“Under the radar” isn’t typically a phrase that applies when evaluating the performance of a professional basketball player universally recognized as one of the three best in the world. The fact that the same player ranks 4th in total fan votes for the NBA All-Star Game makes the premise that he is overlooked seem even more absurd. Then again, Kevin Durant – as basketball player and theoretical premise, alike – is absurd. After a lost 2014-15 season in which he missed 55 games due to injuries, Durant’s return – and what it would mean for the Oklahoma City Thunder’s title chances – seemed poised to be one of the biggest ongoing storylines of this season. That he would also be entering free agency this summer promised to make the preseason hype over his comeback even more compelling. This is not quite the way it has shaken out.
The reigning World Champion Golden State Warriors opened the season with a 24-game win streak on their way to a 39-4 record and 7 straight weeks of Sports Center opening segments. Then the perennial “nobody’s talking about them” team, San Antonio Spurs, decided to play at historically dominant levels. Toss in the impending retirement of Kobe Bryant, the ongoing quest of LeBron James to bring a title to Cleveland, as well as the Thunder’s relatively underwhelming play in the first two months of the Billy Donovan era, and suddenly, “Kevin Durant’s Comeback” became a bit of an afterthought in terms of must-see nightly narratives. Durant won the league’s MVP Award 20 months ago yet, somehow, that feels like eons.
Negligent as the national media may occasionally be towards Durant’s return, however, the slight trifles in comparison to how often his own team seems to forget that they employ one of the most devastating scorers the game has ever seen. This is a shame for several reasons, not the least of which being that Kevin Durant might be playing as well now as he did during that aforementioned MVP campaign.
Durant won the league’s MVP Award 20 months ago yet, somehow, that feels like eons.
In 37 games played so far (out of the Thunder’s 44 total), Durant is operating at a level of offensive efficiency that is fairly amazing by even his lofty standards. While his scoring is down by volume, Durant has improved in several categories, including career (or near career) highs in FG%, 3P%, FT%, rebounds, blocks, offensive rating, and on-court +/-. He’s one of only two players in the league averaging the rare 50-40-90 while playing 32 or more minutes a game (the other being fellow human nuclear weapon, Stephen Curry). What’s more, he’s accomplishing these feats while using up the smallest percentage of the Thunder’s offensive possessions since his second year in the league. And therein lies the problem.
At 32-12, the Thunder have the fourth best record in the NBA. They sit in the Western Conference’s three seed and are undeniably among the league’s upper echelon of championship contenders. They’re also still not as good as the Warriors or Spurs. The gap between their average margin of victory (+8.53, good for 3rd in the league) is nearly six points lower than the Spurs, who currently own the highest MOV in league history. For comparison, that same six-point gap separates the Thunder from the Hawk’s ninth best MOV. And while their offensive rating is second in the league behind the Warriors, they are only 10th in defensive rating. Though the team has picked up its level of play significantly from the beginning of the season, there is still a general feeling among league observers that the Thunder’s coaching staff isn’t maximizing their very talented roster.
Kevin Durant – who, again, is a top three player averaging nearly 36 minutes per game – is, for some inexplicable reason, only 16th in usage rate, behind the likes of DeMar DeRozan; a good player who, nonetheless, seems more noteworthy for the fact that his name contains four capital letters.
For comparison, DeMarcus Cousins – a center who bears no responsibility for initiating offense – touches the ball 35% of the time the Kings have possession. Kevin Durant, perhaps the best ball handler in the league at his position, gets the rock only 28% of the time the Thunder are on offense. This is, of course, partly a result of playing big minutes with another high volume scorer and debatable top five player in Russell Westbrook. Westbrook’s ball-dominant tendencies are nothing new. But to blame only Westbrook for the lack of touches Durant gets would be misguided. Westbrook is currently at a career high in efficiency rating while using up fewer possessions and averaging career highs in assists and assist percentage. This is not simply a matter of Westbrook ball hoggery.
What’s more, he’s accomplishing these feats while using up the smallest percentage of the Thunder’s offensive possessions since his second year in the league. And therein lies the problem.
One could safely assume that a great strategy for winning would be for a team to maximize the offensive skills of its best player. But the paucity of sets the Thunder run to free up Durant feels like coaching malfeasance when compared to, say, the various ways the Warriors spring Stephen Curry open. Of Durant’s field goal attempts this season, a whopping 65% have been contested, meaning a defender was between 0-4 feet away. Curry’s field goal attempts, by comparison, are contested only 49% of the time, despite facing far more frequent double teams. The problem is exacerbated in 4th quarters, where Durant’s contested attempts climb to 71%. These are fancy numbers that only confirm what anybody who watches Thunder games can see via the eye test: the Thunder far too frequently rely on inefficient isolation hero ball – especially when the outcome of the game is on the line.
With 38 games left in the regular season, there’s still time for the Thunder to cohere in a way that will elevate them into the rarefied company of the Warriors and Spurs, and return Durant to the forefront of the NBA superstar conversation. Consistently making Durant the focal point of the offense that he deserves to be could be a smart way to accomplish that. It would certainly be a smart way for the Thunder to convince him to stay in Oklahoma City when his current contract expires. Because if the Thunder aren’t able to do so, Kevin Durant may once again become the major talking point for NBA fans he’s historically been, but for reasons the organization may not like or be prepared for.