When Will Kevin Durant Reach His Superstar Peak?

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistJanuary 23, 2014

Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant (35) gestures and smiles after hitting a basket in the second quarter of an NBA basketball game against the Portland Trail Blazers in Oklahoma City, Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2014. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)
Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

When you watch Kevin Durant do the things he's been doing lately, it becomes hard to imagine that he's capable of getting any better.

Durant is on an absurd scoring blitz marked by otherworldly efficiency and he's doing it all with a remarkable ease that has every opponent scrambling for answers. It's not an exaggeration to say that his recent play has been historically good:

In the month of January, KD has been averaging 36.9 points, 5.8 assists and 5.8 rebounds per game on 52 percent shooting. That's a combination of volume and efficiency that, frankly, doesn't seem fair.

In fact, Durant's unconscious stretch in 2014 has vaulted him past the man who has been dominating the efficiency conversation for the past couple of years:

The praise is pouring in too. Some of it is more matter-of-fact, as was the case when Andrew Bogut shared his thoughts on Durant's career-high 54 points against the Golden State Warriors on Jan. 15 with Rusty Simmons of The San Francisco Chronicle:

He's one of the best players in the league, up there with LeBron. He shoots the ball very, very well, and at his height, there really isn't much you can do about it. If you put a bigger guy on him, then he's too quick. We battled him for the most part, but he got hot and showed why he's a perennial All-Star, a future Hall of Famer and possibly an MVP this year.

In other instances, the compliments are more hyperbolic:

Any time comparisons to divinity are the only way to convey how dominant an athlete has been, it's a pretty good sign that something special is going on.

Also special: the fact that we may never have seen a player with Durant's mixture of physical attributes, killer instinct and unquestioned skill. Divinity aside, pundits have struggled lately to categorize KD:

We'll come back to that tidbit about his post game in a moment, but first let's examine how difficult it truly is to find historically similar players to the man currently taking the league by storm.


Comparisons Fail

I guess if you were searching for someone with comparable size and shooting talents, you'd start by measuring Durant against Dirk Nowitzki. But for there to be any resemblance, you'd have to inject the Diggler with about six gallons of athleticism—That comes in a serum, right?. He'd probably need a ball-handling booster too.

May 3, 2012; Dallas, TX, USA; Dallas Mavericks power forward Dirk Nowitzki (41) shoots over Oklahoma City Thunder small forward Kevin Durant (35) during the first half of game three in the Western Conference quarterfinals of the 2012 NBA Playoffs at the A
Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Or maybe Larry Bird is the way to go. Durant has been facilitating like crazy of late, bumping up his assist totals to career-high levels since Russell Westbrook went down. Perhaps Bird is actually the aptest comparison.

After all, few forwards combined a killer's mentality, unshakable confidence and a willingness to involve teammates like Larry Legend.

Plus, Bird's "Basketball Jesus" moniker fits nicely alongside the praise Durant got from Mo Williams.

Again, though, the athletic skills and shot-creating abilities are just nowhere near the same. Durant does things so effortlessly that his cold-blooded confidence often seems like boredom:

via @JDonSports

And he's still only 25 years old.

So, having established that Durant is playing at a nearly unprecedented level and his game defies comparisons, the question becomes: How could he possibly get any better?


Room to Grow?

We could start—as many do—by nitpicking KD's defensive game. Despite earning a reputation as the league's best scorer, Durant hasn't yet earned the distinction as an elite defender on the level of James, Paul George or Andre Iguodala.

Part of that is unfair. It's often harder to detect growth on the defensive end and we're reluctant to accept the notion that someone who produces so much on offense could be similarly dominant on defense.

Plus, Durant doesn't seem to have the same terrifying, disruptive effect that the aforementioned trio of stoppers has.

However, KD's numbers have actually been fantastic this year. According to mySynergySports (subscription required), he grades out as a much more impactful stopper than James. Durant ranks as the NBA's No. 5 overall defender in isolation sets while checking in at No. 3 against pick-and-roll ball-handlers.

It appears he's figured out how to put his ridiculous length to good use on both ends.

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - JANUARY 11, 2014:  Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder blocks a shot against Ersan Ilyasova #7 of the Milwaukee Bucks at the Chesapeake Arena on January 11, 2014 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. NOTE TO USER:  User expressly ackno
Richard Rowe/Getty Images

Moreover, 82games.com indicates that he's holding opposing small forwards to a PER of 10.3 and power forwards to 9.2. Those are both elite figures.

Quietly, Durant's defense has grown right along with his offensive game. It's just that nobody has noticed.

Maybe we can see room for improvement in his post game. James seemed to take a leap in his career growth when he added a few moves on the block, so perhaps KD could do the same. As it turns out, though, Durant doesn't have much room to grow there either.

At present, mySynergySports ranks him as the NBA's 16th-best post-up scorer. Durant could become slightly more valuable if he caught the ball down low more often, but why would the Thunder want to take touches away from him in isolation (ranked No. 7 in the league) or on the pick-and-roll (ranked No. 3)?

Run down the list of past gripes about Durant's game and you'll see that he's eliminated virtually every weakness. That leads us to an interesting conclusion about where he is in his current growth curve.


Holding Steady

Jan 22, 2014; San Antonio, TX, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant (35) reacts after a shot during the second half against the San Antonio Spurs at AT&T Center. The Thunder won 111-105. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports
Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Ready for a revelation? Okay, here goes: Durant is at his peak right now.

Maybe that sounds like a copout. At this moment, however, he's playing better than anyone in the league by a comfortable margin while joining historically good statistical company. Few players in the modern era have done the things he's doing.

Since we've established that there aren't really many ways for him to get better, holding steady at his current level will be a monumental achievement on its own. We've seen about three weeks of blindingly brilliant play from KD. Keeping it up will be exceptionally difficult.

So while it might seem strange to argue that Durant is at his superstar peak at this very second, it'd be even stranger to make the case that he could somehow get better.


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