Kevin Durant Continues to Evolve in DPoY-Caliber Season

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistDecember 29, 2017

OAKLAND, CA - DECEMBER 25:  Kevin Durant #35 of the Golden State Warriors guards LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers on December 25, 2017 at ORACLE Arena in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2017 NBAE (Photo by Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images)
Noah Graham/Getty Images

NBA reputations are often written in permanent marker, so changing them requires an abundance of both time and sweat equity.

For Kevin Durant, efforts to modify seemed unnecessary.

Even if fans tagged him early on as a one-way contributor, they couldn't deny his achievements. Not after he had cemented his Hall of Fame trajectory with eight All-Star selections, four scoring titles, two Olympic gold medals, one world title and MVP honors for both the regular season and the Finals.

But the 29-year-old wouldn't succumb to satisfaction, even with so many of his metrics having skyrocketed beyond satisfactory. Somehow, he found a way to keep his game growing and doing it in a way that might have his award collection doing the same.

He's been defending like a madman this season to the point he's not just bounding over his previous standard, he might be leaving the entire Association in his shadow. No one has more blocks than his 70. Only he and Golden State Warriors teammate Draymond Green—the reigning defensive king—hold top-10 rankings in defensive win shares (1.8, tied for sixth) and field-goal percentage allowed at the rim (52.6, sixth).

And the way Green sees it, no one is more deserving to follow in his footsteps as Defensive Player of the Year than the suddenly suffocating Durant.

"I don't think it's really a race right now with the way he's playing on the defensive side of the ball. It's been spectacular," Green said, per Bay Area News Group's Mark Medina. "It's a thing now. That is impressive. It didn't seem possible for it to be a thing."

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Durant has always looked the part of a potential defensive dynamo. When you have a shooting guard's mobility and a center's length (7'0" with a 7'4.75" wingspan), there aren't many on-paper matchups that automatically trouble you.

But that didn't matter for the longest time. He was too skinny, too overworked at the offensive end and not physically strong enough for his natural gifts to translate into defensive success.

During three of his first four NBA seasons, his defensive box plus/minus was below replacement-level.

Durant has almost as many defensive win shares through 30 games this season (1.8) as he did over 80 outings his rookie year (1.9).
Durant has almost as many defensive win shares through 30 games this season (1.8) as he did over 80 outings his rookie year (1.9).David Zalubowski/Associated Press

Even when he pulled himself out of the red, he had trouble moving defense into his strengths column.

He spent most of his nine-year tenure with the Oklahoma City Thunder hovering near mediocre. He only once posted a defensive box plus/minus of one or better; for reference, 115 players reached that figure just last season. He averaged good-not-great numbers in steals (1.2) and blocks (1.0), and his 105 defensive rating was similarly unspectacular.

But that should have surprised no one.

Remember, this was the same player who infamously couldn't bench press 185 pounds at the 2007 combine. He was also already a scoring savantone of 12 players to average 30 points within his first three seasons—and a critical piece of that club's attack. As he began branching out his skills, he first focused on expanding his offensive arsenal.

"If you watch the evolution of Kevin's career, he came in and could just score," Green said, per NBC Sports' Monte Poole. "He could get you 20 every night, but that's all he could do. Over the course of the years, he became a better passer. He became a better rebounder. And, this is just a part of the evolution, he's become a much better defender."

Some of Durant's strides can be attributed to natural growth.

He'll always have a thinner frame, but his listed weight is 25 pounds heavier now (240) than when he entered the league (215). He looks (a bit) bulkier, too, although he isn't tracking his maturation by bench press measurements.

"I know I can lift 185...but I don't bench-press," he told ESPN's Chris Haynes.

Durant's added strength is obvious on film. Just look at how he handled the 250-pound freight train known as LeBron Jamesin a matchup he requestedon Christmas Day.

Durant had five blocks during the win on Christmas and is tied for the league lead with three five-plus-block performances this season.
Durant had five blocks during the win on Christmas and is tied for the league lead with three five-plus-block performances this season.Tony Avelar/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press

Much has been made of Durant and James' late-game encounters, but the bottom line is this: Durant was James' primary defender, and LeBron had one of his worst shooting games of the season (7-of-18, 38.9 percent) and more turnovers (seven) than assists (six) for only the third time. When asked about his toughest matchups, James wasn't light on praise for his former training partner.

"He's right up there, if not the best," James said, per Poole.

Players are shooting 7.0 points worse than do on average against Durant. That's the second-best mark among players defending 10-plus attempts per game. Narrow the focus to attempts within six feet, and the difference is minus-10.9 points. That ranks sixth for defenders facing four or more such shots a night.

"He looks like Bill Russell on defense," former Los Angeles Lakers forward and current analyst Mychal Thompson tweeted.

Obviously, there's more in play here than physical development.

Part of it is usage. Some of this newfound rim protection comes from necessity, since Durant is increasingly seeing more time as a small-ball big.

When he entered the NBA, the then-Seattle SuperSonics deployed him mostly at shooting guard (93 percent of his minutes). He was predominantly a 3 by his sophomore season, but he rarely shifted up a spot in OKC, where he never spent less than 71 percent of his floor time at small forward.

The Dubs have flipped that script. Last season was the first in which he logged the majority of his minutes at the 4 (55 percent there, 44 percent at the 3). This year, he's up to 79 percent at power forward and actually getting more minutes as a 5 (15 percent) than a 3 (seven percent).

Golden State's scrambling, switch-mostly-everything system makes the most of Durant's lateral quickness, while his otherworldly reach provides pivotal protection at the back end.

"The No. 1 thing I remind him of is to use your God-given ability, and more specifically, your length," Warriors assistant Ron Adams, who also coached Durant in OKC, told ESPN's Chris Haynes. "I think he's one of the hardest people to score against when he's focused fundamentally on defending."

Durant also has extra energy to expend at the defensive end in Golden State.

The Thunder tasked him with 37.8 minutes a night. In Oakland, that number is down to 33.8. Similarly, his field-goal attempts average has fallen from 19.1 to 17.2, while his usage percentage has dipped from 30.5 to 28.8, and that's with a heavier load falling on his shoulders of late due to Stephen Curry's absence.

Because he's better-rested and less-taxed offensively, he can push harder and longer on defense. The Dubs might have dominated on that end before his arrival, but his fingerprints are all over their league-best 100.6 defensive rating.

"He's become a much more consistent defender here," Adams said, per Medina. "He's played and showed defensive brilliance throughout his career. But I think his consistency here has been really good."

Playing in Golden State has linked Durant with great defensive minds like Adams and assistant coach Mike Brown.
Playing in Golden State has linked Durant with great defensive minds like Adams and assistant coach Mike Brown.Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

There's also more desire to defend, which is an underrated trait of elite stoppers. As Durant explained to Haynes, a fear of being viewed as a liability spearheaded his transformation:

"Defense started to become a focal point for me where I wanted to be trusted. I didn't want to be the guy where all the film clips are about how they back-doored me, or how someone drove around me, or how I'm not contesting shots. I was more so just nervous about being called out during film sessions. That's why I wanted to get better.

" ... I just want to be counted on by my coaches and my teammates in those situations. I don't want my coach to have to pull me out of the game in situations in the fourth quarter because I can't play defense and then they need to go to a defense-offense [substitution pattern]. I don't want to be that player. I never wanted to be that player. So that's what I feared more than anything."

The Warriors can thank that apprehension for the creation of their newest anchor.

And for Durant—who received just six All-Defense votes last season and only one the previous campaign—it's become the source of a Defensive Player of the Year candidacy that's impossible to deny.

"KD's length and versatility and speed and ability to close ground is just shocking," Warriors head coach Steve Kerr told Haynes, "and when he's on his game defensively, it's amazing to watch."

Durant hasn't claimed the award just yet. There's a ton of season left, and elite anchors like Joel Embiid and Al Horford won't go away quietly.

But Durant is in the conversation and quite possibly leading it. Considering his long road to this point, it might be the most unbelievable accomplishment of his incredible career.


Unless otherwise indicated, all stats are from Basketball Reference or NBA.com.

Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @ZachBuckleyNBA.


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