Backpicks GOAT: #26 Kevin Durant

Key Stats and Trends

  • All-time level volume and efficiency scoring seasons
  • Played on multiple elite teams and offenses
  • Marginal defender and passer, preventing him from GOAT-level peak

Scouting Report

Durant came into the league as a wiry scorer, quickly developing into a top-flight shooter and efficiency machine. By his breakout seasons in 2010 and 2011, a heavy dose of his offense started away from the ball, looping around screens for catch-and-shoot jumpers or open 3s. His size allowed him to shoot over smaller defenders, and midrange jumpers comprised a sizable chunk of his game.1 Durant’s defense was questionable in his first few seasons, but he improved in time as he added weight to his lanky frame.

Within a few years he would become one of the best scorers ever. The 2014 game highlight below captures the key ingredients of his attack. In the first play, he uses his 7-foot-4 wingspan to finish at the rim, something he could do in transition or in the half-court. A steady part of his midrange game originated from pick-and-roll action, and in the second play below he uncorks a step-back before swishing a pull-up on the following trip. His size lets him shoot over defenders of all heights, which is on display at the 1:11 mark, when he curls off a pick and cans a jumper with a number of defenders in the area. The play also reveals Durant’s limited vision, as he misses a wide open layup pass under the hoop:

Because he was so thin, his body naturally accentuated contact, and from 2010 to 2014 he flirted with elite free throw rates (peaking at around 13 per 100 possessions, in the 99th percentile since 1978). Around this time (2013 and 2014) he became a more willing passer, doubling his assist percentage and his estimated creation rates. He was given more on-ball responsibilities, and as a result learned to read defenses better and play-make more.

However, while his reads were improved, he was never a strong passer; a number of his passes were soft-armed, low-speed ducks that missed NBA passing windows, which close in a nanosecond. But he also lacked vision, blind to obvious opportunities (such as from the 1:11 mark of first video above) or easy chances that merely needed to develop. Below, he misses a streaking Zaza Pachulia by prematurely giving up the ball (Klay Thompson then misses a gimme pass despite canning the shot):

Durant developed an inclination to try high-leverage passes, but these weren’t always the best ideas, and they were sometimes made worse by his lack of accuracy:

That last clip is particularly revealing of his vision and feel, because he seems to throw the pass automatically, assuming both defenders are going to close to him. In tracking about 500 possessions for this series — most from the last three seasons — Durant only authored about 2 “good” passes per 100 possessions, one of the lowest rates among modern players for this series. He missed layup passes frequently (hitting 2 good passes for every layup pass missed) and tossed “problematic” passes (like the previous two) more than he connected on good ones. (Dirk Nowitzki was the only other modern player in this top 30 to share that distinction.)

Vision is often a function of court awareness, and poor court awareness translates to defense too. Durant is sometimes slow to react in help situations, and occasionally he completely loses track of a potential threat. For example, take this play from 2014 – notice that Durant’s line of vision is filled with three teammates and three Spurs — he and Westbrook are both hanging out with Leonard — yet that doesn’t sound the alarm that the backside is vulnerable:

He also fails to anticipate plays like good team defenders do. I’ve called out slow rotations at times during this series, but Durant has a habit of paying too much attention to his mark at the expense of sliding into better position to deter offensive action. Here’s a great example, where he seems to be staring at a dangerous pick-and-roll, but waits until it’s way too late to slide over:

During my 2010-11 stat-tracking project, Durant finished in the 25th percentile in defensive errors.2 He was slightly worse during tracking for this project, mixing his breakdowns with some of these off-ball issues and some on-ball matador defense. He sometimes encases his feet in cement on pick-and-roll coverage like this:

He has long, loping strides on defense, which can leave him vulnerable to quickness or change of directions:

But these long strides and his condor wingspan make him a formidable stopper when he’s squared up and in strong position. Opponents shot poorly in my 2010-11 sample when he was engaging them, and in tracking Durant for this series I scored a number of man defensive possessions as “good” despite the aforementioned off-ball issues. Here, his on-ball defense starts with enough space to contain penetration, allowing him time to react (and keep his hips square) and then smother the shot attempt with his length:

Durant has also been a viable shot blocker since his early days, slapping at shots near the rim with his giant wings:3

He wasn’t a consistent backline eraser, but he could block in spurts like this. His lack of great rotations and reads kept him from swatting more shots at the rim, but as he added strength to his frame, Durant was able to impact (or block) more attempts near the goal. This led to improved shot-blocking rates and high-leverage saves like this:

He posted three of the top-100 block rates in history among non-big men in Oklahoma City.4 In two years in Golden State, he’s posted two of the top-10 rates ever for “wings,” however that’s largely a function of playing more power forward (and even center) as the league has embraced speed over power. His defensive rebounding rates also add value, and Durant has been phenomenal for a wing, falling in the 99th percentile historically in four of his five previous seasons in relative defensive rebounding rate. In 2017, he finished in the 86th percentile among all players.

In short, Durant’s a spotty team defender who can excel in man situations and adds value when he’s in sound position around the hoop (rebounding and blocking shots). He’s improved defensively in the last fews years by my eye, and his passing and distribution came along in 2014. His creation peaked at around 7-8 per 100 in my tracking, but has cratered in Golden State, as he’s tallied assists from player movement and screens instead of breaking down defenses. (Opponents simply can’t help against him as much with shooters like Thompson and Steph Curry on the court, giving him more space to operate in isolation where he excels.)

Of course, he’s been an absurdly accurate marksman since 2012, draining 40 percent of his 3s and 88 percent of his free throws.5 Durant is currently in the heart of his prime and will turn 30 in the summer of ’18, so it’s hard to see him improving further in any material way.

Impact Evaluation

Durant was drafted by the Seattle Supersonics in 2008 as part of a complete reset. It wasn’t until 2010 (in Oklahoma City) that the team exploded, with basketball tornado Russell Westbrook in his second season and Durant in his third, alongside rookies James Harden and Serge Ibaka, and a stable of veteran role players. The Thunder played at a 51-win pace that year at full-strength (2.9 SRS) and were on a similar trajectory in 2011 until trading for some much needed muscle in the middle; OKC swapped mercurial forward Jeff Green for a bruising center (Kendrick Perkins) and filled out a porous defense.6

Oklahoma City never looked back, playing 58-win basketball or better (when healthy) until Durant departed in 2017, even after budding superstar James Harden left in 2013. As discussed in the scouting report, it was about this time that Durant ramped up his playmaking, spearheading the offense alongside Westbrook as OKC rolled to a 65-win pace (9.2 SRS) and an offense 6.6 points ahead of the league (rORtg) in 2013.

As a scorer, Durant has few peers in NBA history. In 2013, he manufactured just the fourth season in NBA history with a scoring rate over 27 points per 75 possessions and a relative efficiency (rTS) of at least +9 percent.7 He then repeated the feat in his next five seasons! Here’s how he stacks up visually compared to all the top scoring seasons in history, plotted by volume (x-axis) and efficiency (y-axis):

Durant’s postseasons haven’t been quite as stellar. During his peak years in Oklahoma City (2013-16), his postseason scoring efficiency trailed way off, down to +2 percent, orders of magnitude below his regular season average of +10 percent. His creation suffered in the playoffs as well, dropping from around 10 per 100 to 7 per 100 in 48 postseason games during those years. As discussed throughout this series, most players dip slightly in the playoffs, but this falloff during the heart of his prime is somewhat worrisome, and suggests he forced more and created less. (His rate of assisted field goals also dropped in the postseason during this stretch). Durant’s surrounding playoffs were excellent, so he doesn’t completely deteriorate against springtime competition, but most of his three-year averages are closer to +5 or +6 percent, well off his regular season performance. Here’s how he stacks up in the postseason in the Big 4 box categories (scoring, efficiency, creation and turnovers) versus contemporaries:

In 2014, sidekick Russell Westbrook missed 31 games in which Durant and Ibaka played, yet the Thunder trucked along at a 59-win pace (6.5 SRS) without their wrecking-ball point guard. This is a remarkable result for Durant; few players in history have navigated teams above the 5-SRS mark while shouldering most of the load, and he did it without a great coach or collection of shooters. The Thunder started Reggie Jackson — a viable scoring guard with decent passing instincts — in place of Westbrook, and rounded out the lineup with defenders like Thabo Sefolosha and Perkins. In those 31 games, they were about 3 points better than average (per 100) on both sides of the ball.

In 2015, it was Durant’s turn to miss a chunk of time. With both Durant and Westbrook, the team played at a 58-win pace (5.9 SRS). In 38 games without Durant — many of which Ibaka and thumper Steven Adams also sat out — Westbrook dragged the Thunder to a 48-win pace (2.3 SRS). This is a testament to Russell’s floor-raising skills, yet still hints at Durant’s ability to elevate a team into the elite. Then in 2016, in a head-turning result, the full-strength Thunder played at a 66-win pace (9.7 SRS) before narrowly losing to the 73-win Warriors. They were offensively dominant that year, posting a whopping +8.8 rORtg, capping a four-year stretch of offense that approached the historical elites.8

Offenses like this — 6 or 7 points better than average — are rare, and a reflection of Durant’s lethal scoring ability and viable playmaking. Furthermore, since Westbrook was primarily on the ball, they are a testament to Durant’s ability to provide mega-value next to a ball-dominator. While he lacks the top-end passing to flourish in all offenses, a player like this would still provide lift next to other stars, which is exactly what happened when he went to Golden State in 2017.

Slotted next to two of the best shooters ever — Thompson and Curry — Durant helped Golden State improve from one of the best full-strength teams ever to the best ever, playing at a mind-bending 73-win pace when healthy (14.4 SRS). Durant missed 19 games, and the otherwise healthy Warriors “only” played at a 67-win clip (10.4 SRS). This might sound minimal, but adding 4 points to an all-time level team, as a scorer, is incredibly difficult due to the diminishing returns on scoring.

In Oakland, Durant’s playoff numbers were the best of his career, setting career marks in scoring (28.8 per 75), efficiency (+13 percent) and estimated creation (9 per 100) in 15 white-hot playoff games in 2017. However, even ignoring the small sample, his stat line was reflective of how much easier life was for him playing on such a stacked team. The counter to that: When Curry has been off the floor, the Warriors haven’t been dominant with Durant.

Durant’s adjusted plus-minus (APM) numbers were actually better in Oklahoma City, and his defensive values peaked in ’16 and ’17 in that metric too.9 Based on the scouting report, Durant will probably never be a great defender given his inconsistent awareness and defensive footwork. But after posting seven positive results on that end in the last eight seasons — including two high-end seasons in ’15 and ’16 — I consider him a positive defender.

Of course, his offensive results echo the portability demonstrated in his film study; he’s able to provide value next to players like Westbrook or Curry because of his off-ball shooting and gravity. He’s one of the rare players to play on two teams above the 9-SRS threshold (and one of a few to play on two different +8 offenses). All of these signs point to a high-peak player who falls just short of the all-time offensive greats due to his passing limitations.

He’s racked up seven All-NBA seasons and four strong MVP ones by my count, which leapfrogs him past a number of players in the 30s on this list. If I valued his defense (or offense) slightly higher, he could slot as high as 22nd right now, and as it is, will likely be 21st after finishing the 2018 season. Even a steep decline in the next few years would still bring him to 19th in career value, and a better aging curve could help him crack the prestigious top-18. As of the spring of 2018, he’s No. 26.

Star Player Effects on Teammate Efficiency

I had some fun playing with nbawowy.com last night. I promise, it’s not as dirty as it sounds.

Using available data from the last three seasons, I set out to answer a simple question: How does teammate efficiency change when star players are on or off the court? In other words, what impact does the presence of a player have on his teammate’s shooting?

There are a number of players we could do this for, but I wanted to visualize five in particular, four of whom are ball-dominant creators (James, Paul, Harden and Westbrook) and Steph Curry, who is renowned for his court-warping gravity off the ball. Here were the results using players who played at least 1,000 minutes with the player in question, with all five player graphs stacked side-by-side of comparison:

 

Surprise! LeBron had the largest effect of the group (expected based on more holistic analysis like RAPM. Eight of his ten teammates improved by at least 0.05 points per scoring attempt (or at least 2.5% in True Shooting efficiency). Of the five players who improved by at least 0.15 points per attempt, three played with LeBron. Of course, all the normal caveats apply here as there may be cofounds within the lineups and these numbers aren’t opponent-adjusted. Still, it’s a nice snapshot to have.

Steph Curry had the highest floor (no regular teammate below 1.12) and the highest ceiling (1.34) — no surprise there, as the Warriors have a strong candidacy for greatest offense in NBA history. He also had a hugely positive impact on Kevin Durant this year, who scored at 1.24 per attempt this year without Curry, right in the ballpark of his previous two seasons without Russell Westbrook. (Note that Durant was less efficient alongside Westbrook.) Among star teammates, only Kevin Love (with LeBron) came close to the boost Durant and Klay Thompson experienced when on the floor with Curry.

Finally, I’ve included the individual graphs below for all five players in order to see each specific teammate.