The last time we saw Kevin Durant before the start of this season, he was at the peak of his powers, slicing up eventual NBA champion Bucks knowing full well that in order to win the Nets needed just about everything. possessions to revolve around his decision-making. The emergency took Durant to the next level. Even in the loss, he was crowned best player alive, earning the awe and adulation that was overlooked (enough or not) after winning two MVP trophies of the Finals.
Kyrie Irving missed the last 3.5 games of this classic Eastern Conference semi-final with a sprained ankle, and for his entirety, James Harden was severely hampered by a hamstring tear. Today, with a reshaped supporting cast – which prioritizes outside shooting and experience over creating independent shots – Irving is absent again as Harden finds himself adjusting to a relationship drastically. different with the referee’s whistle.
Until further notice, Durant finds himself not only where he was five months ago, but his environment is similar to what forced him to favor the Warriors over the Thunder in 2016.
The Nets find themselves trying to navigate this need to use the best player in the world as much as they want or could in a perfect world, knowing that he is a 33-year-old who attracts as many or more of them. defensive attention than ever before. Durant has an unprecedented combination of size, grace and supreme confidence that on his own can generate a quality attack, but the durability of it all is another question.
“It’s hard not to use Kevin Durant,” Nets head coach Steve Nash said. “There’s the choice to use it and then there’s just, the ball finds Kevin Durant because he’s so hard to defend. So it’s not all of us saying ‘Let’s go see Kevin. Let’s go see Kevin. … This is partly due to his talent and his supernatural. But we’re definitely aware that we want the whole group to play well together and find combinations and lineups that can be effective offensively, so it’s not overly dependent on Kevin and we don’t rely too much on him.
There’s a huge difference between one or two playoff rounds and a colossal 82-game regular season. And seeing the inevitability of Durant’s influence mingling with such demanding circumstances is one of the most fascinating and important developments of this start to the season. As great as Durant is, the degree of difficulty he faces every night is higher than ever.
Much of Durant’s legacy comes down to his compatibility without ever sacrificing his own numbers blatantly. His mere presence improves everyone around him; put Durant in any situation, with four players, and he’ll alleviate any worries, whether it’s wandering off the ball, setting a brush screen, performing a pick-and-roll, to isolate in the middle of the post, to push someone back on the block, to defend the opponent’s best player or to calmly perform merciless jumping shots in times of pressure. Durant’s greatness came to be defined by his ability to blend in without ever needing to deflect his team’s entire offense.
“He has evolved in every way he can,” Pacers head coach Rick Carlisle said on Friday ahead of a loss at Barclays Center. “He’s a scorer, point 3, 4, 5. He’s a unique player of his kind. I think from a purely marked point of view, I mean, I’ve never seen anyone do it more easily. … It’s just, you know, that some people’s abilities are beyond words. I don’t know how to put it another way.
But in the first two weeks of his 14th season, Durant is the catalyst for more games than he likely anticipated when he chose to join Irving on a deep Nets roster that once featured free agents like Spencer. Dinwiddie and Caris LeVert. In addition to scoring en masse, Durant now has to set the table for just about all of his teammates, none of whom aside from Harden can consistently generate quality looks for himself or others.
His assist rate of 31.1% is a career best, and when Harden is not on the pitch he climbs to 45.5% which is more than Luka Doncic, Trae Young or Chris. Paul released last season. If maintained, it would be uncharted territory for someone whose passing ability has long been overshadowed by his elegance as a goalscorer. (When Durant played without Russell Westbrook in 2014, his attendance rate was only 28.7%.) Right now, he’s one of eight players with both attendance and attendance rates. use both exceed 30%.
Durant also makes more baskets every 36 minutes than at any time in his career, with a remarkable 66.3 True Shooting percentage that was only exceeded last season. His career best-matched PER is equal to what he was when he won the MVP award in 2014. Last year, the share of Brooklyn-made baskets Durant could claim responsibility when he was on the field was 29.5 percent, the same as in his second season at Golden State. He is now at 37.4 which would also be the highest of his career.
Some of the numbers that illustrate just how grueling Durant’s departure really is aren’t even calculated: 46.5% of his shots are two-man shots, up 12% from last year and almost 20%. % more than he was when he was the league’s MVP.
Durant is unhurried excellence. When he dribbles, the relationship between him and his defender is that of a boot to an ant. But even he can’t do more than 60% of his mid-range shots in an entire year, or an absurd 70% in two longer ones. (Especially in a triple team.)
Durant has impeccable balance, high release and the grip to get where he wants to go. But so many of his shots are still hotly contested, seconds after he had to escape his man from a screen with a hand to his face. There are bumps and grips and manual controls. It constantly fades and bends, springing from one leg, twisting its seven-foot frame into tight pockets of space many others wouldn’t dare to explore.
In other words: nothing is easy. And Durant’s migration away from the tri-point line helps illustrate just how struggling he really is. In his last year with the Thunder, about 20% of Durant’s shots were catch-and-shoot three. A year later, firmly established in Golden State’s whirring system, the non-rebounding two-point jumpers were balanced by three points (the two made up about 21% of his offense). Today, the three points have fallen to just 7.9%.
His assisted shooting percentage is only 30%, far a career low and more than half of what it was in 2011 and 2017. Durant also isolates more than he did this season. last (24.4% of his possessions, up from 14% in 2021, per Synergy Sports) and is the most effective isolation scorer in the entire league.
Even though Brooklyn’s offensive rating ranks in the bottom third of the league after a historic attack in 2020-21, Durant’s vision has been a high tide lifting all boats. He sees the whole field, anticipates what the defenders will help, then makes the right difficult pass seem elementary.
“He’s more polite,” Harden said when I asked about the development of Durant’s game since they were teammates at Oklahoma City. “He knows where he needs to go and then obviously his head is up when he gets into his bag and he sees where the defense is. [is] derived from. It is in iso. In the post, same thing. He knows where double teams come from. … He knows himself in the field.
His pass-to-basket percentage is up about 10% from last season – and almost double what it was in the 2018 season – against converging defenders who are not at all concerned about outside shots from the Nets.
And then there are the simple darts he throws at his teammates that can take advantage of the gravity that Durant’s reputation seemingly creates on its own. Put a big blow on him and there better be some help behind.
“The game has slowed down,” Durant says when I ask him how he sees the need to balance shots and passes now compared to earlier stages of his career. “I kind of know what I want to do there. For the most part, it’s just about knowing the game, studying the game for the past 15 years… on a different level, and I’m able to adapt to certain situations. I have to keep growing, keep learning, keep being a student.
Despite the huge load, the spacing issues, and knowing that it needs to be more assertive than in previous years while attracting even more defensive attention than usual (which is *really* saying something), Durant is enjoying one of the most impressive individual seasons in the entire league. He’s either slightly better than ever or just doing things he didn’t have to do. Either way, the Nets have an important question to ask themselves every night: How much Durant is too much, and does such a thing even exist?
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