Does History Say Kevin Durant Can Keep Up His Scoring Streak?

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Does History Say Kevin Durant Can Keep Up His Scoring Streak?
Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

We're witnessing history in Oklahoma City, and we should all thank Kevin Durant for that. Durant is scoring and it seems like he'll never stop. But the question remains: Is there any point at which he'll revert back to the Kevin Durant who was merely great and not superhuman?

Over Durant's past 26 games without injured superstar Russell Westbrook, he's averaged 35.0 points a night.

He's scored more than 40 points seven times in those 26 games. He's scored more than 25 in all but one of them. He even just recently dropped 30 or more points in 12 consecutive games, the NBA's longest such streak since Tracy McGrady accomplished that feat for 14 straight contests in 2003. 

Durant is in the midst of the loudest hot streak of his career, but it's not unparalleled. Over the past couple of decades, we've seen wing players score at a comparable rate to Durant. And maybe we can learn something from those hot streaks in reference to Oklahoma City's star.

Kobe Bryant has had similar scoring streaks. So have LeBron James and McGrady. So has Michael Jordan. (No shocker there.)

 

Durant's Efficiency

Layne Murdoch/Getty Images

Durant has used 36.0 percent of the Thunder's possessions in those aforementioned 25 games since Westbrook's injury. And somehow, someway, he's managed to post a 65.3 percent true shooting over that period.

Nope, there are no typos in that. 65.3 freakin' percent. Let's put that in perspective for a second.

Heading into All-Star weekend, Kyle Korver and LeBron James were tied for the NBA lead in true shooting percentage at 65.1 percent. And Durant's 31.7 percent usage rate was barely edging those of DeMarcus Cousins and Carmelo Anthony. 

Take a step back. That means Durant's numbers over his past 26 games would be good enough to make him both the highest-used and the most-efficient player in the NBA. That doesn't happen.

Usually, either a big man or an unselfish three-point specialist will lead the NBA in true shooting. That's how Korver and his 46-percent three-point shooting lead the NBA this season. It's how Tyson Chandler has pulled off the feat not one, not two, but three years in a row.

Durant, though, has lived on the perimeter, where he won't stop shooting, and he won't stop missing.

Since the Westbrook injury, Durant is averaging almost unimaginable numbers: 35.0 points, 7.5 rebounds and 6.3 assists per game. And he's just a hair away from posting 180-shooting numbers over that stretch: 52.7 percent from the field, 39.9 percent from three and 87.8 percent from the line.

There aren't flaws in those numbers. There aren't holes. But this isn't necessarily a first.

Wing players have had similar stretches in recent history. And we can look at the four wings of the past couple decades (Bryant, James, McGrady and Jordan) to get an idea if Durant's scoring stretch is at all sustainable for the rest of the year.

 

The LeBron Streak

Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

James put together a 29-game streak, one that rivals Durant's, over his final season with the Cleveland Cavaliers

The Cavs sandwiched a three-game losing streak between two 13-game winning streaks, and went 26-3 over that stretch, during which James averaged 30.2 points, 9.6 assists and 7.6 rebounds. But the efficiency numbers weren't quite Durant's: 50 percent from the field, 32 percent from three and 77 percent from the line.

What's to learn from the James streak? The Burnout Factor.

Remember this was James' final season in Cleveland. He had to do everything that year. Everything. 

He was the Cavs' point guard. He was their best wing. He was their mascot if they needed one.

Actually, the Cavs weren't all that different from a Durant-led, Westbrook-less Thunder team.

So James dominated the regular season like he always does, carried his team through the year and made it to the playoffs without the weight of Mo Williams, Antawn Jamison and a ready-to-retire Shaquille O'Neal breaking his back. And trust me, 38-year-old Shaq was even heavier than any of us remember.

But then the playoffs came, and we learned that even the strongest of spines can crack.

You can blame it on the crazy conspiracy theories that say James wanted to play his way out of Ohio. Or you can just say he had a few ill-timed off nights. But for whatever reason, James had those historically memorable Games 4 through 6 against the Boston Celtics that season in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.

For the Cavs to win, James had to do everything. But the Celtics only let him do some things.

That's how you shoot 3-of-14 in Game 5. It's how you follow it up with an 8-of-21 in Game 6. And keep in mind that the aforementioned 29-game stretch was as much of a distributing hot streak as it was a scoring one.

So maybe Durant isn't best off doing everything, and more, for the Thunder. If he does, he could end up like 2010 James.

 

The 2006 Kobe Streak

Noah Graham/Getty Images

Remember when Kobe Bryant wouldn't stop shooting? No, I'm not talking about every night of his career. I'm talking specifically about January of 2006.

Remember that? It was when Smush Parker was a household name, purely because of Kobe's apparent refusal to pass him the ball. It was post-Shaq, but pre-Gasol, and the Lakers were coming off a 34-win season.

All of that forced Bryant into no-one-else-is-ever-touching-the-ball mode. He activated that mentality from day one of the season, and he never let it up. But there was a particular 21-game stretch from the end of December to the beginning of February in which he got especially hot.

That's when Kobe had his 81-point game against the Toronto Raptors. It was when he had five consecutive games scoring 40 or more points. It was when he dropped 62 on the Dallas Mavericks without even playing in the fourth quarter.

Over those 21 games, Kobe didn't do much other than score. But that was fine, considering he averaged 40.8 points per game in that time. 

40.8. That's a real number.

We marvel over Durant's volume, but it's so easy to forget about Kobe, whose 46-37-87 shooting line over his hot streak wasn't nearly as efficient as Durant's, but was still perfectly respectable considering his chuck-happy ways.

Maybe the most mind-boggling part of that whole streak was that Bryant used 41.3 percent of his possessions, which would shatter the record for highest single-season usage rate, a record held by...Kobe Bryant in 2005-06.

There was some cool-off factor after Kobe's 21-game run ended, and Mamba had a relatively tame March, but he still averaged 35.0 points per contest on 45-35-86 shooting the rest of the way, and even closed the season with a 41.6 point-per-game, eight-game month of April.

Really though, there was no one to take shots away from him or to tell him to stop shooting—including Phil Jackson. Bryant wasn't going to give up and ball. And with that, the scoring was never going to wear off completely.

 

The Other Kobe Streaks

Kobe Bryant's Highest-Scoring Months
Month (Year) PPG FG% 3P% FT%
January (2006) 43.4 47.0% 39.7% 89.7%
April (2006) 41.6 50.9% 41.3% 82.4%
February (2003) 40.6 47.2% 42.9% 84.6%
March (2007) 40.4 45.9% 37.2% 86.5%

Basketball-Reference

Bryant has averaged more than 40 points per game for a full month four times in his career. Think about that for a second.

The most recent time came in March of 2007. But once the calendar changed from March to April that year, Kobe cooled off to the tune of 34.1 points per game. Talk about a slump, right?

That said, he did shoot only 21 percent from three in April. But he kept racking up points, considering he was shooting 26 times a game. That'll take you a long way if you're trying to get your scoring average into the 30s.

ANN HEISENFELT/Associated Press

But the most comparable Kobe hot streak to Durant's may have come years before, when Bryant averaged 40.4 points over 16 games in the winter of 2003. That's the streak that should give Thunder fans hope that Durant can keep his scoring up after Westbrook comes back.

In 2003, Kobe was also playing with a relatively big name who tended to command the ball often. Enter: Shaquille O'Neal.

Granted, Shaq missed three of those 16 games, but that didn't stop Kobe from throwing shots at the rim like the ball was on fire. He even took 41 field-goal attempts at one point in that streak, a game in which Shaq played 40 minutes.

Durant, though, hardly has Kobe's shoot-first-and-shoot-always mentality, so it's hard to gauge exactly how much he would actively want to play such a style.

Once Kobe's hot February ended, he averaged 28.0 points per game on 44-percent shooting the rest of the season, still tremendous numbers, but statistics that were more in line with his full-season performance considering he was averaging 27.2 points on 45-percent shooting before that 16-game run began.

 

The McGrady Streak

Rocky Widner/Getty Images

McGrady won his first of two scoring titles in 2002-03 and averaged a career-high 32.1 points per game in the process. Plenty of that had to do with his aforementioned 14-game 30-point streak.

Over that stretch, he averaged 37.4 points per game, while shooting 49 percent from the field and 44 percent from three. And that was on more than seven three-point attempts per game.

That whole season was McGrady at his finest in Orlando, and that stretch was one of the most dominant individual streaks the league has ever seen from a wing.

The problem, historically, is that we don't really have any way to evaluate regression.

Game 14 came on April 1 with just six games left in the season. And just because McGrady's 30-point streak was over didn't mean he was done tearing up teams around the league.

After a 12-point night ended his run, he dropped 28 on the Houston Rockets.

Then he had 37. Then 35. Then 37 again. And he closed out the season with a mere 22 points. 

McGrady's hot streak never really ended, and considering he started off the Magic's playoff series against the Detroit Pistons with respective 43- and 46-point performances, it's hard to say he has ever regressed.

But even if we include the playoffs, that's just 27 games, and about the same amount of time Durant has kept up his scoring. So we can marvel, but it's hard to say exactly how McGrady's season would've continued had he started to play like this in December and not March.

 

The MJ Streaks

BETH A. KEISER/Associated Press

Michael Jordan has so many records. So what should we talk about first?

How about his nine consecutive 40-point games in 1986? Or his 19-game stretch in 1988 when he averaged 38.5 points per game on 56-percent shooting? Or how about the fact that he averaged 37.1 points per game for an entire season?

If it's over 82 games, does it still count as a hot streak?

All those numbers, though, while unmatched, came on bad teams, or at least on teams that were uncompetitive judging by Jordan's standards. For a situation more comparable to Durant's, we have to jump ahead to 1992, when Jordan averaged 33.7 points over an 18-game stretch in November and December.

Michael Jordan's Highest-Scoring Months
Month (Year) PPG FG% 3P% FT%
April (1988) 39.0 55.9% 8.3% 84.4%
February (1987) 38.4 47.5% 11.1% 87.7%
April (1987) 38.1 50.4% 18.2% 85.4%
November (1986) 37.5 45.9% 16.7% 81.8%

Basketball-Reference

Now, if that scoring total doesn't seem particularly high for a Michael Jordan hot streak, that's because it's not. He put up those scoring totals over full seasons routinely. But those 18 games were notable more for efficiency reasons than anything else.

One of the reasons Durant's 25-game stretch has been so particularly impressive is because of his percentages. Remember that 65.9 percent true shooting?

Well, in his 1992 stretch, Jordan shot 50 percent from the field and 46 percent from three on 3.1 long-range attempts per game. Unlike Durant, MJ was never a three-point shooter, but similarly to KD's hot streak, we saw a slight spike in usage along with an increase in efficiency.

Over the rest of the season, though, Jordan came back to Earth.

He still averaged 32.6 points per game and shot 50 percent from the field in his final 54 games, but he hit just 32 percent of his threes, perfectly in line with his career percentage.

What we saw was some kind of regression to the mean. Even the great Michael Jordan isn't above that.

 

What to Expect from Durant

Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

Not all of these streaks were exactly like Durant's.

LeBron's hot stretch was as much about getting others involved as it was about him scoring. Those 2006 and 2007 Lakers teams had Kobe and then everyone else. McGrady's was ill-timed to evaluate regression or sustainability. And Jordan wasn't as close in style to Durant as James, Bryant or McGrady.

Mainly, though, none of those players were awaiting the return of a fellow All-Star. And that's what really separates this streak from others in the past. It's more circumstantial than anything else.

In some ways, a more proper comparison to Durant's current streak might be one that Amar'e Stoudemire had in his first season with the New York Knicks

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Early in that season, Stoudemire scored at least 30 points and shot at least 50 percent from the field in nine consecutive games. And that's not anything to sneeze at. It's the longest such streak in the NBA since Shaq scored 30 or more and shot 50 percent or better in 11 straight back in 2001.

But everything changed for Amar'e in February of that season when the Knicks acquired Carmelo Anthony.

Stoudemire had a 31.9 percent usage rate when Melo arrived. And that number went down three percentage points in games with Anthony.

Three percentage points may not seem like a lot, but that's about 10 percent of Stoudemire's used possessions. If he's on the floor for 75 or 80 possessions in a game, that's a pretty decent amount of shots that he loses.

Durant's Anthony is Russell Westbrook. There's a reason his usage has spiked more than five percentage points with Westbrook out of the lineup. But Russ isn't gone forever.

After all, the Thunder do expect him back at some point after the All-Star break, according to Anthony Slater of The Oklahoman. And once he returns, maybe Durant's scoring can't keep up.

At the very least, if Westbrook plays the way he has in the past—meaning if he has that Anthony-like 30-plus percent usage rate—Durant won't have the opportunity to continue averaging almost 35 a game.

But Westbrook doesn't have to stay the same. That's not a given.

 

What Could Happen with Westbrook

John Minchillo/Associated Press

We've seen intelligent point guards start to take a back seat after coming back from injuries. After all, Westbrook may want some time to ease his way back into the lineup. It's possible he wants to dust off the rust.

It's also possible he thinks like Chris Paul.

Paul recently returned from a shoulder injury that had him in a suit for 18 games, and in those 18 games, Blake Griffin put together one of the best scoring streaks of his career—if not the single best one.

Paul isn't a high-usage point guard, but he is one who commands the rock often, gets loads of touches and dribbles until the ball becomes deflated. So naturally, people reasonably wondered if Griffin could score as efficiently and as often with Paul back. 

It's only been a couple of games since CP3's return, but for now, it seems like he can.

Paul is feeding Griffin the ball when the game situation calls for it. He's letting Blake take over more than he has in the past. And, at least in those two games, Griffin is scoring just as often.

Paul is clearly a different type of player than Westbrook, who is usually one of the most-used players in the NBA. 

So it's probably safer to assume we will get the Westbrook we already know and not some new Westbrook, who is looking to let Durant take over on most occasions. And that means if this is just a hot streak for Durant—and not him taking the leap from great to all-time great—it's possible, just like in the cases of Jordan, Bryant and even James, if we see his numbers regress just a bit before the season ends.

 

Fred Katz averaged almost one point per game in fifth grade, but he maintains that his per-36-minute numbers were astonishing. Find more of his work at RotoWire.com or on ESPN’s TrueHoop Network at ClipperBlog.com. Follow him on Twitter at @FredKatz.

*All statistics current as of Feb. 14 and from Basketball-Reference, unless otherwise noted.

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