Since June, when Kevin Durant, the dazzling scorer, fell to the most complete basketball player alive in the NBA Finals, it seems he’s spent time learning to play a bit more like LeBron James. As Rob Mohoney writes, Durant is attacking the defensive glass and reading the second level of defense at a significantly high level than ever before.
Durant has looked great as a small-ball four, and we’re also seeing a bit of point guard Durant, and boy is that a wild ride. After ensaring a defensive board in his cartoonish arms, Durant will sprint dribble down court, all knees and elbows and crazy strides — it feels like riding a wooden rollercoaster — and sometimes turn it over but always seek to expand his comfort as a playmaker.
The Thunder will need Durant to take on more responsibility in that department too, following the departure of James Harden. We talk about the Thunder Culture all the time, as in: what a professional place to work and develop fine young athletes! But there’s a verb meaning of “culture” — the one that applies to growing bacteria in limited ecosystems — that may explain why the Harden trade can work in Durant, and the Thunder’s long term favor.
Think of a basketball team as a petri dish with twelve different types of bacteria instead of twelve different players. Bacteria, like players, grow at different rates depending on the conditions, like temperature and how much food is available. NBA stars would be those bacteria strains that thrive the best, though how much opportunity each star has the ball and makes plays is limited by the size of the dish and the activity of competing organisms.
By design, Harden limited Durant’s playmaking chances and increased his spot-up duties.
When the two played together without Russell Westbrook, Harden would often act as the de facto point guard while Durant was allowed to coast a bit off the ball — either spotting up in the corner or running off of pin-downs from the baseline. But now Harden is gone, and in his place is Kevin Martin. In this microbial analogy, Martin does not feed on isolation and pick-and-roll attempts nearly as much — he wants to create off of Durant’s initial action by shooting a spot up shot, attacking the close out, or shooting jumpers off of screens against little help because defenders are worried about Durant.
Martin needs Durant to be successful as a playmaker in order to thrive himself.
Thus, when he shares the court with Martin, Durant has less opportunity for spot up play and more playmaking chances.
Durant’s game was likely headed for such an expansion anyways, his drive to improve would naturally lead him in that direction. But it might also be that the Harden trade will accelerate Durant’s growth as a playmaker and evolution within the Thunder petri dish.
If that’s the case (and it’s impossible to say now) it would raise an interesting question: given the choice, is it better for Durant to become the absolute best player he can be, or to perhaps sacrifice some of Durant’s peak ability in order to retain the better secondary player in James Harden?