Why Kevin Durant Is Poised for a Career-Best Season in 2013-14
In 2012-13, Kevin Durant dominated the NBA to the tune of 28.1 points, 7.9 rebounds and 4.6 assists per game while leading his Oklahoma City Thunder to a 60-22 record and the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference.
The Association was his oyster, even if he ultimately finished second in the MVP voting to LeBron James and was almost universally hailed as the No. 2 player in the world.
He made the All-Star team and was selected to the All-NBA First Team. On top of that, he finished as the Player of the Week four times throughout the season and was named the Player of the Month for the fifth and sixth times in his impressive career.
And yet, he's going to do better than that in 2013-14.
Durant is poised to submit the best season of his career, and it's not even going to be close.
While I was watching the Oct. 8 preseason game between the Philadelphia 76ers and Thunder on NBATV, I heard the announcers talk about how Durant is both a veteran and a young player. It's a combination that few players are blessed with, and it's incredibly true.
Durant gets to boast some veteran savvy, courtesy of the experience he's racked up ever since leaving the Texas Longhorns following his freshman season under Rick Barnes, but he also has the benefit of youth.
The small forward has been around for what seems like a long time.
With an NBA Finals appearance under his belt and multiple scoring titles, he's been a mainstay in the collective consciousness of basketball fans all over the world for the last few seasons.
Yet Durant is only 25 years old, and he's a young 25. With a Sep. 29 birthday, the MVP candidate only just hit the quarter-century mark, and he won't turn 26 until we near the end of a sure-to-be-exciting 2014 offseason.
Well, there's another current superstar who turned 25 during his seventh season of professional ball, and he took strides forward during his final go-around with the Cleveland Cavaliers:
While LeBron James didn't get more efficient (his field-goal percentage improvement was mitigated by a corresponding increase in turnovers), he took on even more responsibility for the Cavs. And he thrived with the added pressure.
It's hard to remember that a player with six seasons of experience in the NBA might not have entered his prime yet, and such is the case for Durant, who is only getting better as each and every year passes.
He's still getting closer to the magical 27 or 28 when most players in the Association start to hit their true peak. But he's not there yet, and that bodes well for his upcoming 2013-14 campaign.
The Westbrook Effect
What happens when the inseparable Thunder tandem gets separated?
With Russell Westbrook poised to miss regular-season action for the first time in his impressive young career, Durant is going to be forced into shouldering the full offensive burden for the Thunder.
And, contrary to what some doubters might believe, he's going to thrive in that role.
The preseason results have already pointed in the positive direction, even though we're obviously working with a rather small sample size of games that don't even count.
In the aforementioned contest against the NBA's middle-school affiliate Sixers, Durant spent 33 minutes on the court and finished with 21 points, eight rebounds and 12 assists on 50 percent shooting from the field.
He wasn't a part of the OKC offense.
He was the offense.
And the same story was true in the Oct. 5 preseason opener against Fenerbahce Ulker, even if he didn't take on as much of a facilitating role.
Over the course of 28 minutes, Durant tortured Bojan Bogdanovic and the other forwards on the Turkish team to the tune of 24 points, eight rebounds, three assists and a single turnover on, once more, 50 percent shooting.
Now, fortunately, we don't have to rely solely on the preseason to indicate what happens when Westbrook is out of the lineup. We can just turn to last year's first-round series against the Houston Rockets.
While the Thunder struggled to advance out of the first round before they were massacred by the Memphis Grizzlies, Durant and "struggled" don't belong in the same sentence.
Take a look at how his per-game averages from the regular season compared to those from each of the two postseason series:
So, where's the decline? Where is that struggle?
Although his shooting percentages didn't quite reach Durantian levels, he still managed to post 45.5 percent from the field and 83 percent at the charity stripe.
But some context is important here.
Going into the 2013-14 season, the Thunder have been able to spend time practicing and planning for what happens in Westbrook's absence. It's not like he's suddenly going to run into Patrick Beverley and throw the whole team into a tumultuous state once more.
Everyone has had time to adjust.
And given how successful Oklahoma City's best player was during the impromptu shift into a role that asked him to be the alpha dog, beta dog, gamma dog and delta dog, it's scary how good he can be when you take away the sudden aspect of the shift.
Hell, he might be able to handle being the epsilon dog as well. And do I hear anything about being a zeta dog?
A More Well-Rounded Game
As you might expect from a superstar, Durant is getting better each and every year.
No offense to Carmelo Anthony, who emerged last season as the leader in points per game, but the 25-year-old forward is the clear-cut No. 1 scorer in basketball. He might not take as many shots, but his shooting percentages are lifted straight out of a video game on "rookie" difficulty.
Durant and Larry Bird are the only players in basketball history to compete for a scoring title while shooting 50 percent from the field, 40 percent from beyond the arc and 90 percent at the charity stripe.
That just isn't supposed to happen, and yet Durant is poised to get even better during his seventh professional season.
The key is that he's maintaining those ridiculous scoring figures and percentages while making his game more versatile. Instead of looking at assists per game and turnovers per game to prove this, let's take a look at a more telling set of stats: assist percentage and turnover percentage.
While the former estimates the percentage of teammates' made field goals that were assisted by the player in question when he was on the court, the latter shows the percentage of plays that resulted in a turnover.
And they're both trending in the right direction.
That rise in turnover percentage should be expected because Durant's mentality shifted. He became more of an active facilitator, and it's easier to cough up the rock when passing it with more frequency.
But what's really impressive is the subsequent dip, one that should become a trend and not an aberration as the 2013-14 season progresses.
To put things in further perspective, Durant's assist percentage during the 2013 postseason was 29.2, which would have just continued the upward trend in rather emphatic fashion. His turnover percentage simultaneously dropped to 12.7, continuing that trend as well.
This is no fluke.
But it's not just the quantity of assists that is making Durant even better. It's the quality.
Would he have managed to make that pass earlier in his career? I doubt he'd be able to see it developing, much less be able to spin the ball into Kevin Martin's hands with such perfection. There's so much English on that ball that we might have to consider including some French and Spanish as well.
That's by no means an easy pass, and it's the type of play that Durant has started to make look routine.
He's not just scoring anymore, but rather actively seeking out the best play possible.
Will Kevin Durant have the best season of his career in 2013-14?
And that's the best sign of all.
Durant still has a large gap to close if he wants to catch LeBron as either the league MVP or the No. 1 player in the world, but he's doing everything possible to do so.
At the very least, the situation he finds himself in—both creeping ever closer to his basketball prime and learning how to play without Westbrook—coupled with a more well-rounded game will lead to the best season of his career.
Since Durant has already submitted a few historic seasons, that should be enough to get the heart of any basketball fan racing.
Note: All stats, unless otherwise noted, come courtesy of Basketball-Reference.
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