Kevin Durant's flash may come in his scoring, but his value extends so far beyond merely putting the ball in the basket. And for the Oklahoma City Thunder to make noise in the postseason, they'll need to use his full array of skills for four straight series.
Clearly, Durant could always score, and though his points and usage are up this year from where they've ever been, that's not the only reason why he's a better player in 2014. There's so much about Durant that's gotten better.
The defense has progressed. He's legitimately become a lockdown wing defender, who knows how to rotate and whose length and athleticism make him a complete force on the defensive end. But the Thunder have players who could make up for certain lethargies if Durant were to take possessions off.
Go through the OKC starters, and you'll notice something: It has a top-notch defender at four of the five positions.
Russell Westbrook is possibly the best crunch-time defender at the point guard spot, even with his high-gambling ways. Thabo Sefolosha is as disciplined as they come. Serge Ibaka is a deserving All-Defense contender. And then there's Durant.
Really, though, OKC needs KD, the distributor, to keep up his newly developed passing skill set.
Durant was never a bad passer. Even when he first came into the league, he was able to make plays most rookies or second-year players couldn't. Last-second dump-offs in penetration and ball swings around the perimeter have always come naturally to him. Unselfishness is in his nature.
Last season, KD started to handle the ball a little more, and with that, he posted an at-the-time, career-high assist rate. But this year, Durant has taken his passing game to new levels. Now, he's making plays that only LeBron James can match.
Earlier this year, I wrote about Durant's mastering of the cross-court pass, an aspect of the game at which his combined height and vision allow him to excel. You can go back and look at plays like these just to see that:
A find like this isn't just about vision. Sure, that's impressive, but the Tony Parkers of the world would struggle more to make this play because they may not be able to throw the ball over the defense. They don't have the size.
At some point, passing isn't just about vision, but it's also about physical talent. Durant has that, and his height allows him to dish in ways your average point guard or shooting guard just can't.
How many guys can make this play on a regular basis?
Durant. James, clearly. Blake Griffin, maybe. And is that it?
Kevin Love, both the Gasols and Joakim Noah are tremendous facilitators, who have the height to make some wonderful cross-court tosses, but they don't really have the handle to make that play off the dribble.
It takes a certain amount of anticipation to make this pass. You have to bait the defense and then capitalize. And Durant has become so strong at tricking defenders into coming at him.
It's a fascinating question: When we talk about the best passers in the NBA, is it fair to factor in their ability to command double-teams when they have the ball?
Noah is as brilliant a facilitator as any other big man in the NBA, but teams aren't sending second defenders at him all too often. So is he a more effective passer than a Griffin or a Love, who suck defenses toward them like vacuums?
Clearly, that happens with Durant as much as anyone else in the league, and he's starting to take advantage of it more than ever. And when KD is moving the ball, the Thunder offense is pretty impossible to stop, exemplified best by Oklahoma City's 40-12 record when its best player has five or more assists.
That carries into the playoffs, against a team like the Memphis Grizzlies, who are so disciplined on the defensive end. We think the Thunder have a feisty D? Well, the Grizzlies are right there with them.
Memphis hits its rotations on time, closes out on shooters quickly and has both the best help defender (Marc Gasol) and arguably the best perimeter defender (Tony Allen) in the NBA. Quick offensive decisions mean everything when you're facing a team like that. And look how fast Durant is in plotting his moves:
KD could have taken that three. No one would've said anything if he had. It was an open look, but instead, he had a better idea.
Durant goaded the defender (who is Gasol, by the way), went to the hoop, drew in the defense and dumped off to an open, cutting Ibaka.
This season, we're seeing KD distribute in ways he hasn't before. He's making passes in penetration and transition he never has in the past. He's even become a pick-and-roll decision-maker.
He showed off so many moves in Game 1 against the Grizzlies. He assisted on baskets in transition and penetration, out of the pick-and-roll and out of isolation, all on his way to piling up seven dimes on the night.
When Westbrook went down in last year's playoffs, part of Durant's struggles stemmed from becoming the team's primary ball-handler. Westbrook had never missed a game before. KD may have always been OKC's premier offensive player, but he was never the guy who did the majority of the dribbling.
|Kevin Durant Year-by-Year Assist Rate|
So, Durant shot 42 percent from the field and 36 percent from three against the Grizzlies in the Western Conference semifinals. He didn't facilitate properly.
But when Westbrook got hurt this year, Durant learned to run the pick-and-roll to perfection. He developed a wonderful chemistry with Ibaka. He learned how to find the right teammates on the wings. The "LeBronification" of his game truly began.
The Thunder can beat up on the Grizzlies playing their old, conventional brand of basketball. But what happens when they get to the second round? Or the Western Conference Finals? Or beyond that?
OKC will need its best player to run its offense. It only adds that much more versatility to an attack that relies so heavily on pick-and-roll and isolation basketball. And for the Thunder to meet their goal of winning an NBA title, they'll need their MVP to dish them their rings.
Fred Katz averaged almost one point per game in fifth grade, but he maintains 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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