Could Kevin Durant's Ability to Pass Be Thunder's Championship Key?

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Could Kevin Durant's Ability to Pass Be Thunder's Championship Key?
Layne Murdoch/Getty Images

It's hard to believe that Kevin Durant, who is at least the second-best player in the NBA, is still getting better at basketball every year.

His latest improvement? Passing.

The Oklahoma City Thunder superstar isn't just a scorer anymore. He's 29th in the league in assists per game at 5.6 and has reached double figures in that category seven times this season:

This added dimension makes Durant even closer to impossible to defend. Swarming him on a drive just won't cut it these days. Durant will find the open man.

For example, take a look at this assist from Durant to Serge Ibaka:

After Durant made his way to the lane, he drew both big men in addition to his own individual defender. He still could've taken the shot (notice how he's elevated above all three), but he dumped it off to Ibaka instead.

It's something he's done with increasing frequency and efficiency this season. Not only is he posting a career-best assist average, but he's also reached new heights in assist-to-turnover ratio at 1.7.

How do you go about guarding him with that being the case? Straight man-to-man defense is basically asking to be scored on. Doubling him now means a pretty good chance for someone else to get a bucket.

He's proven he'll at least try to find the open man, which makes that a threat that defenses have to worry about.

His 10.3 assist opportunities per game—defined by NBA.com as "passes by a player to a teammate in which the teammate attempts a shot, and if made, would be an assist."—prove his unselfishness.

And the points generated by his passing show how important it has been for his team:  

Points Generated by Shots vs. Assists
FGA PTS Points per Shot Assist Opportunities Points Generated by Assists Points per Assist Opportunity
Durant 20.6 32.2 1.6 10.3 13.1 1.3

NBA.com

His 1.3 points per assist opportunity is the same as OKC's leading assist man Russell Westbrook's. It's also 0.1 points better than what Chris Paul puts up in the same category.

Obviously, I'm not saying Durant's a better or more efficient passer than Paul, who leads the league in points generated by assists. I'm simply showing that Durant has become a very dangerous distributor.

And as we head into the playoffs, it's something OKC's opponents are absolutely going to focus on.

When Durant has the ball in his hands, all four of his teammates will be threats to score. That's not something you could say when the Thunder made it to the NBA Finals in 2012.

Now, with Durant's passing, they're better equipped to handle the physical defenses they'll see in the postseason, specifically that of the Miami Heat.

SB Nation's Ricky O'Donnell recently broke down Durant's playmaking, showing his ability to create off the dribble both in isolation situations and off the pick-and-roll. He explained how that could help OKC in a potential matchup with Miami:

If there's a way to combat Miami's blitzing trap defense, it's by swinging the ball. Last season's Spurs didn't have nearly as much individual talent as the Thunder team the Heat beat in the Finals in 2012, but the Spurs knew how to get around Miami's defense. The Thunder, even with James Harden, did not. Durant's performance was a microcosm of the entire series for Oklahoma City. He averaged 30.6 points per game, but also only 2.2 assists and four turnovers a night.

The hope for Oklahoma City is that one-on-one ball is out the window...

...Durant is now a fully formed offensive colossus. Run two or three defenders at him now, and he'll pass to a capable teammate.

One of the keys of what O'Donnell is saying is that the Thunder have surrounded Durant with plenty of capable players.

He's shown on many occasions that he can do it himself. Grievis Vasquez certainly seemed to think so after Durant hit a game-winning 30-foot three to sink the Toronto Raptors:

But winning it all takes a team effort.

If in fact the one-on-one and iso-ball is gone in OKC, they'll have a better shot at earning a title. As the leader of the team, it's Durant who's established and will have to continue to establish a style that incorporates everyone.

He has the passing ability to do it. This summer, we'll see if it's enough.

 

Unless otherwise noted, all stats are courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com and are current as of March 28, 2014.

Andy Bailey covers the NBA for Bleacher Report.


 

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