Kevin Durant will be a free agent in the summer of 2016, at which point he will be free to sign with any NBA team. This is widely reported and fully undisputed.
With that out of the way, it’s clear that 2015-16 will be a season unlike any other Kevin Durant has experienced with the Thunder. After a meteoric rise, the team has now had to bounce back from season-imploding injuries three consecutive years, and last season saw the Thunder’s misfortunes reach depths unknown since the team first crashed the playoffs in 2010.
But forget last season. Try, if you can, to even forget the free agency hysteria that will be included in every piece of Thunder commentary and on every Thunder telecast in 2015-16. Even with all of that completely disregarded, the upcoming season is going to be different for Kevin Durant. For one, there's a new coaching staff in OKC, who will play in an almost historically loaded Western Conference in which 58 wins might fetch a 4-seed.
Kevin Durant’s 2015-16, however, will be most squarely impacted by the Thunder’s deepest and best roster to date. Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka can both be expected to make their annual leaps, while younger players like Mitch McGary will now be counted on to show more than just promise. Oklahoma City’s weaknesses are few and far between, and Billy Donovan will have more intriguing lineups at his disposal than any coach could ever know what to do with – much less a guy making the jump from college.
There are many reasons why this season will be different for Kevin Durant, and they aren’t the ones that reside in Washington or Miami or Houston. These reasons are in the locker room, wear Thunder jerseys, and are every bit aware of the high stakes that will define the coming season in Oklahoma City.
Reason 1: Anthony Morrow, post-All Star Break
Kevin Durant has played with Anthony Morrow, but not this Anthony Morrow. Not the Anthony Morrow Thunder fans got to know last year as the season came to an end.
After the All Star Break, Morrow shot 50.7% from behind the arc. To put this in better context, Wally Szczerbiak’s 2007-08 clip of 42.8% was the highest of any player Durant has ever played with for a full season. While the Daequan Cook’s and Caron Butler’s of the world have either come close to that level of accuracy or provided similar numbers in limited cameos, Durant has never played alongside a sniper of Morrow’s caliber.
In the 277 minutes that Durant and Morrow were both on the court last year, the Thunder attempted 5.7 more three-pointers per game than their opponents. In an NBA that just crowned the 2015 Golden State Warriors as champions, the importance of taking - and making - threes is more profound than ever.
This shooting will, in turn, help space the floor for Durant to get to the basket as well. With his ball handling skills inexplicably still trending upward, Durant will have more (and easier) opportunities than ever to catch the ball at the arc and present a true triple threat to the defense.
It’s easy to get lost in Durant’s prospects and lose sight of the larger issue: just how unstoppable the Thunder offense could be. What makes Morrow’s post-All Star Break spree even more impressive is that Durant was only active for one game. That effect that we hope Morrow has on KD? In the words of PFTCommenter, "goes both ways." Yes, defenses are afraid to sag off of Anthony Morrow - but Kevin Durant has 9 eyeballs on him while he sits on the bench. Even during KD’s inactive stretches, you half expected Tony Allen to wear street clothes just so he could mirror Durant. The bottom line? When opposing defensive schemes work – that is, they make someone other than Durant or Westbrook shoot – the end result will often be a quality three point look for a man who makes more than half of them. For 29 NBA teams, that is a nightmare.
Durant will continue to put up monstrous numbers against opponents who also have to keep track of Westbrook, Morrow, or Ibaka, though they can continue to ignore Kendr-…wait. Now the Thunder have another guy they have to guard, too.
Reason 2: Opposing defenses finally have to guard all five players
After being traded to the Thunder in the final seconds before 2015 trade deadline, Enes Kanter put up an Offensive Box Plus/Minus (per Basketball-Reference.com, "a box score estimate of the offensive points per 100 possessions a player contributed above a league-average player, translated to an average team") of 3.0. The following players have posted a higher number in this category while playing alongside Kevin Durant: Russell Westbrook and James Harden. That’s it. No one else has come close. It’s the dawn of a new era in Thunder basketball – one in which teams can no longer hide poor defenders.
In a recent post, I recapped the Thunder’s March 24th win over the Lakers, and one play that immediately stuck out was one in which Kanter set a high screen for Westbrook. Westbrook came off the screen and drove to the left wing before lobbing the ball back out to Kanter. In recent years, this player has often been either Kendrick Perkins or Steven Adams, neither of which is much of a threat to do anything positive from that distance. In this instance, however, Kanter quickly pivoted and found an open Kyle Singler for a corner three. Kyle Singler, as in the guy playing small forward for the Thunder. Small forward, as in the position that Kevin Durant plays. Next year, when Kevin Durant is the guy in the corner, how will this play be defended? Will teams allow Westbrook a wide open lane to the basket, or will give Kanter the open jumper? the open jumper away from Kanter? Or will they go with option 3, leaving the most devastating offensive force in the game wide open in the corner?
Kanter quite simply provides elements that no Thunder big man ever has. With all due respect to the midrange threat Nick Collison once provided, his career-high Offensive Box Plus/Minus came in 2012-13. It was 1.0.
Going forward, the Thunder can roll out a lineup of Westbrook, Morrow/Waiters/Payne, Durant, Ibaka, and Kanter, and opponents will know that each guy is capable of complete scoring outbursts. Never before has this been the case on a Kevin Durant-led team, and no one will benefit from the extra spacing and additional one on one match-ups than KD himself.
While this reason is relegated to the second spot on this list, it is probably the number one reason why the upcoming year could be a special one.
Reason 3: This year, it’s really about defense
If you’ve watched more than ten minutes of any Thunder game over the past few seasons, there’s a good chance you’ve heard Scott Brooks use the term "defensive identity" (or "play for each other," etc, etc, etc). It may or may not be file footage. It probably is.
"We are a defensive team" - the pillar of any good coach-speak repertoire. It works for almost every sport, and ultimately means nothing. Every team wants to run the bases hard. Every team wants to establish and stop the run. Every team wants to rebound and play defense. The Thunder, historically, have been no different.
But coming off of last year, the 2015-16 Thunder again have to say they are a defensive team, and this year they have to mean it. Make no mistake – the Thunder are going to score a lot. They will probably have the best record in the league when giving up 115 or more points. But ultimately, in the bloodbath that is the Western Conference, Kevin Durant needs to lead the team by taking his own defense to another level.
The Thunder were 24th last year in points allowed per game, per NBA.com. Clearly, team defense was their ultimate undoing when it came to their failure to lock up a playoff berth. Everyone remembers the debacles against the Mavericks and Knicks, but the night-to-night ineptitude is what really cost them. After the All Star Break, the Thunder had a Defensive Rating of 107(!). That’s not a typo. The Oklahoma City Thunder gave up 107 points per 100 possessions from late February through the end of the season. For some perspective, the 29-win Denver Nuggets had a season-long defensive rating of 106.5
And OKC paid the price. If you subtract Enes Kanter, the Thunder’s top three scorers (Westbrook, Durant, and Ibaka) combined to miss 88 games – and OKC still finished 5th in points scored per game. Think about that for a second: merely really poor defense would have seen the Thunder through to the playoffs. But they had to go and make it a fiasco.
A lot of fingers will be pointed at Enes Kanter due to the season splits. Before the All Star Break, the team’s defensive rating was 101.0, which would have landed the Thunder in the middle of the pack for the year. But the problem transcended even the worst individual defender (which Kanter is), and even Durant was far from blameless when he was on the floor.
Durant has been a reasonable defender over the past few seasons, peaking in Defensive Box Plus/Minus (the inverse of Offensive Box Plus/Minus) in 2012-13 with 1.4. In the 27 games he suited up for the Thunder in 2014-15, however, Durant posted a -0.2 in the category - his worst since 2010-11.
The Thunder players will no doubt outwardly embrace their new-found status as the dangerous underdog, but they surely know that a slow start in 2015 will only cause the pressure to build exponentially. Think the #KD2DC rumors are swirling now? Wait until the first three-game losing streak. Only wins will kill the vultures.
And the guy at the center of it all? He’ll be the guy at the center of it all.