Kevin Durant won't stop improving, and now that he's the possible favorite for NBA MVP, his development likely won't end here.
How much better can Durant get? That seems more like a rhetorical question than it does a headline.
KD is in the midst of what may be his best season, averaging a career-high 31.6 points per game on 51-40-88 shooting. His 5.6 assists a night are his best ever. His 7.7 boards are on pace with the finest rebounding figures of his career.
Statistically, what more could we want from KD? The NBA's first 60-50-90 season? How about 50 points per game on 100-100-100 shooting?
There's a chance the main-stream numbers won't ever get much better. Heck, that may not even be possible, considering few players have ever put up the stats Durant throws out there on a nightly basis. But there are more subtle areas of basketball in which any player can improve.
Durant has dominated in virtually every facet of the game. And it doesn't seem like that's going to change anytime soon.
But maybe even the greatest can improve. Maybe someone as imposing as Durant can still manage to take another understated leap at some point in the future.
It's always rare to see a player's efficiency maintain as his usage rises, but that's exactly what we've seen from Durant this season.
Last year's 64.7 percent true shooting was the best of KD's career. This season, though, he's barely decreased that number to 63.6 percent, and that's as his shot totals have risen and risen.
Durant is using a career-high 32.7 percent of the Thunder's possessions, a number that leads the league.
So how has he done it? How has KD managed to jump in usage without missing a higher percentage of attempts? The answer lies somewhere in the types of shots he's been taking.
If there's one string of logic we've learned from basketball's stat movement, it's that threes, layups and dunks keep you efficient. Long two-pointers are what get you fired.
So we've seen a de-emphasis of the mid-range game in the NBA over the past few years. And Durant has become a part of that.
In 2010-11, 30 percent of KD's field-goal attempts came from 16 feet out to the three-point line. Even for someone as efficient as he was, you'd still rather see some of those attempts turn into shots at the rim.
But over the next two seasons, those long twos started to go away. In that time period, only 18 percent of Durant's shots could've been classified in that 16-feet-out-to-the-three-point-line zone. But in some ways, that was still too much.
This year, that number is down to 15 percent.
The long twos are going away. The three-point rate is the highest it's ever been. And his percentage of attempts within three feet is as high as it's been since 2009-10.
Shot selection is improving. If Durant can take those numbers to even more extremes while still creating open looks for himself, he may be able to raise his efficiency even more.
Playing Power Forward
Going small is rarely something Scott Brooks likes to do, though it's started to happen slightly more often after Kendrick Perkins' groin injury. Ultimately, though, we don't see Durant at power forward much.
That's not necessarily because KD can't play the 4. We know he can. We've seen it. Brooks, though, seems to have some aversion to a small-ball lineup that would put Durant on the floor with Serge Ibaka at center.
That may come from the Thunder coach's "old-school" mentality. He likes bigs who can play back-to-the-basket ball and those who can stop it. A stretch 4 doesn't really accomplish that feat.
So Durant plays almost all his minutes at small forward and dominates the game from there. Brooks, meanwhile, ends up getting slapped with a "Scotty Hates Durant at the 4" label, which is partially true. But that doesn't mean Durant can't put the conventional Brooks in an even more awkward position by adjusting his own game.
Opposing players have posted an 11.8 player efficiency rating when Durant guards them as a power forward, according to 82games.com. That's a superb number for KD, but it's still down from the 10.0 PER he allows against 3s.
KD dominates no matter where he is on the floor, but defensively, his game tends to change as a 4. Mainly, he sometimes struggles to guard bigger forwards with his thin frame.
Those sorts of players can back Durant down.
But James is too powerful for Durant to body on this play. He doesn't go around him or face him up. He simply out-physicals him, carries him to the restricted area, spins left and finishes an easy shot at the rim.
Once Durant lets his man get two feet in the paint, the play might as well be over. He's more susceptible to falling for a spin move. And he's generally lost all control in the one-on-one battle.
Post defense once the offensive player is already a foot or two away from the rim is completely reactionary. You can gamble, you can guess, but if you're wrong, it's an automatic two (or three) points. And Durant's post reactions as a power forward, while quick, aren't always up to par considering he's sometimes smaller than the player he's manning.
This isn't just an instance of LeBron being a superstar. This sort of strategy can work against KD with lesser players as well. Actually, Andray Blatche of the Brooklyn Nets showed just that when these two teams met up back in January.
Just like with James, Durant starts off on Blatche far away from the basket.
But the the 6'11", 235-pound Net backs him down and eventually beats him with a spin move, anyway.
Blatche may have missed the shot, but that's not the point. He was open. It was a good look, totally uncontested.
For Durant, it's not an issue of know-how or effort. It's simply size and strength.
Post defense is almost never an problem for KD. He doesn't find himself guarding many back-to-the-basket players, and part of that is because Brooks doesn't play him at the 4 nearly as much as he could. But maybe if Durant ever did actually improve that post defense, his coach would run out of one more excuse not to play more small ball.
When you talk about Durant, you're talking about one of the better perimeter defenders in the NBA. Durant can body up ball-handlers, and his work in help turns him into a tough defender on a team that currently ranks top five in defense.
One instance where Durant tends to struggle, though, is when his man runs off screens.
KD has a tendency to go under off-ball screens even when he's guarding guys who can step out to the three-point line. And when he goes under those picks, he often leaves shooters open for uncontested looks.
For Durant, the speed of the shooter doesn't really matter. It's all about positioning. Even when he matches up with someone like Chase Budinger, he finds himself too late to go over the screen:
Ultimately, this is about defensive recognition. Durant starts the play slightly off Budinger, taking away any sort of would-be, baseline cut. When Robbie Hummel jogs up the court, though, and finds his position at the elbow, Durant has to step up toward his man.
Hummel's positioning means his defender, Perry Jones, would be in place to take away most non-lob passes to a back-door-cutting Budinger. And in a scenario in which Bud may cut baseline, Durant has enough of an advantage in both the quickness and length department to get a hand on any alley-oop attempt that isn't perfect.
Instead, though, Durant stays back, even though Hummel is in prime screening position. And because of that, he can't find a way to go over the pick.
It's possible that Durant wants to stray away from complete aggression defensively. It's supremely realistic that Brooks may want his superstar, the potential MVP, to stay out of foul trouble. And Brooks may deem an instance of KD accidentally tackling a screener or overzealously closing out on a jump-shooter to be too trivial to pick up one of his six.
Coaches don't love it when screeners knock around their best players. The last thing Brooks needs is to turn Durant into a pinball, only increasing the possibility of injury or fatigue. So there's a chance Durant's laid-back defense in these particular scenarios is more calculated than it may seem.
At the same time, though, if KD would have recognized the offensive set just a split second earlier, he could have stood a chance to deny the opportunity for a Hummel shot. Or at least to contest it.
But again, this is all so nitpicky. Durant is already a wonderful defender.
He doesn't need to make these improvements to become good. He just needs to make them to become better. Because in the end, any athlete can grow in some way or another.
James is the best player in the NBA, one who keeps winning MVP after MVP. But somehow, he continues to improve every year. And considering that Durant has developed at a similarly rapid rate, there's little reason to believe he won't hone his game even more as he hits his late 20s and develops into his 30s.
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.
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