Kevin Durant has shown several new facets of his game this season, and the more astute analysts have noticed. Rob Mahoney wrote an outstanding piece on Durant's development, and our friend Beckley Mason at HoopSpeak chimes in with an interesting analogy:
We talk about the Thunder Culture all the time, as in: what a professional place to work and develop fine young athletes! But there's a verb meaning of "culture" - the one that applies to growing bacteria in limited ecosystems - that may explain why the Harden trade can work in Durant, and the Thunder's long term favor.
Think of a basketball team as a petri dish with twelve different types of bacteria instead of twelve different players. Bacteria, like players, grow at different rates depending on the conditions, like temperature and how much food is available. NBA stars would be those bacteria strains that thrive the best, though how much opportunity each star has the ball and makes plays is limited by the size of the dish and the activity of competing organisms.
Beckley makes three points on which I'd like to comment:
1. Harden's trade accelerated Durant's growth as a playmaker.
This statement makes me harken back to two seasons ago when the Thunder were a high-flying but extremely flawed team that was entirely perimeter-based, had little defensive focus, and looked like a 1st round playoff loser. The Thunder altered this trajectory by essentially upgrading to Serge Ibaka and James Harden for Jeff Green. To be sure, the real trade involved Kendrick Perkins for Green, but the net effect was that Ibaka was forced into the starting line-up and Harden was entrusted with running the 2nd unit.
By elevating the two young players into more prominent roles on the team, Coach Scott Brooks was challenging them to a sink or swim proposition. Either they got better and grew into their roles, or else the team as a whole would suffer. The results were outstanding. In year 1 they reached the Western Conference Finals and in year 2, the NBA finals, with both players contributing in major ways.
In the same way, OKC's trading of Harden is forcing Durant into a role where he has to be multi-faceted. He can no longer rely upon Harden to set him up in positions to score, or trust that the high hoops IQ Harden will be there to help bail out the team during bad possessions. Durant has to be that guy now, and he has to be the player that now uses his own hoops IQ to make his teammates better.
Durant's development up to this point has been self-imposed and organic, but now the Thunder as a team have said, "No more safety net. Go be better."
2.Durant will "Always seek to expand his comfort as a playmaker."
Durant started the season looking to become a better playmaker. In fact, in his entire career Durant has never averaged more assists than turnovers. As a result of this new effort, Durant handed out 20 assists in the first 3 games, constantly looking to use his skills to set up his teammates.
The problem: Durant committed 16 turnovers in the process and the Thunder lost 2 of those first 3 games. Is this a good thing?
I believe that Durant's over-emphasized focus on passing the ball in the first 3 games, while not great in the short term (even though he looked markedly better with his decision-making) is actually a good thing long term because of two factors:
a) The playmaking role gives Durant valuable reps during the part of the season where OKC can afford to do a little bit of experimentation. Every team is still in November mode, team play is sloppy, and the Thunder are trying to figure out who they are going to be. Through these reps, Durant will continue to grow in his decision-making ability, will hopefully cut down on the turnovers, and by May we will see a much more refined offensive game.
b) Durant needed to stretch out a bit too far in his game in order to see that at the end of the day, he has to be an offensive focal point. It is admirable that Durant cares so much about setting up his teammates, but the lesson we learned is that Durant is at his most dangerous when he is a threat to score the ball.
In the first few games, Durant played very passively, and the defenses were able to adjust. In the disappointing loss to the Hawks, Durant had removed himself so greatly from the flow of the game that by the time the end of the 4th quarter rolled around, he had no shooting rhythm and OKC could not keep up with the short-handed Hawks.
The regular season is all about calibration, and Durant, Playmaker had to learn that Durant, 3-time scoring champion is often the best option for his team to win.
3. "Given the choice, is it better for Durant to become the absolute best player he can be, or to perhaps sacrifice some of Durant’s peak ability in order to retain the better secondary player in James Harden?"
Harden is a fine, fine player. He's probably going to be an All-Star. I enjoy watching him immensely and I know he will do well in Houston.
Durant is a one-of-a-kind model. His ceiling vastly outreaches Harden's to the point where Durant will learn how to make all of his teammates around him play better than they would elsewhere. There will be other Harden's that come down the pipeline. We may not see another Durant for quite some time.
Given that reality, I think it is in OKC's best interest to max out Durant's prodigious talents as the best way to sustain greatness over the next decade. Just like Tim Duncan in San Antonio, equipping a potential All-Timer to morph into an actual All-Timer is a method that has a pretty solid track record.
This post was inspired in part by my desire to create that horrible Photoshop image at the top. Look out Bill Champion, there's a new artistic sheriff in town.