As crazy as it sounds, there’s a good chance the James Harden trade becomes the best thing that ever happened to Kevin Durant. Harden is a great player, but he’s most effective playing with the ball in his hands. With Harden in Houston, Durant has become more of a playmaker, the next step in his progression as a player.
Durant was the leading scorer in the NBA for each of the past three seasons, but he has improved as his scoring has gone down this year. A pure shooter with excellent ball-handling skills and a 7’4 wingspan, Durant will always be able to score fairly easily. But he's capable of becoming a more well-rounded player, also impacting the game as a passer, rebounder and defender. By expanding his game this season, Durant has made his teammates better and helped the Thunder become a more cohesive unit.
Durant is averaging a career high in both assists (4.2) and assist-to-turnover ratio (1.22) this year. You can see it in his approach on many possessions: instead of taking the first good shot he can get, he often waits to get a better shot for a teammate. At 6’10, Durant has no trouble seeing over the defense, so finding guys cutting off the ball is as much a matter of mentality as anything else.
When your best player is primarily a scorer, you want to play as many defensive-oriented players as possible, which the Knicks have done with Carmelo Anthony. When your best player is also a playmaker, it expands your options in terms of the line-ups you can put on the floor next to him. It’s not just LeBron James’ all-around excellence that makes the Heat so dangerous; the players around him are perfect complements to his game.
Miami surrounds LeBron with shooters, guys like Shane Battier, Mike Miller, Mario Chalmers and Udonis Haslem who effectively become extensions of his will on the floor. Even Chris Bosh, while he can get his own shot, spends most of his time spacing the floor for LeBron, serving as the stretch 5 to LeBron’s power 4. Either LeBron scores or he draws a double team and makes the correct pass to the open shooter; he has the defense on a string. That’s how you have to build a team in the era of salary caps and luxury tax penalties, by putting guys who can fill defined roles around a great player.
You can see it happening already in Oklahoma City. Kevin Martin, the main piece the Thunder acquired in the Harden deal, is not nearly as well-rounded a player, but he is a better spot-up shooter. Harden shot 35% from beyond the arc last season; Martin is at 46%. Harden was more likely to get Durant an easy shot, but Martin is more likely to convert an easy shot that Durant gets him.
Harden, in that sense, served as a pair of training wheels for Durant. With both Harden and Russell Westbrook taking turns running the offense, Durant could stay in his comfort zone as a scorer. This year, the Thunder have replaced the Sixth Man of the Year with a better shooter, worse shot-creator, worse rebounder, worse passer and worse defender. That’s one of the reasons why Durant is averaging career highs in rebounds, assists, steals and blocks.
The other encouraging statistical trend comes at the three-point line, where Durant is taking 1.5 fewer three-pointers a game. He’s become a much more efficient player: going from shooting 39% on 5.2 three-pointers to 43% on 3.7. As a result, he’s taking 23% of his shots inside the paint (up from 18% last season) and averaging 9.2 free-throws a game (up from 7.6). He has the highest PER of his career; Oklahoma City’s offensive rating has actually improved from last season.
Durant is slowly making the same transition as the two most recent NBA Finals MVP’s -- LeBron and Dirk Nowitzki. Both Dirk and LeBron took less than 2.5 three pointers a game in their championship seasons, despite being prolific long-distance shooters earlier in their careers. Durant, in many ways, is Dirk 2.0, the next step in the evolution of the super-sized jump-shooter. And just like Dirk, he is more dangerous to a defense operating 10-15 feet away from the basket instead of 25+ feet.
As a 4, Durant improves the Thunder’s floor spacing and team speed. Kendrick Perkins, for all his strengths as a low-post stopper, is a relic of a fading era. There are very few teams in the NBA who run their offense through the low post, and if Perkins isn’t protecting the low block, he’s not very useful. The most telling play of their Christmas Day loss to Miami came in the final minute, when Bosh took advantage of Perkins cheating on LeBron to flash in front of the rim and get an easy dunk to ice the game.
With only one traditional big man (either Serge Ibaka or Nick Collison) on the floor, and without Perkins and his man clogging up the middle of the paint, there are a lot more driving lanes to the rim. It’s no coincidence that all of Durant’s highest-rated offensive lineups come with Perkins on the bench. If Oklahoma City has to play Miami in the NBA Finals again, and Scott Brooks doesn’t go small and bench Perkins, the Thunder will be in a lot of trouble. That was exactly the problem in last season’s Finals.
LeBron is the shadow looming over everything Durant does. Durant’s career highs in field goal percentage, rebounds and assists? LeBron has better numbers in all three categories. He is the best player in the world, the favorite to win a fourth MVP in the last five seasons and play in a third consecutive NBA Finals for Miami. If Durant’s career were a video game, LeBron would be the final boss. He is guarding all the doors and holding all the keys -- in the NBA playoffs, all roads lead to South Beach. Durant, still only 24, continues to scale the proverbial NBA mountain, but the peak to reach is as high as it has been in two decades.