The Oklahoma City Thunder lost more than just a high-scoring superstar in James Harden—they lost an elite playmaker.
Even playing behind the likes of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook couldn't suffocate the superior distributional abilities Harden possessed; he was arguably the Thunder's most deft passer.
And now, in his absence, it will be up to Durant to assume such a role.
On the surface, it may not make much sense. Westbrook led Oklahoma City in assists per-36 minutes last season with 5.6 compared to Harden's 4.7 and Durant's 3.3. Wouldn't that make Westbrook the team's most indispensable passer?
No, not at all.
Delve deeper and you'll see that Westbrook's assists-to-turnover ratio was 1.51, lower than Harden's mark of 1.67.
The key to being not just an effective, but top-notch passer is balancing playmaking with ball-control, which Harden did with much more ease than Westbrook.
That said, it's something Westbrook did better than Durant, who had a slightly frightening 0.93 assists-to-turnover ratio in 2011-12.
But that's all going to change. Because it has to.
Without Harden, the Thunder are in dire need of another star facilitator. Westbrook has done his part to an extent, averaging seven assists with a 2.55 assists-to-turnover ratio, but it's not enough. This team reached the NBA Finals last year on the backs of two prolific passers, the most important of which is now growing out his beard with the Houston Rockets.
Who is Oklahoma City going to replace the playmaking void Harden's departure created?
Intriguingly enough—as Hardwood Paroxysm's Noam Schiller presents—Durant himself.
Possible solution to OKC losing their playmaking: Kevin Durant becoming an elite passing forward? Hmmm. Interesting.— Noam Schiller (@noamschiller) November 5, 2012
Durant has already taken on more of a point forward role in Harden's absence, dishing out a career-high 5.8 assists per game thus far. However, he continues to struggle to balance his creativity with ball-protection and is subsequently posting an underwhelming 1.15 assists-to-turnover ratio.
His points per game and three-point conversion rate have also plummeted amid his quest to shoulder more of the facilitating burden.
Yet that's all a part of evolving as an athlete—struggling. Durant was never going to become a gilt-edged passer overnight. There's a process involved, one that the star forward is currently navigating his way through.
You see, Durant has never been asked to pass. His career high in assists came last season when he dropped 3.5 dimes a night within an abbreviated—albeit truncated—season.
No, Durant's job was to shoot, and shoot he did, jacking up nearly 20 shots per contest.
This season, however, we are bearing witness to a different player in the same uniform. Durant is no longer primarily a scorer; he's not afforded that luxury any longer. Not in the absence of Harden, Oklahoma City's most efficient passer.
Instead, he has been tasked with becoming something more—an unstoppable scorer with first-class passing abilities.
While he has attempted to embrace such a role, the going has not been easy as his career-high five turnovers per game would indicate. However, his willingness to pass is there, so the potential to thrive is as well.
Forget that he's averaging nearly eight points less per game than he was before, additional shots will ultimately present themselves and more three-pointers will begin to fall.
His passing instincts will continue to evolve as well, reaching—and potentially exceeding—the bar Harden himself set.
We've already bore witness to Durant's keen sense of court vision on more than one occasion. He's no stranger to hitting the slasher or being the man who places the ball in the alley for the oop.
Getting him to do it more frequently and efficiently is the battle here, and Durant is already showing he is prepared to actualize the former. Now it's just a matter of honing his precision and developing a stronger rapport with his teammates as Durant the playmaker and not merely the scorer.
And he'll get there, because again, he has to.
Harden is gone and with him, he took both his playmaking abilities and chameleon-esque offensive tendencies.
Must Kevin Durant become an elite passer in James Harden's absence?
"Some nights I scored, some nights I passed," Harden told Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski on his time with the Thunder. "Whatever was needed to win."
So now, out of necessity, it's Durant's turn to bear the burden of doing whatever it takes for Oklahoma City to win.
And for the Thunder to win sans Harden, Durant is going to have to become more of a facilitator and the elite passer that his former teammate always was.
Become what he was never actually asked to be.