Thunder-Warriors III Is a Reminder of How Much Kevin Durant Has Evolved

Will Gottlieb@@wontgottliebFeatured Columnist IFebruary 24, 2018

Golden State Warriors' Draymond Green (23) high fives teammate Kevin Durant during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Oklahoma City Thunder Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2018, in Oakland, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Photo by Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images

Kevin Durant gets buckets. We've known this for a decade now. Ever since he averaged 20.3 points per game as a rookie with the Seattle Supersonics.

As the Oklahoma City Thunder come to the Bay Area Saturday for a third tilt this year, having blown out the Golden State Warriors in each of the first two matchups, it's a good time to analyze how much Durant has changed, and how much better he's gotten since his OKC days. 

The combination of size, skill and shooting makes him a scoring hitman. And as is the case with any elite scorer, Durant has added to his game year after year to remain at the highest level and become a more complete player. He's done exactly that over the past two seasons by forming and fitting in with the Warriors while finding ways to let his former self shine through.

Sometimes, all he's had to do is go the simpler route.

"I wouldn't say my game has changed," Durant told Bleacher Report. "I'm just simplifying it—well, I guess that's a change—but it's just simplified. I've just realized what's important out there to get the job done. I try to get to my spots as quickly as possible, try not to waste any movements and try to keep everything simple."

Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

During his time in Oklahoma City, he improved yearly, but he was never forced to substantially change the way he played until he signed with the Warriors.

With the new star power around him, Durant had to make major sacrifices. Rather than being the offense, he had to learn how to be a part of the offense. No longer was he a part of the your-turn-my-turn scheme in Oklahoma City. His willing buy-in to player and ball movement is reflected in the drops in his isolation frequency, pick-and-roll ball-handling and post-ups, as well as in the upticks in his transition plays, spot-ups and cuts.

Juxtaposing his tendencies with each team shows clear trends of moving away from the ball. 

Kevin Durant's Play Type Frequency
2015-162016-17
P&R Ball-Handling19.0%12.6%
Transition15.1%22.5%
Isolation14.9%11.5%
Spot-Up11.0%14.2%
Post-Up8.1%7.0%
Cut4.0%6.5%
Synergy Sports

"There was a learning curve to it," Warriors assistant coach Ron Adams said of Durant's arrival in Golden State. "Kevin is a really wonderful guy, he came in not wanting to step on people's toes.

Adams was with Durant in Oklahoma City between 2008 and 2010, and was a real influence on Durant's joining the Warriors. With pre- and post-Warriors Durant experience, he was able to offer some insight into Durant's evolution. 

"The guys on the team wanted to incorporate Kevin, so there was a natural progression that, a process that needed to happen for things to work. But it didn't take very long."

Understandably, with two other 20-plus nightly scorers on the floor, his points per game dipped from 28.2 in 2015-16 to 25.1 last season. His assists and rebounds held the same. And it also makes sense that his field-goal percentage went up to a career-high 53.7 with Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson drawing so much attention.

This season, Durant has taken the evolution of his game to the next level by finding a way to insert his alpha role from Oklahoma City into the egalitarian offense in Golden State. As a result, he's playing the most complete basketball of his career. 

"He scores in a variety of ways," Adams said. "He's the type of guy that doesn't always need a play run for him to score. We do use him in ball screens. I think we probably iso a little bit more this year, not only Kevin, but other people. That has its positives and negatives, but he's awfully capable of getting his shot off with space because of how he's built, how his game works."

His pick-and-roll ball-handling, transition, isolation and spot-up frequencies have all settled into happy mediums between his OKC days and first year in Golden State, while his post touches have gone up and his cuts have remained the same as last season.

Kevin Durant's Play Type Frequency
15-16 OKC16-17 GSW17-18 GSW
P&R Ball19.0%12.6%16.2%
Transition15.1%22.5%21.9%
Isolation14.9%11.5%14.1%
Spot-Up11.0%14.2%12.6%
Post-Up8.1%7.0%9.1%
Cut4.0%6.5%6.4%
Synergy Sports

"As far as shooting mid-range shots, posting up, cutting to the rim, I try to do everything on the offensive end," Durant said. "I try not to be one-dimensional as a spot-up shooter or isolation player. I've always prided myself on doing everything on the offensive end and doing whatever coach needs me to do."

He's taking advantage of the weapons around him, and it's helped his pick-and-roll ball-handler points per possession increase from the 88th to 92nd percentile since leaving OKC, while his isolation points per possession have improved from the 86th to 91st percentile.

Durant noted that there was a bit of a trust-gaining period with Kerr, but now he's running free.

"Now that I'm more comfortable, Coach is trusting me more in the pick-and-roll," he said. "Last year, whenever we needed a basket, and even out of timeout plays, he would call an isolation for me."

That is definitely reflected in the numbers, where Durant's pick-and-roll possessions per game have increase from 2.7 to 3.7 this year, up in frequency from 12.6 to 16.7 percent. It may not look like all that much, but on a team known to be deliberate with possession usage, it's a substantial increase. 

Perhaps this is what makes head coach Steve Kerr feel like there hasn't been an intentional effort to feed Durant, even if the numbers don't necessarily reflect that. 

"[It] Just happens." Kerr said. "It may be because Steph has missed a lot of games ... but when Steph's out, it changes the dynamics of our team, we tend to go to KD a little bit more, so that might be, but we definitely haven't changed our philosophy, our focus."

Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

All of this is to say how much better and more well-rounded Durant has become, but let's not forget that he's averaging a career high in assists per 36 minutes at 5.8 (his career average is 3.8), per Basketball Reference, and that he's garnering Defensive Player of the Year consideration with a career high in blocks as the rim protector on the league's fifth-best defense.

Durant has taken these two important qualities and become a hybrid. It's next level. Combining the two styles of his career franchises has given the Warriors an even better offensive rating (from 113.2 to 114.0) and has the potential to land them right back in the Finals in June.

Does he think it's made him better?

"I feel like I'm more seasoned," Durant said. "I'm more experienced, and mentally, I'm on a different level as a player."

Can't argue with that.

Adams poignantly agreed: "I think so. The thing about Kevin is that he's such a well-rounded basketball player, he passes the ball so well, he's a terrific rebounder, he can defend in every conceivable way. Some games he does something more than another stat category. Some games he's very mindful about passing, sometimes he's on the boards. He's the type of guy that you always want more out of because he can always give you so much."

For all the heat Durant took for moving from Oklahoma City (and losing the first two games against them this season), he has made the most of his life-changing decision to join the Warriors. It's brought out the best version of him to date, and it's likely we see it on display Saturday against the Thunder. 

     

All stats via NBA.com unless otherwise noted.

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