Kevin Durant: The Thorns in His Side

During the 2009-2010 season, Kevin Durant had a coming-out party of sorts as, at a young and tender age of 21, he led the league in scoring and his team to 50 wins and a playoff appearance. This season has been a bit more choppy. If you look at his statistics from this season and compare it to last year's, you can see that generally speaking, Durant has not had as many "explosive nights," but also hasn't had as many clunkers either. There have been only a handful of games where the Thunder were completely out of it right from the beginning despite Durant's drop in production, and I think that is a testament both to the Thunder's progress as a team generally and Durant's development as a total player specifically. I do think he has struggled more offensively this season, and I still hold to the thesis that I first thought during the first quarter of the season.

My thesis is as follows:

Kevin Durant, at 22 years old, 6'9" and around 230 pounds, is not yet in the kind of shape that is required for an elite player to maintain his high level of play through a 100 game season.

Last year, Durant played in all 82 games plus six hard-fought games in the first round of the playoffs. He then played in the FIBA World Championships this summer, where Durant served as the best player on the gold medal team. In other words, he has played more meaningful minutes in the past 12 months than he ever has in his life. 

As a matter of comparison, let's take a look at the five players who follow Durant in this year's scoring race:

Player Age Height Weight (lbs) PPG
LeBron James 26 6'8" 250 26.5
Dwyane Wade 29 6'4" 220 25.7
Amare Stoudemire 28 6'10" 240 25.5
Carmelo Anthony 26 6'8" 230 25.3
Kobe Bryant 32 6'6" 205 25.2
Average 28.2 6'7" 229 25.6

 

So on average, Durant is about six years younger than the rest and nowhere near as physically developed. I have a hard time believing that the spindly Durant weighs 230.  If we take it at face value though, I raise this question: are Kevin Durant, LeBron James, and Amare Stoudemire physically similar? If you look at those three men, you can see that James and Stoudemire are physical specimens, but Durant is still growing into his natural form. Kevin will never look as sculpted as those two men, but he will eventually round out in his chest, shoulders, and legs. 

So that is the problem - that Kevin Durant is not yet physically developed enough to maintain a high level of play over the course of a full season. He will continue to have ups and downs as he faces the competition. 

Which leads me to the real point of this post...who is the competition?

In the abstract, Durant struggles against players who have:

  • More strength
  • More Physically developed
  • More experienced
Who is going to be waiting for Durant in the playoffs (if they started today)?

Player Team Height Weight (lbs) Age
Richard Jefferson Spurs 6'7" 230 30
Ron Artest Lakers 6'7" 260 31
Corey Brewer Mavericks 6'9" 188 25
Gerald Wallace Trail Blazers 6'7" 220 28
Trevor Ariza Hornets 6'8" 210 25
Wilson Chandler Nuggets 6'8" 225 23
Tony Allen Grizzlies 6'4" 213 29




How has Durant faired offensively against these teams?

Durant_vs_medium

note: all stats provided by Hoopdata.com

Let us try to glean some things from this data set, which as of today is not entirely complete:

  • Kevin Durant currently averages 27.7 points per game, which is 2.4 points off of last year's average.
  • When Durant shoots over 50% (highlighted), he is always at or above (and sometimes way above) his scoring average, and the team usually wins (5-1). 
  • Durant has been held below his average 10 times, and the Thunder lost seven of those games.
  • The team that handcuffs Durant the best is the Lakers. This is not surprising, since they possess both unmatched size on the interior (Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum, Lamar Odom) but also Durant's personal nemisis, Ron Artest. As you can see above, Artest is bigger and stronger than Durant. Despite Artest's age, he is still able to keep up with Durant by using his strength to keep Durant in places where KD is more easily guardable.
  • As we read yesterday from Darnell Mayberry, there is a question as to whether Durant takes too many 3-pointers. While it can be painful to watch him jack up double-digit 3-point shots, on average Durant is still shooting them at a good percentage, even against the elite teams in the West (31%). As much as I'd like to say that the 3-point shot is the culprit, statistics don't seem to bear it out. 
  • If the 3-ball isn't the real problem, what is hurting Durant the most? It is arguably that dreaded shot that falls within 16-23 feet. Statisticians have argued that it is the most inefficient shot in basketball, and yet Durant takes that particular shot more than any other. According to Hoopsdata, Durant takes an average of almost seven shots per game in that range, which is even more than his 3-point attempts. As a result, his 39% shooting from that area has a torpedoing effect on his overall offensive efficiency.
  • Of the seven players above that Durant could possibly face, the two guys that have given him the least difficulty are Trevor Ariza and Corey Brewer. Despite those players' additional length and quickness, those factors have not had a great negative effect on Durant's game. I think this is because defensive length isn't what bothers Durant the most. Rather, it is physical players like Artest and Tony Allen who bang, push, and pull Durant constantly out of his normal rhythm. 
  • The stronger the defender, the more likely they are to push Durant into that long 2-point shot zone. Because Durant is not yet strong enough to hold his position in the post, he has a natural tendency to drift farther and farther away. If you recall the last game against the Blazers, by the end of the game Gerald Wallace was forcing Durant to set up past the 3-point line. Durant had no space to work the pick and rolls with Westbrook, and as a result he made zero second half shots and took more 3-pointers than 2-pointers.
  • Wilson Chandler of the Denver Nuggets is a wild card. He was part of the mid-season Carmelo Anthony trade, coming from the Knicks. In two games against NY, Durant scored 26 and 30, with the latter point total including a buzzer-beating 3-pointer for the win. Chandler seems like he would be the most likely candidate to guard Durant, but he definitely does not fit into the group of players that gives Durant the most trouble.
To conclude, I think that if everything holds to form and the Thunder meet the Nuggets in the first round, the series is going to hinge on this aspect of Durant's game. If he can discipline himself not to settle for those 16-23 foot jump shots, instead getting the ball a little bit closer to the rim, both he and the team will be much better off offensively. Hopefully the coaching staff realizes this as well and will create situations where Durant is at his most effective.
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