Posted by Neil Paine on January 7, 2009
Welcome back to the Basketball-Reference blog! I hope everybody had a wonderful holiday, and got to spend quality time with friends and/or family... For our part, we here at BBR would like to wish all of our readers a terrific 2009, and we hope you get a chance to enjoy what should be one of the best basketball years in recent memory. Needless to say, it's going to be a fun 12 months.
Anyway, we're going to kick off the new year by looking back at one of out most popular posts from '08. Way back on November 21, I wrote about the early returns for Thunderite Kevin Durant's second NBA campaign, which were -- how should I say this? -- not good. Playing with an ecclectic (and historically bad) set of teammates which included low-usage glue guys like Nick Collison and Joe Smith, journeymen like Earl Watson, Desmond Mason, Damien Wilkins, and Chris Wilcox, inefficient youngsters like Jeff Green and rookie Russell Westbrook, and an abysmal set of draft-bust "project" centers, the burden of carrying the offensive load pretty much fell squarely on the narrow shoulders of the slender 20-year-old out of Texas.
Playing out of position at SG, Durant was forced to take 30% of OKC's field goal attempts when on the court, often from a range where making a high percentage of shots is a tough proposition for even the most seasoned of veterans. He was scoring a lot, but it was merely a consequence of his usage -- his efficiency level was a rather awful 94.5 ORtg that couldn't be explained away merely by his huge offensive responsibility. I looked at other young players from the past with similarly huge roles, and found that Durant's efficiency mark was very low when compared to even the worst of that group; even when I compared Durant's ORtg to that of his terrible teammates, the conclusion was clear: Durant isn't going to be the superstar that everyone predicted back in '07. Regardless of how bad his supporting cast was, no young scorer had been this inefficient and gone on to a top-notch career. Nobody.
Fast-forward to today, and a lot has changed (in a good way) for KD and the Thunder. Not long after I penned that post, OKC coach P.J. Carlesimo was canned in favor of Scott Brooks, and Brooks immediately made a move that most fans considered long overdue: he placed Durant at his natural SF position. Not coincidentally, the Oklahoma City offense, which had been mired in one of the worst performances in NBA history (no joke), slowly began to improve. They weren't suddenly the Lakers, mind you, but neither were they the total, unmitigated disaster that they had been under Carlesimo's direction.
Now Durant's ORtg for the 2008-09 season is 106.5, which is rather remarkable when you consider the massive hole he dug for himself early in the year. He's eased back on his usage under the new scheme -- now he's consuming 26.6% of the Thunder's possessions, compared to 29% under Carlesimo -- and he's getting more easy looks closer to the basket. Simply put, he's playing much better now. In fact, why don't we compare the 2 Durants? Here are Durant's 2008-09 stats at the time of the first post, and Durant's season numbers as of yesterday:
Name Season Ag Team Ht Pos MPG ORtg %Pos DRtg Floor% Stop% Durant, 11/21 2008-09 20 OKC 81 G 35.4 94.5 28.3 108.4 0.452 0.447 Durant, 1/5 2008-09 20 OKC 81 F 38.6 106.5 26.6 110.3 0.495 0.480 Name Season P/36 2P% 3P% FT% TS% qAst %FGA Durant, 11/21 2008-09 20.6 44.7 43.8 84.5 51.3 54.3% 29.9% Durant, 1/5 2008-09 21.6 46.7 44.4 84.8 55.9 57.5% 28.3% Name Season AsR ToR PPR FTr 3Ptd OR% DR% Blk% Stl% Durant, 11/21 2008-09 10.9 17.6 -6.43 26.1 7.2 2.4 10.1 1.0 1.3 Durant, 1/5 2008-09 11.4 14.7 -3.58 33.3 16.2 2.9 14.7 1.7 1.5
Since I wrote about him in November, Durant has improved in virtually every offensive phase of the game... He's shooting better, passing better, taking better care of the ball, rebounding better, and getting to the line more often (even as he's more than doubled the % of his shots that come from beyond the arc). Defensively, the Thunder have been worse under Brooks than P.J., but Durant's still very young, meaning he has time to get stronger and smarter at that end.
In other words, in light of the evidence Durant has presented since the first post, I think it's time to reassess his potential. In terms of young players with similar production, now he's looking at a better career path than Michael Finley and Mitch Richmond -- which I know doesn't exactly sound megastar-ish, but it's certainly better than what he was looking at back in November. I don't know if he'll ever reach the lofty "Rich Man's KG" level of stardom some predicted, but I'm a big enough man to admit that I was probably a bit too hasty when I said:
...it’s doubtful [Durant] will live up to the considerable hype that surrounded him when he first came out of college.
It's still no sure thing, mind you, but since the Carlesimo firing Durant has finally started to cash in on that considerable potential, which is great news for a 5-30 Thunder team that can use all the help it can get.