LeBron James thinks Kevin Durant can break the NBA’s career points record . Why? Because even after a season of injury, Durant is only getting better at his craft — scoring.
Through 20 games, Durant is having the most efficient season of his career. His 27.2 points per game average trails only Stephen Curry and James Harden in scoring, and he’s doing so shooting 52.7 percent from the field and 43.1 percent from 3-point range. His True Shooting Percentage (a statistic that takes into account field goals, 3-pointers and free throws) stands at 66.0, which ranks No. 2 in the NBA behind Curry.
For context, the list of players in NBA history to average 27 points with a True Shooting Percentage of 66.0 only runs two deep — for now.
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In typical Durant fashion, he’s scoring his points in a variety of ways. He ranks in the 90th percentile when it comes to scoring out of spot-ups, post-ups and isolation, and he’s amongst the league’s best in transition and pick-and-rolls. Since Durant has always been an efficient scorer, let’s take a look at what’s working particularly well this season to determine whether or not it’s sustainable.
Over 15 percent of Durant’s scoring comes in transition, where he averages a blistering 1.32 points per possession. With the ball in his hands, Durant tends to pull-up from 3-point range before the defense is set or use a nifty crossover to blow by opponents if they pick him up early.
He’s also a huge target for the guards when he leaks out, made all the more potent by his ability to beat opponents down court and finish above the rim.
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When neither of those options are available, Durant is often the last player down the court, much of which is by design. While the defense gets set by running to the paint, Durant trails his teammates and jogs to the 3-point line, where he uses his momentum to step into a shot in rhythm. Especially when he’s being guarded by power forwards, it usually leads to easy points for the Thunder.
While the rest of the league puts a premium on ball movement and spacing, the Thunder continue to let Durant operate in a heavy dose of isolations. Rather than having him break defenders down at the top of the perimeter, though, first-year Thunder coach Billy Donovan has implemented a curl action to get Durant closer to the basket. As a result, 21.0 percent of Durant’s shots this season have come from 10-16 feet, according to Basketball-Reference .
While that’s not the most analytically sound shot, Durant is practically automatic from that distance — he’s converting those looks at an impressive 55.7 percent clip.
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There are a number of options based on how opponents defend Durant, but it starts with the same formation: The two wings stand near the baseline and the bigs hover around the free throw line like they’re running “horns.”
The bigs then set a double-screen for Durant, leaving it up to him to make the right call depending on the coverage. The first option is for Durant to curl off of two screens and cut to the other side for a pull-up or drive. If that’s not available, he can pop out to the perimeter and run a pick-and-roll, curl baseline if the defense overplays or call for a pin-down once he reaches the other side of the court. There’s also the option of lobbing the ball over the defense if they hedge towards the screen, much like Evan Fournier in the image above.
Here’s a look at a few variations of the play:
The Thunder have leaned on a different play lately to get similar results. Anthony Morrow, one of the best 3-point shooters in the NBA, acts as a diversion in this clip by running off of a pair of screens on the baseline opposite to Durant. Rather than popping out to the 3-point line, though, he makes a V-cut towards Durant and sets a screen on his man. That’s all Durant needs to receive an uncontested entry pass above the free throw line and the Thunder clear the floor for him to work his magic.
The Warriors have the best pick-and-roll combo in the league with Curry and Draymond Green, but Westbrook and Durant aren’t too far behind.
Westbrook is dynamite in the pick-and-roll, and his ability to turn the corner with a quick burst of speed forces defenders to make a quick decision. That’s difficult to contain when Westbrook runs a pick-and-roll with Ibaka or Adams, for example, but it’s even more complicated with Durant in the picture. Fail to hedge and Westbrook will drive to the rim or pull-up for a midrange jump shot; fail to switch and Durant will slip the screen or pop out for an uncontested 3-pointer, just like this:
It doesn’t help that Durant is shooting 58.6 percent when defenders are within 2-4 feet of him, according to NBA.com , putting even more pressure on opponents to stay on his hip and not give him any breathing room.
The Thunder don’t only run it for a quick option — it’s also used to get Durant on a switch with a smaller player guarding him. Notice, for example, how Justise Winslow and Dwyane Wade immediately switch assignments on the perimeter. With Wade guarding him, Durant uses his size advantage to attack the basket and finish strong at the rim.
Durant continues to log nearly a quarter of his minutes at power forward, and the Thunder run a variation of the pick-and-roll when he’s in that position by getting the other big man involved. In this situation, Ibaka sets the screen for Westbrook on the perimeter, while Durant hangs around the free throw line. When Ibaka dives to the rim, Durant sets a back screen for him — creating some confusion between Thaddeus Young and Brook Lopez — and pops out to the perimeter for an open 3-pointer.
It’s another simple (yet effective) way of creating high quality looks for the Thunder’s best scorer.
When Durant isn’t directly involved in the pick-and-roll, he’s often one pass away from the ball handler. While defenders are taught not to help in those situations , they often gravitate towards Westbrook instinctually to cut off lanes to the basket and prevent an easy 2-pointer. That, however, leaves Durant standing on the 3-point line all by his lonesome, waiting for a catch-and-shoot opportunity.
Is it sustainable?
In comparison to Durant’s MVP season (in which he assumed much of the ball handling duties with Westbrook only playing in 46 games), there is a noticeable change in his shot selection. A smaller percentage of his attempts are coming at the rim, but he’s reaping the benefits of shooting more from his sweet spot and 3-point range. A greater number of his shot attempts are coming after 0-1 dribbles, too, which isn’t a surprise based on how his points are being created.
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That bodes well for the Thunder, who, after getting off to a slow start this season, are now owners of the third best record in the Western Conference. The Thunder need a number of pieces to fall into place to compete for a championship this season — especially with how the Spurs and Warriors are playing — but their success starts with the play of Westbrook and, more importantly, Durant.
Seeing as they’re both playing the best basketball of their careers, it’s an encouraging step in the right direction.