How Kevin Durant's Evolution Is Filling James Harden's Void for OKC Thunder

Kelly ScalettaFeatured ColumnistApril 7, 2013

HOUSTON, TX - DECEMBER 29:  Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder drives past James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets at the Toyota Center on December 29, 2012 in Houston, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
Scott Halleran/Getty Images

When the Oklahoma City Thunder traded James Harden for Kevin Martin, there was some concern that Martin would not be able to reproduce the same level of production that Harden had in previous years. Fans wondered where the extra production would come from. The answer has been: from Kevin Durant.

The speculation about Martin and Harden has been dead-on.

Harden produced 16.8 points and 3.7 assists last season, compared to the 14 points and 1.4 assists that Martin is chipping in this year. But Durant’s continued evolution from “Carmelo Anthony” to “LeBron James” has made up the difference.

While Durant received some criticism for working out with off-season partner, James, it actually seems to be paying big dividends for Durant and the Thunder.

James, Durant and Anthony are nearly universally considered to be the three best small forwards in the NBA today, but James and Anthony are quite different. Anthony is primarily a scorer, who borders on being a volume shooter, while James doesn’t score quite as much, but is much more efficient in his shot selection and more of a playmaker for his teammates as well.

Using a series of charts to examine how the three have compared to one another over the last three seasons, we can see how Durant has made the evolution from “Anthony” to “James." If you just skim the charts scrolling down, you'll see that Durant's (the blue column) starts off resembling the Anthony's (the orange column) and ends looking more like James (the red column). 

First, let’s examine their scoring.

As you can see from the chart, with the exception of Anthony’s 2012 season, the three players have been fairly close in terms of scoring, and there hasn’t been a big shift from season to season either. This year the three are separated by a mere 1.5 points per game—not a vast difference—but how efficiently they’ve arrived at those points hasn’t been quite as consistent.

When we look at the true shooting percentage we see a distinction.

While with both James and Durant, there’s been a decisive and consistent improvement in their true shooting percentage. With Anthony there’s been a decline. In other words, Anthony is using more possessions to achieve the same number of points as Durant and James.

In this case, it may be more accurate to say that Durant has evolved “with” James more than “into” James, suggesting that James is also benefiting from working with Durant.

But when we look at some other areas, we see Durant is making a real transition. Perhaps one of the most pronounced of those is in his improvement in passing, as he has had a decisive jump in his assists over each of the last two seasons.

Two years ago, Durant was the weakest of the three in terms of his passing. Last year he caught Anthony, who also showed a slight improvement. However,  while Anthony has regressed this year, Durant has significantly improved, with a career high 4.4 assists per game. While that’s short of James, he’s definitively moving in that direction.

It appears that Durant is growing more prudent in his shot selection, and hitting the open man with a pass rather than taking that one or two bad shots per game. His field-goal attempts are down 1.8 from last season, which confirms this.  When you look at the growth in his Player Efficiency Rating over the last two years, it reflects the impact that is having on his game.

Durant was pretty even with Anthony two years ago, but now is much closer to James in PER. Overall his game has broadened. Durant is no longer “just” a great scorer (as though there’s something wrong with being a great scorer), but he’s evolved to be a more efficient one and much better passer as well.

All his improvement is not on the offensive end of things either. He’s also been evolving on the opposite end of the court. In fact, over the last two years, using Synergy’s defensive points per play, Durant has the best measure of any of the three.

Clearly the offseason workouts with James have been having a benefit for Durant, and apparently, James is getting some help as well. Durant is clearly evolving as a player from a pure scoring threat into a well-rounded player who can beat you in multiple ways and on both ends of the court. That’s making life after Harden a lot more pleasant for Thunder fans.

Whether it will mean that the Thunder can clear the final hurdle, and Durant’s offseason workout partner, remains to be seen.