Denying Kevin Durant's status as the best scorer in basketball is akin to admitting you don't bother watching the Oklahoma City Thunder and fail to check box scores to see what's been happening when you aren't tuned in.
In other words, it's just nonsensical.
This season more so than ever before, Durant has been the very definition of an unstoppable force in the scoring column. He's averaged 31.4 points per game, and it's not like he's been taking plenty of ill-advised shots to get there. After all, K.D. is shooting 50.9 percent from the field, 40.5 percent from beyond the arc and 87.9 percent at the charity stripe.
He's just a few percentage points away from joining the 50/40/90 club for the second season in a row, and he'd become the first player in NBA history to do so while A) leading the league in scoring and B) averaging 30 points per game.
Like I said, Durant is unstoppable.
By definition, an unstoppable entity can't be stopped, but is there anything that can actually hold the OKC superstar back?
Before we delve into this exercise, let's make the parameters clear. I'm only interested in this season, for a couple of reasons. Not only is the present inherently more relevant than the past, but Durant has taken further strides as a scorer this year.
During 2012-13 and seasons earlier in his career, Durant was less of a facilitator. He failed to involve teammates as much unless he was passing out of double-teams, and the development of those passing chops have done wonders for his overall game.
He's all the more dangerous now.
Does He Ever Get Stopped?
Following the loss to LeBron James and the Miami Heat on Feb. 21, Durant had played in 55 games during the 2013-14 campaign.
Of those 55 outings, he'd failed to hit 20 points only four times:
- 19 points against the Utah Jazz on Nov. 24.
- 18 points against the Memphis Grizzlies on Dec. 11.
- 17 points against the San Antonio Spurs on Dec. 21.
- 13 points against the Minnesota Timberwolves on Nov. 1.
Interestingly enough, three of those four lackluster scoring totals came while Russell Westbrook was healthy, but that's more of a correlation than a causation.
Now you could also look at the seven games in which Durant hit 20 points but failed to get to 25 as instances when he got stopped, but there are a few reasons I'm not doing so.
First, that's holding him to an unreasonably high standard. In NBA history, 316 seasons have been recorded in which the player qualified for the scoring title while posting 25 points per game, and that's accounting for 67 years. On average, there are 4.7 players per season putting up those kinds of scoring numbers.
Secondly, we're about to account for one of those performances with a new criterion.
Durant normally makes at least half of his shots from the field. In fact, he's done so during 28 of the 55 games he's played in 2013-14. But let's dig deeper and look at true shooting percentage rather than field-goal percentage, as so much of Durant's dominance stems from his ability to knock down triples and work his way to the charity stripe.
Only three times has the forward failed to post a true shooting percentage on the right side of 50 percent:
- 24 points against the San Antonio Spurs on Nov. 27.
- 13 points against the Minnesota Timberwolves on Nov. 1.
- 25 points against the Golden State Warriors on Nov. 29.
Taking out the overlapping game against the 'Wolves, that leaves us with six contests in which Durant has been "stopped."
What Tends To Happen When He's Stopped?
One way in which Durant can be stopped is a lack of playing time. Not because of foul trouble, but because the Thunder are just too good.
That was the case in the relevant game against the Jazz, as Durant scored 19 points in 26 minutes during a blowout victory. OKC ended up winning by 22 points, so it wasn't necessary for the Durantula to produce his normal levels of damage. It's the same strategy the Brooklyn Nets used to end his 30-point streak at a dozen games, though that certainly wasn't intentional.
Let's remove the Jazz contest from the equation, leaving us with five games that saw Durant get "stopped."
Now, take a look at the percentages he shoots in those five outings, compared to his seasonal numbers:
Obviously, he's not shooting particularly well from either the field or downtown, but the problem isn't rooted in just the misses. Instead, we can point to his lack of involvement and inability to get the shots that he thrives on.
You'll see what I mean if you look at one more graph:
That, more than anything else, is what makes the difference.
Durant is going to hit shots when he gets looks, so it's in a team's best interest to prevent him from getting scoring opportunities. And if he's going to touch the ball, opponents must do everything possible to keep him from creating space beyond the three-point arc and avoid fouling him at all costs.
The forward's game is predicated upon those facets of his game. There's a trickle-down effect when he hits an early triple or begins a game by making some trips to the line. When that's taken away, everything changes.
After losing to the 'Wolves in historic fashion during the second game of the season, Durant told the Associated Press, via ESPN, "If they play one-on-one, I felt like I had the better matchup. But every time I caught it there was two guys guarding me, so I've got to kick to my teammates. I've got to make better decisions in that area."
He was hounded all night long, primarily by Corey Brewer and Derrick Williams. And when Minnesota wasn't throwing a cup at him on the perimeter—as you can see above—or preventing him from getting the ball by hedging on passing lanes and chasing him relentlessly, they were cheating off their men.
You can see that below.
There are other examples of team's using similar strategies, and they normally involve a versatile defender doing everything possible to deny Durant possession of the rock.
"You saw in the second half, I was trying in the halfcourt to deny him, to not let him get that ball easily," Andrei Kirilenko told The New York Times' Beckley Mason during the 2012-13 campaign. "If you want to get it, go work for it. For those guys who are playing 40 minutes every game, it’s tough when he’s working and working and working to get that ball."
AK-47 said that after allowing Durant to go for 33 points on 12-of-21 shooting.
As Mason writes, "Kirilenko explains that the hard part is not actually stopping Durant once he gets the ball, because that is next to impossible. The focus for a defender tasked with slowing Durant must be on prevention."
Truth be told, there isn't one defender who can corral the league's best scorer and current favorite for MVP (though LeBron is starting to close that gap). It's a team effort, and King James admitted as much before the two superstars clashed for the first time this season:
LeBron's defense has been slipping this year, as he seems awfully intent on saving energy for the stretch run and playoffs. But few players in the NBA are better at getting up for an individual defensive assignment, so when he speaks, you should listen.
If LeBron says it's impossible to contain him as an individual, it's probably pretty darn close to impossible.
Truth be told, the ideal defender for Durant moves like James, has the instincts of Paul George, the wingspan of Anthony Davis, the pure leaping ability of Nate Robinson and the height of Roy Hibbert.
In other words, he just doesn't exist.
The closest you can come is a long-armed and versatile defender, like Kirilenko a few years back or Trevor Ariza this season. It was the Washington Wizards forward who did one of the best jobs corralling Durant during the 2013-14 season, holding him to 26 points during a 96-81 Washington victory on Feb. 1.
"They did a good job defensively,” Durant, who went 0-of-6 from downtown and 8-of-21 from the field, said after the game, via Michael Lee of The Washington Post. "They got into passing lanes. They made it tough. They made me see a crowd. It was a few shots I should've hit. I got some good looks, but they did a good job. You've got to give them credit."
Wizards head coach Randy Wittman gave Ariza credit for playing like he was Durant's mirror. The forward stuck with his mark throughout the game, hounding him no matter how much energy he was forced to expend.
And even that wasn't enough. Durant's outing still didn't meet either of the criteria for being "stopped," according to the definitions I set forth earlier in this article.
"You start out Sunday morning in church. Say three Hail Marys. I've got some Buddha beads. You pray to all the gods," Shane Battier told The Oklahoman's Jason Kersey before he was tasked with slowing down the OKC forward during the 2012 NBA Finals.
"I’m going to be silly right now, but maybe break his arm, break his leg? You can’t do anything," Marcin Gortat said to AZCentral.com's Paul Cora after Durant exploded for 41 points during the middle of January last season. "You can triple-team. He is still going to score."
Nearly two years have elapsed since Battier's advice, and it's been more than a year since Gortat, then with the Phoenix Suns, revealed his tips and tricks. Those may well still be the rest of the NBA's best bets.