Due to game after game of brilliant offensive play, Kevin Durant is always the focus of an opponent's defensive game plan. Thus far this season, multiple strategies have failed to contain the NBA's best scorer. But is there even a way to stop Durant from imposing his will on the game?
One-on-one defense, ball denial and double teams from all angles are the most common ways teams have tried to stop Durant from pouring points each night, but each has a built-in flaw that can be exploited.
Some teams have chosen to play him straight up, limiting help and simply taking away Durant's ball-distribution options. The idea is to allow Durant to score 35 plus points, but in the process take away from the overall team score. Too bad that hasn't really worked, as the Thunder are 19-5 in games Durant scores 35-plus points, according to NBA.com.
What about doubling him? There's been a marked increase in Durant's assist numbers this season, reaching 5.7 assists per game this year. While he's received much acclaim for his greater willingness to move the ball, it's really been more a function of teams forcing the ball out of his hands.
To his credit, average passers merely kick it out when they feel pressure, or aggressively go at double-teams before they arrive. Durant has shown a knack for not only reading, but also slicing up doubles, making the right pass to punish the defense for overcommitting to him.
In the post, defenses have brought 54 hard doubles at Durant, according to Synergy Sports (subscription required). Yet the Thunder is still scoring 0.907 points per possession in such instances. That's good for 11th in league among all players who have seen 20 or more double teams in the post.
In the pick-and-roll, teams will often aggressively switch or hard hedge against Durant in order to prevent him from pulling up. The ball pressure can also dictate a pass, but Durant is still punishing defenses.
In 48 pick-and-roll traps on Durant, OKC scores 1.048 points per possession (subscription required). In switches and hedges, that number is still a very respectable 0.909.
The alternative—loosely guarding the pick-and-roll and letting Durant shoot—is deadly. His 1.046 points per possession (subscription required) in these situations ranks fourth in the league, a number that becomes even more outstanding when you consider that it has come on 414 possessions—11th most in the NBA.
What all of this says in a nutshell: Pressure Durant and he will make you pay by finding teammates. Don't pressure Durant and he will score a lot and efficiently. It's pretty much a lose-lose situation.
Some teams have simply tried to deny Durant the basketball. It's certainly a noble ploy, but no player has the physical energy to deny an opponent the basketball all the way up the floor. Because Durant is such a great ball-handler, often times he will grab the rebound and push it himself.
But in limited, half-court situations, Durant can be pushed around. Though Scott Brooks loves to run Durant off unending screens as well as put him in highly dangerous pick-and-rolls with Russell Westbrook, Durant isn't the most physical player.
In his years in the NBA, he's learned to use his length to reel in the ball while holding off defenders with his opposite arm. He's also become quite the accomplished player at drawing fouls, and will incite whistles when he feels excessive contact.
Still: Durant is human, and like any human he doesn't enjoy when a defender constantly crowds his personal space. The types of defenders that have had the most success against him haven't been the most physical or athletic or quick. They've simply been pesky and unrelenting, bothering him at every opportunity and making every step difficult.
On some level, this means sacrificing an offensive player to stop Durant. In the aggregate it's worth it, considering the damage Durant can do on the offensive end of the floor. But an opponent guarding him will have to expend so much energy that he won't be able to exert much energy on offense.
In 12 games this season that Durant has shot 40 percent or less, OKC is 6-6 (according to NBA.com). Golden State and Utah appear twice on this list, two teams not typically seen as defensively inclined. So what could they be doing to thwart the NBA's best player?
Again, it's about the physicality. For Golden State, Andre Iguodala and Draymond Green have guarded Durant, with Green taking the assignment down the stretch on January 17th. Compare these two plays, in which Green is all over Durant from the beginning.
As you watch the first video, keep yours eyes solely on the Durant-Green matchup in the right corner. Even as the ball is on the other side of the floor, Green has his hands on Durant and is in his personal space. He's not making any type of catch easy and gives him zero breathing room.
As Durant comes off the pin-down screen, Green gets a bit overaggressive and fouls Durant—one of Durant's strengths, and a specific play type for which Durant himself literally forced a rule change.
On the very next trip down the floor, OKC runs the same exact play with Jeremy Lamb setting another pin down. Despite the foul, Green is up to the same tricks with his hands all over Durant. But this time, Durant pops and Green lays off the pressure.
On the previous play, he fell for Durant's rip-through move and committed a foul. This time he backs off. Durant anticipates Green doing the same thing, however, and tries to catch and rip a bit too quickly. He drops the ball and turns it over.
Now, you can't expect Durant to drop the ball all the time. But it's these types of mind games of physicality that the best defenders have played with Durant. Just bugging and nagging all over the floor, on and off the ball, eventually gets to everyone.
It requires unrelenting effort and every ounce of energy, but it's probably the only way to really affect Durant on the floor. Defenders come into games against him with the understanding that stopping him outright is nearly impossible. The more you can do to make things difficult and wear him out, the more it might pay off down the stretch.
As teams do this to him more and more, Durant will once again adjust his game. That's what makes him a great player, always tinkering to react to different types of defenses. But for now, being consistently physical seems like the only strategy to just maybe throw him off.