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Player perspective: How Kevin Durant has been used differently in Golden State

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Using detailed Synergy data, let’s compare Durant’s past two years in Oakland with his most recent two-year span in OKC.

NBA: Preseason-Sacramento Kings at Golden State Warriors Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

This is part two of an ongoing series aimed at previewing key Warriors players’ performance not just as static images, but as the evolving players that they are. Read part one on Stephen Curry here.

Kevin Durant is how I would build my create-a-character in my NBA video games — a seven-foot tower of a man, with the handles and shooting touch of a guard. Arguably the best player in the world, he is a consensus top three player in the NBA. When he came to the Golden State Warriors, a lot of us were wondering exactly what his integration would look like. Of course he’d still dominate, but the Oklahoma City Thunder offense looks nothing like what coach Steve Kerr runs with the Warriors, so something was obviously going to be different.

But what exactly? I mean, he’s a seven-footer taking people off the dribble and hitting threes, so it’s not like Durant really needed any adjustments to his game in order to be elite. But coach Steve Kerr is going to change something. He’s like the Andre Iguodala of coaching — he’s got one of the best minds in the game, but his role and importance are mostly overshadowed by the greatness of his team.

Directing the power of Durant’s game

Kerr has a philosophical opinion that’s relevant in understanding how and why Durant’s game has evolved during his time with the Warriors. He eschews the isolation-based pick and roll scoring attack in favor of off ball movement. In other words, Durant could still be Durant, but Kerr wanted him to do so just a little bit differently.

Transition buckets appear to be an emphasis in Golden State

I know there’s a lot of information in that graphic, but there are a couple of things that are apparent changes in the past two season with the Warriors, as compared to Durant’s previous two with the Thunder.

Emphasis on transition

The first year after his arrival, Durant got nearly a quarter (23%) of his scoring possessions in transition. That rising purple line in the graphic above is showing a direct window into what Kerr wanted Durant to do - drive it into the hole relentlessly on the break, striking before the defense had a chance to set up. He converted these into 1.36 points per possession, which was good enough for the 91st percentile league-wide. So Kerr was right, and Durant pulled it off flawlessly.

To pick and roll, or not to pick and roll?

We talked about this in our coverage of Stephen Curry’s Synergy data: there was a quiet resurgence in the Durant/Curry pick and roll last season. In case you’ve been living under a rock (or just don’t follow the Warriors to insane depths - whatever), I feel I should remind the reader that Kerr has a philosophical distaste for the pick and roll.

That drop down to just 13% is tied for the fourth-lowest of Durant’s career and shows the steepest decline among all play types over the period of time we are talking about here.

What’s changing next?

Bottom line up front?

Look for a continued increase in both pick and roll, as well as isolation plays in this upcoming season.

Kerr has pushed his philosophy fairly hard here, and all signs point towards him relaxing his control (or trying to at least) in this upcoming season. The inherent conflict here is that Durant is painfully effective. Sure, Kerr may have a point about isolation play having a dimming effect on the other players on the court - but it’s tough to argue against the brutal efficacy of Durant off the dribble. After a low 2017, Durant’s usage rose to 18% in 2018, one of the highest - and most efficient - of his career.

An evolving role for a maturing star

We’ve seen that Durant is capable of changing up his play styles, but I think Kerr is going to challenge him to expand his game in some unexpected directions. Because if we are going to allow more isolation plays, then it will behoove Durant to decide when and if to move the ball. Putting your head down and getting buckets is useful, but there’s a point where the line between ISO hero and ball-hogging megalomaniac can become blurry.

In one of the more riveting mic’d up coaching moments ever shown, Kerr relayed all this to Durant in the playoffs this year:

So Durant’s game now is a palimpsest of success that was started with the Thunder — you can still see traces of the old Durant in his new game, but his approach is pretty obviously different in Golden State. As Kerr and Durant get more time together with this iteration of the Warriors, expect to see Kerr continuing to pull Durant away - not necessarily from isolation scoring, but from the pitfalls that may come with playing as an isolation scorer.

Whatever is happening, it works; in his two seasons here. Durant has set career highs in defensive rebounds, steals, and — this one will make Kerr happy — assists. But perhaps most importantly is this: a career high in shooting efficiency. Look at his true shooting percentage (TS%) in the graphic below (from basketballreference.com):

Durant’s career average TS% is “just” .611, so it’s a marked improvement in one of the most critical offensive categories and symbolic of the implacable advance of Durant as a player.

Up next: Draymond Green

For the next installment, we will dive deep into Draymond Green’s game. Widely regarded as one of the most critical components of the Warriors’ offense, we’ll look at what his targets are when he looks for his own offense.

Author’s note: Much of this article is inspired by the really cool player overviews that Eustacchio Raulli (who many of us around here know by his work at Fear the Sword under the pseudonym of EVR1022 ) has been doing for Cleveland Cavaliers players; you should definitely check out his Twitter. He was kind enough to help me out with the Synergy data underlying much of the analysis, which mostly alleviates his heinous crime of rooting for the Cleveland Cavaliers.