Making the Case for Kevin Durant as Best Player in NBA
With no Lebron James in the playoffs (much to the chagrin of many), Kevin Durant has an opportunity to solidify his place as the best player in the NBA. It is a conversation that many believe is long overdue. Now before anyone gets riled up, let’s take inventory of why this is significant. Several factors make this a bigger deal than most people realize.
For starters, the obvious cause for pause is the team that Durant plays for and the players he plays with. Steph Curry is a two-time (and first unanimous) MVP. Klay Thompson is one of the best two-way guards in the NBA. And Draymond Green is the heart and soul of the group as well as a solid defender himself. But Durant, Durant is the difference.
Easy Money Sniper
Sure, the Warriors won a title without KD. They also came back from down 3-1 in the Western Conference Finals against Durant’s Oklahoma City Thunder in 2016. Golden State would go on to lose the ensuing Finals against Lebron and the Cleveland Cavaliers. That led to a parking lot phone call from Green and the rest is two more Larry O’Brien trophies for the Dubs with two Finals MVP awards for Durant.
Despite averaging 25.8/7.1/5.4 while slashing .524/.384/.883 during his time in the Bay, Durant has often been looked at as the ‘1A’ to Steph’s ‘1’. When looking at the numbers since Durant joined the Warriors, one might conclude that they are more equals than any sort of hierarchy. Curry’s 26.3/4.9/6 (.476/.424/.911) since they became the ‘Hampton’s Five’ rivals Durant’s output and even exceeds it in some aspects.
When parsing the numbers, however, the two superstars’ playoff numbers paint a different picture altogether. During the two championship runs with both Curry and Durant, the former averaged 26.9/6.2/6.1 and slashed .468/.407/.919. The latter put up 28.8/7.8/4.5 on a .514/.379/.898 line. What we see is while Curry is still a key component, but Durant’s scoring and rebounding (i.e. more scoring opportunities) set him above his teammate.
Detractors (and Curry truthers) will almost certainly point out Golden State’s 25-9 record sans KD. Compare that to their 19-15 record minus Steph and the opinions start to formulate. Aside from the two interestingly missing the exact same amount of time the two years prior to this one, Golden State appears to miss the presence of the Chef more.
The problem is, all the missed game data is from the regular season. And we have already shown the disparity between the two in the postseason. But barring injury (please, no) there will be no sample size to draw from in the playoffs. So how can we determine who is the more important factor? This could be a case of Occam’s razor.
If the simplest answer is usually right, what is it? It is this: Kevin Durant is the most important player to the Golden State Warriors championship aspirations. Now, that’s not to say that the Warriors would fall off a cliff if Durant were not there (more on that later). But for as good as the Dubs are as a whole they are, for the most part, not iso players.
For all the talk of beautiful basketball, Durant is one of only nine players to average at least three iso attempts per game during the regular season. Of those nine players, only two (Lebron and John Wall) failed to make the playoffs. When things slow down in the playoffs, teams need players that can get their own shot. Steph and Klay only had 1.3 and 0.9 attempts, respectively.
So far this year in the playoffs, Durant is fourth in ISO attempts. Last year’s postseason he was third. Year one in Oakland was different, though; he ranked 20th. One interesting tidbit, he is actually taking fewer shots (3.6) in ISO this year but is shooting just 36 percent on those plays. That is down from 44 percent on 5.7 shots a game last year.
Golden State led the league in assists for the fifth consecutive season, even with Durant’s ISO usage. Clearly, he is by no means a ball stopper. But he is still just as unique a circumstance on his whole team as he is in the league as a whole. A team founded offensively on making the extra pass is largely reliant on a player that plays 1-on-1 at a rate three times higher than his next closest teammate. Every year since KD has arrived, his ISO attempts have risen as Steph’s have fallen.
King of the Castle
You know who teams switch up philosophies for? Their best players. Just look at James and the Lakers. When wooing a franchise-altering type of talent, organizations acquiesce a little. Said talent (rightly) becomes the focal point within the scheme. Well, some players are so good they alter the way teams execute their scheme inherently.
Durant has impacted the Warriors in that very way. And it wasn’t through a hostile takeover. It was the gradual progression of his game meshing with the Golden State system and the ball finding the best player. They say “ball don’t lie” for a reason. But what about the man that many have said KD has been following in the path of, with conspiracy theorists even pointing to their championship poses as evidence.
Lebron is still in the NBA, despite the void his absence may have left in our playoff-lives. The King still, in year 16, averaged 27.4/8.5/8.3. That was better than his first years in Miami and returning to Cleveland. It is also better than Durant’s numbers, but is the gap wide enough to say James still reigns over the Association? We may have to wait till next year to get the definitive answer on that after the tumultuous season the Lakers had clouded the situation.
You Know Who He Is
When Durant sat in front of the media gallery and made the proclamation, “I am Kevin Durant. You know who I am” I felt that. It felt like a player finally fully comfortable in his skin. His transformation from babyface to heel is well documented, but his acclimation to not being universally beloved was not as quick or smooth. Clashes with the media (and teammates) overshadowed a player’s game superseding the system he was determined to be a part of.
There are those who will argue Durant has been the best player in the NBA since 2014, his MVP-winning season when he averaged 32/7.4/5.5 with a .503/.391/.873 slash line. Since then he has averaged 27.5/7.3/5.3 at .514/.387/.881 clips. James has averaged 26.5/7.7/7.8 while shooting .530/.353/.712 over that same span. The numbers are again comparable, Durant scores more and with better efficiency from deep and the free throw line. Bron’s do-it-all game has him ahead in rebounds and assists and shooting a higher percentage from the floor.
In the playoffs, the discussion gets even more interesting. Durant, over the past two postseasons, put up 28.8/7.8/4.5 on .514/.379/.898 shooting. James has put up an insane 33.5/9.1/8.5 while shooting .550/.376/.725. Their head-to-head Finals match way back in 2012 favored a prime James (28.6/10.2/7.4, .472/.188/.826) over a third-year pro in Durant (30.6/6/2.2, .548/.394/.839), though the latter was the more effective and efficient scorer even then.
Say That to Say This
We can get into the off/on stats (hint: the Warriors are by and large better with Durant on the floor) but we already know the answers. Golden State’s best player is Kevin Durant. Curry may be their most important, but that is an entirely different conversation in my opinion. And that is where the KD’s path may take him away from the team he sacrificed more than Thanos to join.
The rumors have swirled all year that Durant may leave while seeing and hearing the stories and dustups with media and even the man who made that history-altering phone call from the parking lot. KD can be a tough person to get a read on. But even before becoming the hyper-sensitive turned at-peace superstar, he let it be known his goal was to be the best player in the NBA, a goal that seems impossible to achieve in the Bay.
No matter what he does, Durant will never reach the heights in the eyes of the public as long as he is on the Warriors. They will always be ‘Steph’s team’. That is why it makes so much sense for Durant to move on after achieving his goal of winning championships. It is also why the stories rubbed him the wrong way and why the spat with Green occurred. This feels like both the last hurrah for the Hampton’s Five, and in many ways, the start of the Kevin Durant-era in the NBA.
All stats and info courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball Reference unless otherwise stated. Accurate through 04/29/2019.