The Thunder offense is brutally efficient but hardly elegant. Sometime over the past two seasons, Scott Brooks figured out what worked—Russell Westbrook at full throttle in the open court and Kevin Durant catching and shooting or isolating on the wing—and didn’t bother trying to fix it.
That is, until the playoffs, when teams found a way to temporarily jam the gears that ground so many teams to dust over the course of the season. Westbrook and Brooks took some heat for OKC’s perceived failures, but many also blamed Kevin Durant’s inability to get open. And it’s true, even when the Thunder offer a labyrinth of screeners, Durant has trouble freeing his thin frame from the clutches of terriers like Tony Allen.
It’s all about space. Kevin Durant needs only a hair to get his shot off, but first he needs an inch or two to receive the ball, and even before that, he needs a foot or so to even use the screen.
To establish that initial space, Durant need only abide by the golden rule and do unto others; set one to get one.
The best way to defend Durant is to essentially ignore the most basic principles of man-to-man defense and get as close to him as possible when he’s off the ball. At just about every level of basketball, help defenders are taught the ball-basket-man priority chain. That means no matter whom you are guarding, your defensive priorities are firstly the man with the ball (he’s the most likely person to score), secondly the basket area (leave your man to protect the basket) and thirdly the person you are guarding (until he moves toward a scoring position or receives the ball). When players lock in on Durant, they are inverting this chain, which is generally good for the offense—4-on-4 is a better scenario than is 5-on-5. But when the whole offense is focused on feeding Durant the ball and he can’t get open, precious seconds expire while Russell Westbrook pounds the ball 30 feet from the basket.
Certainly the attention that Durant draws creates havoc in the defense and opportunities for his less talented teammates to roll to the rim or pop out as their men scramble to react to Durant racing along the baseline. But because his defender is often so bent on keeping him from receiving the ball, Durant can be even more disruptive off the ball by being an active screener.
When Durant sets a screen, his defender has two options, neither of which is particularly exciting. One is to stay snug on Durant’s hip, which means he’s collaborating with Durant to screen another defender. The other option is to do what most teams do when someone sets a screen: pop off Durant to give the screen’s target space to avoid contact.
If Durant’s defender does the former, there’s a great chance one of Durant’s Thunder teammates will wind up wide open under the rim or alone on the three point line. If he does the latter, he affords Durant the precious three feet necessary to really utilize a Nick Collison screen. You can’t use the lock and trail technique, a favorite of anyone defending the likes of Ray Allen, to chase Durant and meddle with his shot if you can’t get locked on in the first place. That’s why the Celtics not only run Allen and Pierce off of screens, but have those two to screen for each other.
Durant isn’t asked to screen very much in the Thunder offense. But even when he has opportunity, Durant often avoids making contact altogether. This is true on the ball as well, which is something that makes the Westbrook-Durant pick and roll a lot less effective than it should be.
This is only a critique of a relatively small part of Durant’s game, but it could pay major dividends in the broader Thunder offense. Increasing the number of screens Durant sets and improving the quality of those screens will make everyone’s lives easier simply because it will increase the number of options created by the Thunder’s weakside actions. More options means more stress on the defense.
The Thunder and Kevin Durant are lucky to be at a point where enormous improvements are a thing of the past–Durant led the league in scoring and the Thunder had a top 5 offense in terms of efficiency. Neither has peaked, but small refinements are what make a top 10 team or player into the best one. This is one such adjustment that can make the Thunder and Durant more complete and dangerous come playoff time.
Thanks to @JacobSudek for the photo!