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Why Kevin Durant is About to Reach Another Level

Long regarded as the world's second-best player, the reigning Finals MVP may be on the verge of a historic individual season.

by Michael Pina
02 August 2017, 9:26pm

Foto: Cary Edmondson - USA TODAY Sports

Kevin Durant has had an impressive year. He won his first NBA title, and was named Finals MVP. He managed to elevate his historical stature while simultaneously shouldering the smallest workload of his life. Durant grafted his peerless all-around skill-set onto the hungry, 73-win Golden State Warriors without a hitch, then won a Finals MVP and a championship while boiling his individual game into its purest, most enjoyable form.

Durant is 28 years old and on top of the basketball universe. Last season, he shined in a new role. Next year, he'll paint a masterpiece.

The most talented NBA team ever assembled will be even more explosive in 2018, in large part because life is about to get even smoother for their best player. Durant, a four-time scoring champ, is already ruthlessly efficient. Now he's entering year two in an unselfish, unguardable system, surrounded by an increasingly potent supporting cast.

Durant's responsibilities shifted in a few predictable ways last year. He averaged the fewest minutes and second fewest points of his career, hardly wasted a dribble or held the ball a moment too long. He thrived in an environment where most of his teammates could create their own opportunities and didn't have to rely on Durant to draw double team after double team; almost by itself, Golden State's screeching pace manufactured clean looks out of thin air.

According to Synergy Sports, in his last season with the Oklahoma City Thunder, 36.4 percent of Durant's possessions either ended in isolation or as a pick-and-roll ball-handler. With the Warriors, that number dropped down to 24.1 percent—from over a third to under a quarter of his overall contribution. Durant was one of the world's best players on the Thunder, but in his lone year in Oakland it felt like the shackles were off.

Durant assassinated opponents in the open floor and baffled unsettled defenses that were forced to treat him like the tip of a spear every time he crossed halfcourt. He owned the paint and wasn't forced to rain long twos down on his enemy like he had been in the past. A weight was removed from his lanky frame. Durant posted the highest True Shooting percentage and lowest usage rate of his career. There were more dunks, wider driving lanes, and an influx of agreeable passers at his side. The percentage of his two-point field goals that were assisted rose to a new career high.

Durant responded to almost every morsel of fat being chiseled from his role by dancing on clouds and unleashing his exceptional physical qualities on the glass and defensive end, but the most horrifying part of it all is that next year he'll be even leaner.

In his very first season with a batch of brand new teammates, Durant had one of the most efficient seasons on record. He became just the sixth player (most of them forwards and centers) in NBA history to launch at least 1000 shots and finish with a True Shooting percentage above 65.0.

But there's still room for improvement. By his impossibly high standards, Durant's outside shot was hardly an inferno. His three-point percentage (37.5) was 0.5 points lower than his career average in Oklahoma City (and Seattle) and the worst we've seen since 2011, despite him being able to take advantage of the corner far more frequently than ever before. Even if that number doesn't increase (bet it'll cross 40), an enhanced roster will make life easier in several other ways.

Durant's calculated paycut allowed the Warriors to have a perfect summer. Not only will every key member from last year's team return (including Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston, David West, and Zaza Pachulia), but Nick Young and Omri Casspi are both in the fold to immediately upgrade areas that complement the team's very best players.

Both can space the floor—Casspi made 40.9 percent of his threes on a career-high 274 attempts during the 2015-16 season, while Young is a legendary human heat check who canned 43.9 percent of his spot-up threes last year—make plays off the bounce, and guard several positions.

They're directly helpful, but also allow head coach Steve Kerr to deploy his franchise tentpoles at the same time more often than not. Given Golden State's obscene talent off the bench, there's frankly no reason to stagger Durant and Steph Curry's minutes during the regular season. And when they shared the floor last year, KD was an unpolluted version of his already-great self, an icy blue bag of Walter White's pièce de résistance.

Thanks to the arrival of Nick Young, these guys might share the floor more next season. Photo by Jaime Valdez - USA TODAY Sports

His three-point percentage shot up nine percent and he was more accurate from the mid-range and inside the restricted area. Curry's mind-melting gravitational drag keeps help defenders at bay, and whenever he sets a pick or runs by one planted along the baseline, it creates mismatch opportunities than can be exploited elsewhere by Durant. There's really no safe zone defending this guy one-on-one, especially when you're shorter than 6'4" and have to switch a screen.

Curry can singlehandedly initiate unstoppable action with the ball in his hands. He cooks candy for Durant, who hangs on the weakside, catches a swing pass, then pummels a defense that's off balance.

The same general logic also applies to Klay Thompson. Durant shot 71.2 percent within five feet of the rim with Thompson off the floor, and a cartoonish 78.2 with him on. To be frank, thanks to their replenished bench (which includes Patrick McCaw on a contract year), there isn't enough urgency to embed Thompson or Curry with second units. Durant may enjoy even more time next season with two of the NBA's deadliest catch-and-shoot weapons drawing the opponent's attention.

Durant will at times be forced to assume more playmaking duties when Kerr splits these three up, but he'll also be surrounded by the likes of Young and Casspi, two new companions that weren't even around to support his miraculous 2016-17 campaign. There'll be no adjustment period among the starters. Everyone knows everyone else's tendencies like the back of their hand, and the rest of the league has yet to formulate a strategy to slow them down.

Loading up on Durant isn't an option, and most rosters don't have enough size, length, and quickness to slow him down in transition or the half-court. There are no statistical ceilings right now, and it wouldn't be crazy if his True Shooting percentage hovered around 70.0 at various points throughout the year. While everyone else stays on the same level, Durant is about to soar even higher.

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