With the NBA season less than a week away from officially starting, you’ve probably noticed we’ve been pumping out enough preview content to bury even Hasheem Thabeet. Over the next week, we’ll be taking a look at the 10 biggest storylines of the 2013-14 season. Today, we’re talking about Kevin Durant and whether this is the year where he takes the next step…
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“I’ve been second my whole life. I was the second-best player in high school. I was the second pick in the draft. I’ve been second in the MVP voting three times. I came in second in the Finals. I’m tired of being second…I’m done with it.” – SI.com, April of 2013
Most guys would be plenty satisfied with second, especially if second meant being universally regarded as the second-best player in the NBA and leading a team that is a perennial title contender. But not Kevin Durant.
Durant has been a premier player in the NBA for six years for one main reason: the dude can put the biscuit in the basket. As a freshman at Texas, he averaged almost 26 points a game. As a rookie he averaged over 20. He has led the league in total points for the last four years, winning the “scoring title” every year but last (‘Melo had a higher per game average while playing 14 less games).
No on has ever doubted Durant’s scoring prowess. The only knock on his game on the offensive side of the ball was his ability to create for his teammates. At Texas, he only averaged 1.3 assists a game. In his first four years in the league, his highest average was 2.8 per game. During the lockout, he vowed to look for his teammates more and bumped his assist average over three for the first time in his career. This past season, he averaged a career-high 4.6 assists per game.
Durant really made strides in terms of finding his teammates in last year’s playoffs. With Russell Westbrook sustaining an injury in Game 2 of the Thunder’s opening round series, Durant had to be the main playmaker for OKC – on top of all his scoring duties. Durant thrived in his new role, averaging a robust 6.3 assists per game over 11 games. Those numbers, along with 30.8 points and nine rebounds a game, are well within the NBA stratosphere only inhabited by LeBron.
The Oklahoman reported that heading into this season, the Thunder have changed their offense to further utilize Durant’s playmaking abilities. With Westbrook pegged to miss the first 4-6 weeks of the season after arthroscopic surgery on the same knee he injured in last year’s playoffs, Durant will handle the ball extensively again to start this year. Already this preseason, Durant posted a 21-point and 12-assist effort (see below), and due to several jumpers that went in and out, “he probably should have had around 20 assists,” according to Reggie Jackson. Either way, the 12 assists is one more than Durant’s career-high. Durant is showing that what he did in last year’s playoffs was no fluke. He can find his teammates when they are in good position to score – all while still posting gaudy scoring numbers as well (he has a 36-point game this preseason too…in only 23 minutes!).
Durant will always be a team-first guy and will not hesitate to look for his teammates if they have a better shot for the team than he does.
“I’ve got to be aggressive,” Durant told The Oklahoman. “It’s not always aggressive to score but aggressive to make the right play. If I do that we’ll be fine.”
To ensure he makes the right play even more often, Durant hired an analytics expert last season to help find his sweet spots and aid in determining good shots from bad. Durant took under 18 shot attempts a game this past year for the first time since his rookie campaign. He has always been an efficient scorer, but last year took that efficiency to another level, raising his shooting percentage from 49.6 percent to 51 percent. For the sheer volume of shots Durant takes, that is a significant jump.
Just as he did in the playoffs last season, Durant is going to put up monster numbers in Westbrook’s absence to begin this season. Teams will pay him even more attention without a viable second option, which will leave his teammates open. At that point, it is up to his teammates to be able to finish plays. Although the Thunder lost James Harden and Kevin Martin in successive seasons, there is still plenty of talent on this roster. Serge Ibaka made vast improvements last year and the Thunder need him to take another step forward and be a legitimate third option once Westbrook returns. OKC has some young pieces as well in Jeremy Lamb and Perry Jones III, who have been waiting to get their opportunity, and it is time for them to step up and fill roles for this team.
This year, the race for the title is as open as it has been in years. Conceivably, there are nine or 10 teams that could win the championship, and no overwhelming favorite. Miami is still the top dog, but questions have cropped up about Dwyane Wade’s health and whether Shane Battier can handle another season battling husky power forwards (he was toasted by the Finals last year before eventually finding his stroke in Game 7). The Thunder are undoubtedly in the mix and will be one of the main contenders for the Larry O’Brien Trophy with Westbrook back at full health.
At the end of the day, the success of the Thunder comes down to number 35. Durant’s emphasis on passing will be a big storyline this season. We know he will get his points, but adding big assist numbers to the equation will make him a complete player on the offensive end. He will have a monster stat line, boosted from the first month when he’ll have to carry the Thunder more or less by himself – a stretch in which he will prove how valuable he is. Replicating his numbers from last postseason for the first month of this season is not out of the question.
Unbelievably, Durant is still only 25 years old and despite his otherworldly numbers, has not even entered his prime, a fact that should scare the rest of the league. With a newfound emphasis on sharing the ball, Durant is putting himself in great position to win that MVP award that has evaded him. In addition, when paired with another top five NBA stud in Westbrook, the Thunder will once again be a top contender for the title come June.
For Durant, it would be nice to finally have a chance to be first.
What do you think?
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