Kevin Durant's Efficiency Puts Scoring Tear on a Brand New Level

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Kevin Durant's Efficiency Puts Scoring Tear on a Brand New Level
Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Sometimes, I wonder what I could do with the frame of someone close to the seven-foot barrier; a wingspan so lanky I earn an arachnidian nickname; endless reserves of athleticism; the best shooting touch in the world; and tremendous basketball instincts. 

Then I wake up and realize I was dreaming, because that combination really shouldn't exist. 

Except it does. 

Kevin Durant possesses all of the aforementioned gifts, and he's been putting them to good use throughout the 2013-14 season. After exploding for his 10th 40-point game of the season on Monday night—Carmelo Anthony (five) and Kevin Love (four) are the only other players with at least a trifecta of such performances—the Oklahoma City Thunder superstar is averaging a mind-boggling 31.7 points per game. 

That ridiculous scoring average puts him in prime position to win his fourth scoring title in five years, and he has quite the cushion between himself and the rest of the field. It feels as though KD could sleepwalk his way through the rest of the season, or decide to pull a Larry Bird and play left-handed, and still win the crown. 

In fact, Durant can't even be compared to other scorers this season. 

This is the first time in four years that a qualified player has averaged over 30 points, and the last to do so was...Durant in 2009-10. Only 13 seasons that meet the criteria have been recorded since the world freaked out about technology problems leading up to Y2K. 

However, this isn't about volume; Durant's efficiency just puts him on a new level in modern NBA history. 

 

 

What's He Doing? 

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

It's one thing to score points in bunches, but it's another thing entirely to do so while only taking the right shots—and that's what Durant has done up to this point in the 2013-14 campaign. He's rarely forcing anything and is instead playing within the flow of the game and still finding time to rack up the assists. 

After dropping a career-high 54 points against the Golden State Warriors in January, Durant told the Associated Press (h/t ESPN.com): 

As a leader, my main objective is to serve my teammates, help them out. Some nights, I've got to put it up, I've got to score. Some nights, I've got to do other things. Tonight, they found me and I was able to hit a few shots. I just tried to do as best as I can to lead the team and lead us to victory.

Durant isn't just saying the right things; he truly believes he's an all-around player, not just a scorer. 

Nonetheless, he's a pretty darn good scorer. 

Last season, the OKC standout put up one of the most efficient volume-scoring seasons of all time. Despite posting 28.1 points per game, he still managed to join the 50/40/90 club by shooting 51 percent from the field, 41.6 percent beyond the arc and 90.5 percent at the charity stripe. 

That basically hadn't been done before. 

Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

I say "basically" because Larry Bird has qualified for 50/40/90 membership twice while scoring more than 25 points per game, but that's it. He and Durant are the only players to truly compete for a points-per-game title while gaining admittance to the exclusive group of efficient scorers. 

Dirk Nowitzki came close in 2006-07, but his 24.6 points per game left him just shy. The other six 50/40/90 seasons—Reggie Miller, Mark Price and Steve Nash (four times)—all fall shy of the 20-point barrier. 

Durant's 2012-13 was pretty impressive, but his 2013-14 go-round has been even better: 

Durant Improving Upon Near Perfection
Year PPG FG% FGA 3P% 3PA FT% FTA TS%
2012-13 28.1 51.0 17.7 41.6 4.1 90.5 9.3 64.7
2013-14 31.7 51.0 20.5 39.5 5.6 87.4 9.9 63.9

Basketball-Reference

Although the Durantula's percentages have dipped, to the point that his free-throw percentage ultimately might keep him out of the 50/40/90 club this season, that's the result of a dramatic increase in efficiency. Adding nearly three shots per game isn't a big deal for an average player, but it's a drastic step up for a player already near the league lead in attempts. 

Yes, Durant's true shooting percentage has gone down slightly. But that's been more than made up for by his jump in usage and corresponding increase in scoring output. 

"Statistically, what more could we want from KD?" questions B/R's Fred Katz. "The NBA's first 60-50-90 season? How about 50 points per game on 100-100-100 shooting?"

The Thunder's best player isn't just leading the NBA in points per game; he's also pacing the Association in minutes played, field goals made, free throws made and attempted, player efficiency rating, usage rate, offensive win shares, total win shares and win shares per 48 minutes. 

That's a pretty ridiculous combination, which is why it's time to compare him to the rest of the top scorers in modern NBA history. 

 

 

Why Did I Just Say "Modern NBA History?"

Ken Regan/Getty Images

The answer is pretty simple: Wilt Chamberlain. 

His scoring exploits are pretty much in a league of their own, especially when he dropped 50.4 points per game while shooting 50.6 percent from the field during the 1960-61 season. While his efficiency didn't reach Durantian levels because of his poor free-throw shooting as well as the fact that he was limited to only two-point attempts, the extra 20 points per game makes a big difference. 

In fact, he has five of the top-six scoring seasons in NBA history, with Michael Jordan's 1986-87 season being the other one in the mix. 

Of course, the game was different back then. The lack of teams in the NBA forced Wilt into difficult matchups more often, but there weren't as many superstars to take away touches. One player could steer a team to a championship, and the concept of a "Big Three" wasn't really necessary. 

Chamberlain, even though Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has more total points scored, remains the most statistically impressive scorer of all time. But we're going to eliminate him and the other old-school players from contention by limiting the scope to modern history, defined as what occurred after the NBA-ABA merger in 1976. 

That takes 31 of the 64 30-point seasons out of play, though only those produced by Wilt, Kareem and Rick Barry would have threatened Durant's ability to rise to the top. Jerry West might have done so had he played with a three-point arc, but that's neither here nor there.  

 

 

Has Anyone Come Close in Recent Memory?

NBA Photos/Getty Images

From the 1976-77 season through the present, 33 players have averaged at least 30 points per game.

Of those 33, though, only 11 have managed to average a higher number than Durant is currently posting—Michael Jordan (five times), Kobe Bryant, George Gervin (twice), Allen Iverson, Bernard King and Tracy McGrady.

But again, that's not what this is about. Efficiency lies at the heart of the analysis here, which means we're going to turn back to true shooting percentage.

For those of you who aren't too familiar with basketball analytics, true shooting percentage is the ultimate box-score measure of shooting efficiency, because it takes field-goal percentage and then forces it to include contributions from both beyond the arc and at the charity stripe. All three facets of scoring matter in this metric.

So, let's look at how the 33 30-point seasons in NBA history stack up:

Infogr.am.

Now, depending on what you're into, you can point to a few different sections on the chart. 

No one in modern history was better at putting up points in volume than Michael Jordan, who dominates the right-hand portion of the chart. However, MJ wasn't the most efficient scorer of the bunch, an honor that belongs to Adrian Dantley and Durant. 

Dantley, while he has the one arrow pointing to the highest true shooting percentage of all, also lays claim to the data points directly below him and on the left. The third in that clump is claimed by Karl Malone. 

KD isn't the leader in either of the two factions. Jordan scored way more than him, and Dantley—even if he's often overlooked when people remember the great scorers in NBA history—was even more efficient while posting 30-point seasons.

So how does that lead to Durant starting a new level of scoring excellence? Because he's straddling the gap. 

Durant is both on the verge of raising his efficiency to the level of Dantley and scoring enough points that he moves out to the far right on the graph. 

Here's one more way of looking at the chart: 

Infogr.am.

The new level is the overlapping portion of the "super efficient" and "efficient and volume" circles. We can call it "super efficient and volume," because we're feeling extra creative today. 

It's territory occupied by only two seasons: this current campaign by Durant and one by Jordan in 1990-91. However, Jordan's season pales in comparison to KD's, as he's lagging behind in both criteria. 

However, let's regroup and refocus. Looking at volume scoring and then adding efficiency into the equation is quite telling, but so too is reversing the order. 

Richard Rowe/Getty Images

Basketball-Reference shows that in recent history—defined the same way as before—only 14 seasons have been recorded in which a player shot at least 51 percent from the field, 39.5 percent beyond the arc and 87.4 percent at the free-throw line. Those, you might remember, are Durant's current marks. 

Of those 14 seasons, only seven saw the player in question average at least 20 points per game, and Durant is the only one on the right side of 30. 

Don't take for granted what the OKC forward is doing. 

NBA history is littered with impressive scoring performances, and it seems as though we have a new standout (or repeating one) every couple of years. But the numbers Durant is posting are new, simply because he's combining incredible efficiency with incredible volume at a rate previously unseen. 

Enjoy them, because chances are we won't be seeing anyone else score like this for quite some time.

Unless Durant provides us with an encore. 

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