With shorter contracts and greater movement in free agency shuffling personnel across NBA rosters, speculation about potential player moves is beginning earlier than ever. Kevin Durant is the latest subject of such chatter, with rumors spreading of his eventual return to his hometown Washington Wizards when his contract expires after the 2015-2016 season.
Put aside the money he'd be turning down from the Oklahoma City Thunder and the relationship he has built with the city and team, both of which are certainly factors in free-agency decisions. From a pure basketball perspective—in terms of Xs and Os and his role on the floor—any move away from OKC makes little sense.
The growing trend of superstars forcing their way to certain teams has kicked up significantly in the last few years. The idea, of course, is simple: Put multiple great players on the same roster and you've got an instant contender. But basketball, unlike baseball or football where players can fill specific roles independent of other positions, is completely interconnected.
How one player positions himself on offense, dominates the basketball or swings it around has a direct impact on the effectiveness of other teammates. It's why Dwyane Wade and LeBron James, two of the three best players in the NBA when they teamed up in 2010, still looked disjointed and inefficient well into their second year together.
Despite different body sizes and weights, they essentially played the same on-ball guard position, commanding the offense from the top of the key as its centerpiece. Neither had ever truly played off the ball, and they seemed to be taking turns more than playing with and off each other.
One of Durant's greatest assets is that he doesn't need the ball in his hands to score efficiently. He's a better player when he's able to work off of a creator, hitting jumpers off screens and attacking defenders who aren't totally keyed on him—which is to say Russell Westbrook helps Durant just as much as Durant helps Westbrook.
Because at heart, Durant is a shooter. Since he entered the league, his ability to penetrate and break down defenders off the dribble has improved tremendously—to the point that his 1.113 points per possession on isolations was actually best in the league among all players with at least 50 isolations last year, according to Synergy Sports (subscription required).
But the telling stat isn't in his isolation efficiency; it's that he ranked 19th in the league in isolation percentage, or the percent of his possessions that were isolations. Other scorers such as Carmelo Anthony, Stephen Curry, Joe Johnson, LeBron James, Rudy Gay, Tyreke Evans and James Harden were all ahead of him, indicating that he found alternative methods of scoring in which the ball wasn't simply placed in his hands to create two points.
Looking at his scoring distribution, Durant produced points relatively evenly throughout the traditional methods of scoring: 20.2 percent of his points came as the pick-and-roll ball-handler, 16.2 percent in isolation, 15.8 percent in transition, 13.4 percent off screens, 9 percent in post-ups, 8.7 percent off spot-ups and the rest collected through cuts, offensive rebounds and rolls to the basket in the pick-and-roll.
Now compare that to another elite wing scorer, like Harden: 26.8 percent in transition (largely due to Houston's style of offense), 23.5 percent in isolation, 21.6 percent as the pick-and-roll ball-handler and 9.5 percent as a spot-up shooter.
Of Harden's scoring distribution, 45.1 percent of his baskets came when he was relied upon to create (pick-and-roll and isolation). Only 36.1 percent of Durant's points came that way, whereas the other nearly two-thirds of his points came by working away from the primary action.
It's not that you can ignore star players when they don't have the ball, but most scorers become significantly less threatening on the weak side of the floor. A lesser willingness to cut or a coach's attempt to use them as a decoy keep them in standstill positions, reducing their worth to that of a spot-up shooter.
Durant, however, is arguably the best shooter in the league and cannot be ignored no matter how far away from the ball he is. But he's also fantastic on the move, and OKC head coach Scott Brooks does a great job keeping him active even when he's not in the primary action.
Take this set here against the Phoenix Suns, in which Kendrick Perkins and Durant set a "double drag" screen for Westbrook. This dual pick-and-roll action forces Westbrook's defender to fight through two screens while putting extra pressure on Phoenix's Miles Plumlee to corral both the ball and two possible rollers to the rim.
Brooks, however, adds an extra wrinkle by having Perkins immediately set a quick little screen for Durant so he can pop to the three-point line. Now Plumlee is in a real dilemma: Does he stay with the ball in a help position, or lunge out towards Durant who might come free at the three-point line?
He decides to stay home at the free-throw line and protect, but Durant is able to knock down the open shot.
This is the choice defenses face between Westbrook and Durant. Their skills so wonderfully complement each other, with Westbrook's world-class explosion to the rim stopping bigs from venturing too far out of the paint, and Durant's world-class shooting doing the exact opposite.
On this next play, we have a similar "double drag" which folds into a double stagger screen for Durant out of the corner. This time Westbrook attacks himself, hitting a pull-up jumper from the elbow. But notice how Blake Griffin and Reggie Bullock of the Los Angeles Clippers are both completely occupied with the secondary double screening action.
This keeps their focus off the ball and puts DeAndre Jordan on an island with Westbrook. To account for his speed, he backs up after the pick-and-roll. But Westbrook seizes the space and knocks down the jumper.
There are plenty of players that can score throughout the NBA, but few are as versatile as Durant. Even fewer have the luxury of playing with someone who can exploit the exact components of a defense that are stretched by a particular offensive player, and that's the type of relationship Westbrook and Durant have.
It's not that the Wizards don't have talent, and it's not that John Wall, Bradley Beal and Durant can't form their own Big Three. It's that this Durant—a Durant that can and does cede shots to a complementary and unrelenting sidekick—is the best and most efficient version of himself. Any other situation is a risk that is not worth taking.