With Russell Westbrook set to miss at least the first month of the 2013-14 season and no other reliable scoring threats to support Kevin Durant, the Oklahoma City Thunder have decided to see if they can squeeze even more production out of their 25-year-old superstar.
So in addition to leading the team in scoring, Durant is going to be a primary facilitator this year, too.
According to Darnell Mayberry of The Oklahoman, the change is already underway:
If you can, go back and watch the Thunder's preseason game against Philadelphia.
Pay close attention to Kevin Durant.
Watch the way he handled the ball. Controlled the pace. Picked apart the defense and made plays with his passing.
You need to see what Durant did in that game to understand what the Thunder's offense very likely will look like to start the 2013-14 season.
Well, that's what the Thunder's offense will look like if it gets to play the lowly Philadelphia 76ers 82 times this year. Against a more even slate of competition, Durant might find it difficult to match the 12 dimes he accumulated in the game Mayberry described.
Still, KD averaged a career-high 4.6 helpers per contest last season, and he's always going to draw the kind of defensive attention that leaves others open. So if the Thunder really are serious about giving Durant more offensive responsibilities, it's possible that we'll see KD lead the team in both scoring and assists this year.
Could It Really Happen?
There are a handful of caveats to consider here, not the least of which is Westbrook's health.
If OKC's point guard misses so much of the season that he fails to qualify for the team's assist lead, Durant would take the title by default. No disrespect to Reggie Jackson, the man who'll be starting in Westbrook's place, but it's not like OKC has another capable distributor on the roster.
But by all accounts, Westbrook is supposed to be back sometime before Christmas, which means he'd have to be playing at a markedly reduced level of effectiveness for Durant to finish with a higher per-game assist average.
For all the criticisms of Westbrook's point guard skills, it's worth mentioning that the lowest single-season assist rate he has ever posted (17.7 percent) is still higher than KD's career high of 15.5 percent last season, per NBA.com.
And remember, OKC's offense was just a hair worse than the Miami Heat's last season, but still good enough for second best in the league, per NBA.com. Much of the team's scoring success came from a more even distribution of touches between Westbrook and Durant, with both looking to score and facilitate.
So if Westbrook is physically able to play the role he did a year ago, the Thunder are most likely going to return to a more even, two-pronged attack that will make it tough for Durant to accumulate more assists than his star teammate.
Then again, maybe there's another scenario in play that could allow Durant to retain his new role even if Westbrook is healthy.
If Scott Brooks believes that the Thunder could actually improve as an offense by moving Westbrook off the ball more frequently, maybe we'll see Durant hold on to his new position even if his sidekick is at full strength. It's undeniably intriguing to imagine Westbrook darting around the floor as a cutter, attacking as a slasher and generally wreaking havoc with his athleticism.
The Thunder had to teach Westbrook how to pass the ball, but he's always been a devastating natural scorer. The complaints about his shot selection and tunnel vision have quieted, but they've never completely gone away: Maybe Westbrook was never meant to be a point guard in the first place.
Perhaps OKC can get more value, efficiency and production from its "point guard" if it turns him loose as a scorer rather than a passer.
If the Thunder are willing to take the risk of drastically redefining the roles of their two best players, it's possible that Durant could thrive as a dual threat while Westbrook functions as a single-minded bucket-getter.
Should It Happen?
This is the bigger question, and the one that gets closer to the heart of what kind of player Durant should ultimately become.
It's cliche to say so, but Durant isn't LeBron James. The former is a born scorer with the ability to set others up when necessary, while the latter would happily go an entire game without taking a shot. Both KD and LBJ have gradually embraced a "whatever it takes" approach that has led to more well-rounded games, but their basketball DNA is as different as can be.
For now, perhaps it makes sense to lean on Durant as a distributor as well as a scorer. But what OKC should do to set itself up for long-term success is put together a roster that allows Durant to take even more shots than he already does.
The fact that the Thunder are asking so much of him is both a testament to his remarkable skills and an indictment of general manager Sam Presti's equally remarkable failure to surround KD with useful offensive players.
Right now, the Thunder have two starters—Thabo Sefolosha and Kendrick Perkins—who depend entirely on other players' creativity for their shots. And Serge Ibaka couldn't get his own looks if his life depended on it. This is a roster that already asked far too much of Durant and Westbrook, and now that Westbrook is hurt, Durant is shouldering a doubly heavy burden.
If OKC ever wants to be more than a fringe contender (which, by the way, is the best it can hope for this year), Presti has to find players who can not only get their own shots, but also devote their offensive energy to getting looks for Durant.
KD has never played with a legitimate facilitator of any real quality, and because of that, we probably still haven't seen how great a scorer he can be.
For now, the Thunder have little choice but to lean on Durant to score for himself and to generate chances for everyone else. But he shouldn't be viewed as a long-term answer in that role.
Be Careful What You Wish For
Durant probably could lead the Thunder in scoring and assists this year—provided the circumstances are right. But that's not what the Thunder need, and it's not the best thing for KD's individual development.
Remember, we got a preview of how defenses could attack Durant when he had to take on a dual role last year. The Memphis Grizzlies obliterated OKC's offense, focusing solely on Durant, making him give up the ball and daring anyone else to make a shot.
The Thunder had no answers.
Defenses already bear down on Durant with unparalleled intensity, and instead of liberating him by surrounding him with other capable setup artists, OKC is going to add to his duties. That's fine in a pinch, but if KD really does wind up leading the Thunder in scoring and assists, it'll probably mean the team has had a rough year.
And it should probably make KD wonder about how many more he wants to spend in Oklahoma City.