Kevin Durant’s third season with the Golden State Warriors and his twelfth in this glorious league is shaping up to be an important one.
One can say that Durant’s tenure with the team has already been a resounding success. The team won back-to-back titles while Durant claimed Finals MVP in both series. Even with this early and immediate success, the 2018-19 season will likely have a great effect on Durant and his legacy as a member of the Warriors. It will determine a great deal about his future, where he ranks amongst the other great players in the NBA today (and throughout its history), and even where he will be next season.
In this piece, I want to walk the line between looking at what Durant has done and looking ahead to what I think Durant will do. But by gaining a sense of what Durant has been doing these championship seasons with the Warriors, we can see the ways we can watch and appreciate him in this coming season.
Durant dropping dimes?
For as often as Durant is cast as a ball-stopper, he’s become a much better player when it comes to distributing the ball, especially since joining the Warriors. To be certain, Durant’s greatest contribution to this team (and any team) is his scoring prowess. But playing in head coach Steve Kerr’s system has revealed that there is more to Durant than just scoring. Playing with the Warriors has revealed the potential for Durant to be a player who can affect a game by helping other players score.
Two of Durant’s four best seasons in terms of assists-per-game have come as a member of the Warriors. Durant finished 2017-18 season at 5.4 assists per game, which was his highest assists-per-game total since his 2013-14 MVP season. Durant also topped his regular season career-high with 14 assists in a win over the New York Knicks on January 23rd, 2018. It was fitting then that Durant capped his second consecutive Finals MVP campaign and the Warriors sweep of the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2018 NBA Finals with 10 assists and a triple-double. This was Durant’s only playoff triple-double in his career and the only time he topped 10 assists in a postseason game.
This increase shows up even more clearly in Durant’s per-36 minutes numbers with the Warriors. Since Durant averages close to 36 minutes per game already, the numbers are likely to be closer to reality than a player who plays appreciably greater or fewer minutes. Also, those per-36 numbers provide a better picture of how Durant was playing in the 2016-17 season as they aren’t affected by the 20 regular season games he missed, largely due to injury.
Looking at those numbers, Durant has had his two best seasons assist-wide with the Warriors, even better than in his 2013-14 MVP season.
More advanced statistics help give us a better perspective on Durant’s developing ability in this facet of the game (for a useful primer on advanced statistics, their meaning, and how they are determined, I’d recommend this post).
Durant posted a 25.5 AST% in 2017-18, the third-best on the team behind Stephen Curry and Draymond Green and his best season in that regard since (you guessed it) his MVP season of 2013-14. According to Cleaning the Glass, Durant’s AST% puts him in the top percentile relative to his position. Also, Durant’s AST% relative to usage amongst his position group has been in the top ten percent since joining the Warriors. The actual assist numbers will never be that high, which makes sense given that the Warriors have so many great passers on their team and how great Durant is at scoring. But what those numbers show is both Durant’s development in that area and that Durant is giving them something extra from the forward position, something that distinguishes him from his rivals and competitors.
A while ago, my esteemed colleague Daniel Hardee (known to you and me as the GoldBloodedKing), lobbed a question my way— who will average more assists in their career, KD or Chris Webber?
My initial thought, even though I’m a Durant partisan, was that there was no way Durant could end up with a higher total than Webber. Thinking about Webber on those early 2000s Sacramento Kings teams, remembering the way he was talked about when he came into the league (and how great he looked playing that rookie year with the Warriors coached by Don Nelson), Webber was always going to win that battle.
But right now, Durant’s career assists-per-game number is 3.9 while Webber’s is 4.2. But Durant’s assist numbers have spiked considerably since joining the Warriors. While Durant only had five or more assists in 32.3% of his games with the Thunder (including playoff games), he’s reached that total in 57.8% of his games with the Warriors.
Provided he stays with this team whose style brings out his ability to pass (and features teammates who are able to capitalize when he gives them the ball), Durant could accrue enough assists to get past Webber. If Durant can do this, continuing to solidify his place as not just a great scorer but a great offensive player, then I think some more extreme reconsideration of where he ranks will be merited.
Yes, we’re talking about Durant and defense
One of the questions that will never be definitely answered is “how good is Durant on defense?” Some, like Draymond Green, would argue that Durant deserves Defensive Player of the Year consideration. Others will argue that Durant is overrated as a defender. The truth, as with so many things, lies somewhere in the middle.
Yes, Defensive Player of the Year consideration is a bit much. But Durant has become a more prevalent defensive presence since joining the Warriors to a degree that his importance is felt in that aspect of the game.
Where this has primarily shown up is in the increase in blocks per game. Durant averaged 1.8 blocks per game last season and 1.6 in the 2016-17 season, both representing career highs for him. Four of Durant’s five best night blocking shots, and six of his best ten, have come since joining the Warriors. Durant has averaged 1.7 blocks per game in his two seasons with the Warriors while just one per game during his time with the Thunder.
Moving into those more advanced statistics, Durant has posted a BLK% of nearly 4% (3.9% to be exact) during his time the Warriors. To be certain, no one will be mistaking Durant for Dikembe Mutombo down in the post, but it’s a nice wrinkle for a player at Durant’s position to show. Per Cleaning the Glass, Durant has ranked in the 96th and 100th percentile of block percentage relative to the other players at his position in his two seasons with the Warriors.
There is more to defense than just blocking shots and saying a player is a good defender because they block many shots is silly. But it is worth remembering that the Warriors ceded much of their rim protection (specifically Andrew Bogut and Festus Ezeli) to sign Durant. That was the area where they would be, in theory, most lacking upon Durant’s arrival. That has not proven to be the case as Durant has taken it upon himself to fill that need at shot blocker.
It’s also worth remembering the Warriors were able to have a successful December while Curry was out of the lineup because of their defense. December was the Warriors’ best month when it came to their opponents’ points-per-game while holding their opponents to under 90 points twice and under 100 points seven times (including the Christmas Day game against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers). Durant wasn’t the only reason for the Warriors’ better defensive play during that stretch largely without Curry, but this all occurred when the Warriors were in essence run through Durant, when he was the centerpiece and it was solely his team.
Even at the end of the regular season, with Curry out of the lineup once again and the team coasting into the playoffs, the Warriors were at their best when they were a defense-first team. Their best performance in the last ten games of the regular season was a win in Oklahoma City when they held the Thunder to well below their season averages when it came to shooting, both from the field and specifically from three-point range. Still without Curry in the first round of the playoffs, it was a better defensive performance that allowed the Warriors to make quick work of the San Antonio Spurs, an effort of which Durant was a large part.
If Durant gives defense even a modicum more attention and energy (something that seems possible, as you can see an uptick in his defensive statistics in the playoffs), then he could become an even-more complete player. I don’t think it means he’s going to become a lockdown defense/win Defensive Player of the Year, but if he could cultivate those skills on this team that does not lack for offensive firepower, it could make for an even-more impressive season for both team and player.
The stakes for Durant’s season
Rather than speculating about what Durant is going to do after this season (because none of us really know), I’m more interested in what could happen for Durant during this season. In particular, if he continues the momentum he’s built up in the facts of the game that I’ve discussed. If Durant grows in those areas (even if it means giving up more energy and focus when it comes to scoring) and the Warriors are crowned champions once again in large part because of his growth and development in those areas? Then I think the way we collectively view Durant might change or, to put it another way, become more solid.
Playing on this Warriors team allows him to cultivate and display skills and aspects of his game that he would not if he was playing on a team where he was the focal point. Continuing to improve and develop in these areas won’t decide whether or not Durant is great (we already know the answer—he is) but it will make the case for that greatness even more comprehensive and perhaps elevate where we see him amongst the greatest of the greats.
As we look ahead to the 2018-19 season, please consider picking up a copy of my book, Golden Age: The Brilliance of the 2018 Champion Golden State Warriors. It is published by Triumph Books and available in both paper and digital copies.