While Kevin Durant continues to elevate himself into the lead of the MVP race, J.A. Adande and Israel Gutierrez take a look at KD's game and how high OKC's superstar could climb.
J.A.: Israel, I was lucky enough to have an up-close view of Kevin Durant's career-high scoring night against the Warriors last week and was amazed at how easy he made it look. He did whatever he wanted, picked the places he desired to go on the court and shot over anyone who challenged him.
This was Durant at his absolute best. It left no doubt in my mind that he's the league's MVP at this point in the season. However, it's still too early in his career to assess his place among the all-time greats. All that's left to wonder is: At age 25, with his peak still presumably ahead of him, how much better do you think Durant can get?
Israel: It's an interesting question, because if he gets significantly better, he'll have nothing close to an equal. He's already a top-two player in the league, and while LeBron James says every year that he has gotten better, it would appear Durant is step-for-step with him in that growth.
He isn't showing signs of a playmaker. He's already there." -- J.A. Adande
The question with Durant, as it tends to be in today's NBA, is can a "pure scorer," a term that's become just as much insult as compliment, lead a team to a championship? Or in the case of someone chasing a great legacy, can one lead a team to multiple championships?
We saw the struggle without Russell Westbrook in last year's playoffs because Durant, regardless of how easy he gets off shots, can't always be an efficient scorer without another dynamic playmaker beside him. But unlike some other pure scorers, who shall remain nameless, Durant has at least shown signs of becoming a playmaker himself -- rounding out his game to make him that much more difficult to defend. You saw in back-to-back games just how he can vary his game: 54 points against the Warriors then 30 with nine assists against the Kings. I would have hesitated to say he can become that all-around player this time last year. Now I'm starting to believe he can be, in large part because he's finally had to play without Westbrook and is forced to display other skills nightly.
J.A.: He isn't showing signs of a playmaker. He's already there. He is averaging five assists per game while averaging 30 points per game. That's almost twice as many assists per game as when he previously averaged 30 points (the 2009-10 season). I'd say that's progress.
Only 13 players in NBA history have averaged 30 points and five assists in a season. The list of players who have done it multiple times gets even more elite: Jerry West, Oscar Robertson, Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Allen Iverson, Wilt Chamberlain and Kobe Bryant. So there's one challenge for Durant: take this career-best season and make it habitual.
I'd also like to see him push his scoring average higher. He hasn't done better than the 60th best scoring average season -- an average of 33.02 would get him into the top 20. The equivalent of one more 3-pointer per game isn't too much to ask, is it?
Israel: I'm wondering how sustainable this is, though. I mean, Durant isn't just scoring, he's making incredibly difficult shots look like layups.
Durant isn't just scoring, he's making incredibly difficult shots look like layups." -- Israel Gutierrez
Tuesday night against the Trail Blazers, he was literally laughing at the shots he was hitting late in the game. On one attempt, it seemed he waited for the double-team before putting up the 3 and nailing it. At some point, those double-teams are going to come way earlier; perhaps the Spurs will use that strategy tonight. And as Charles Barkley says, with Westbrook out, there ain't but two guys on that team that can score.
Is it possible this is a hot streak and, as defenses adjust, Durant will still look like a frustrated scorer at season's end? I mean, last year it looked like Durant was poised to win the MVP award before he played LeBron and the Heat. The two play next Wednesday night on ESPN.
J.A.: Nice promo. Are you going to share some of that bonus check with me? Speaking of sharing, I think Durant's willingness to give up the ball will keep him from facing constant double-teams. Opponents would rather force Durant to hit shots that make him laugh than allow easy buckets for Serge Ibaka and friends. And if Durant does end up facing more doubles, so what? MJ and Kobe were doubled and still got theirs -- without the height advantage Durant enjoys.
The greater threat to Durant comes from within. Westbrook took 1,160 shots in 2009-10, the last time Durant averaged 30 points per game. Westbrook took between 1,266 and 1,535 shots in each of the next three seasons and was on pace to shoot at least 1,400 times this season. Durant was averaging 28 points before Westbrook was sidelined by a knee surgery after Christmas.
We know Westbrook hampers Durant's scoring. The trade-off is Westbrook gives Durant a better shot at winning a championship -- and Durant is going to need a few rings before we can speak of him in the context of MJ, Kobe and LeBron.
That means the next question is, can Durant win multiple championships?
Israel: The funny part is that if Durant had been lucky enough to fall into a situation where he was paired with a dominant big, rather than another star perimeter player, it's possible he would have a couple rings now. Then we would be talking about him in terms of "when will his reign end?"
As it is, he has to adjust his game some to make sure his teammates don't become stagnant just watching him go to work. Here's the beauty of his game in particular, though. Because it's so easy for him to shoot over defenses and because his skill set makes any catch-and-shoot situation a great shot, he can still look to be a volume scorer without actually dominating the ball, therefore still encouraging ball movement.
There was probably no better example than his 54-point night against the Warriors. According to SportVU technology, Durant had the ball in his hands for only three minutes, 17 seconds in that game. That's an insane level of efficiency.
Heck, at that rate, I would like to see him go after Kobe's 81-point mark. If, as Kobe told you, Durant can be a 7-foot version of the Mamba, I'd say that's beyond possible. And it would almost certainly lock up the MVP this season. It didn't do it for Kobe, but his team wasn't as good as Oklahoma City's.
Rather than wonder when Durant's hypothetical reign would end if he had been drafted by a ready-to-win team, we need to wonder when LeBron's ring run will finish. But even if it lasts another three years, Durant will be only 28 years old.
That happens to be Jordan's age when he won the first of his six championships. Of all the attributes Durant possesses -- length, shooting touch, work ethic -- his greatest asset might be his youth.