offensive rating ranks in the bottom third of the league after a historic 2020–21 attack, Durant’s vision has been a high tide lifting all boats. He sees the entire floor, anticipating what help defenders will do and then making the right, challenging pass look elementary.
“He's more polished,” Harden said when I asked about the evolution of Durant’s playmaking since they were teammates in Oklahoma City. “He knows the spots he needs to get to and then obviously his head is up when he's getting into his bag and he sees where the defense [is] coming from. That's in iso. In the post, same thing. He knows where the double teams come from. … He knows himself on the court.”
His pass percentage on drives to the basket is up about 10% from last season—and almost double what it was during the 2018 season—against converging defenders who aren’t all that concerned with the Nets’ outside shooting.
And then there are the simple darts he throws to teammates who can leverage the gravity Durant’s reputation seemingly creates on its own. Switch a big on him and there better be help behind it.
“The game has slowed down,” Durant says when I ask how he sees the need to balance shooting and passing now compared to earlier stages in his career. “I kind of know what I want to do out there. For the most part it's just knowing the game, studying the game for these last 15 years … at a different level, and I'm able to adjust to certain situations. I've gotta keep growing, keep learning, keep being a student.”
Despite the enormous load, spacing issues and knowing he has to be more assertive than years past while attracting even more defensive attention than usual (which is really saying something), Durant is having one of the most impressive individual seasons in the entire league. He’s either slightly better than ever before or simply doing things he hasn’t been forced to do. Either way, the Nets have an important question to ask themselves every night: How much Durant is too much, and does such a thing even exist?
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