Kevin Durant’s Best Skill Isn’t What You Expect


While Steph Curry‘s scorching outside shooting is taking the league by storm right now, many have forgotten that just a year ago Kevin Durant, the best pure scorer in the NBA, was the undisputed MVP. Still, it’s not his scoring that is Durant’s greatest skill; what he does best is the rare gift of making his teammates better.

It doesn’t sound so difficult in theory: make those around you improve. But the reality is that not every star can do it. Russell Westbrook can do a lot of things, but he’s still learning how get the most of his teammates even as his individual numbers reach incredible levels. He stuffs the stat sheet like no other player in the league, though he’s still trying to learn how to turn that into wins at an elite rate.

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Over the course of their careers together Durant and Westbrook have always had each other. In the last few years that hasn’t been the case, as injuries have forced one another off the court at various times. Ever since Patrick Beverley’s ill fated bump on Westbrook’s knee in the 2013 playoffs the Thunder have been cursed with injuries.

The difference though between them? When Westbrook’s knee forced him out for long stretches in the 2013/14 season, Durant kept the Thunder rolling to finish with a 59-23 record and the 2 seed in the West, despite his partner in crime missing 36 games. Last season Westbrook went without Durant for 55 games and the Thunder missed the playoffs, despite a respectable 45-37 record.

This season again Durant was forced to miss six games with a hamstring strain, with Westbrook again tasked with shouldering the burden of carrying the team. Serge Ibaka has developed a lot of skills, but these injuries have proved how much he needs his fellow 2 stars alongside him to shine.

Look at Durant’s teammates offensive ratings (and those who his shares the court with the most) for the entire season and then during his absence:

Point being, of course the Thunder are better offensively with Durant. That’s a given. But he’s an underrated defender by the wider basketball public. The metrics support that too:

  • Andre Roberson: 98.4 with, 104.0 without
  • Dion Waiters: 102.2 with, 107.1 without
  • Serge Ibaka: 101.1 with, 104.5 without
  • Russell Westbrook: 99.1 with, 101.6 without
  • Steven Adams: 96.9 with, 101.6 without

What’s made even more impressive about those statistics is that the “with” rating is the whole season, it includes the time Durant was out. His ratings for the season stand at 112.9 offensively combined with a 98.7 rating on the defensive end.

To put that into further context, the Thunder are a net rating of 14.2 better with Durant on the court. With him they are an elite offensive team (107.3) and an almost top 10 defensive unit (100.6) which is improving by the game under new coach Billy Donovan. When he’s not there they’re still great offensively (103.1, which would be 7th), but defensively they’d slip to 24th in the league with a 102.9 rating. That’s awful.

KD is a big contributor as a teammate, even when he isn’t suited up. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

There’s the differences right there. Around the league Durant’s defensive contributions aren’t acknowledged but they are vital to what the Thunder do. The defensive stops have always led to good offensive opportunities for the team, it’s foundation of what the team has done since they’ve moved from Seattle.

Durant has also averaged 2.8 blocks in his last 4 games, and is averaging 1.8 on the season which would be a career high. He’s learning more and more how to use his own verticality and wingspan defensively and has improved season by season on this under the tutelage of defense-first coach Scott Brooks.

It’s also the little things Durant does that make him such a good teammate. His active encouragement from the bench of his teammates is something he does even when not suited up, a role normally reserved for the players who don’t get minutes (like Mitch McGary) not the stars of the team. Durant can even be found supporting the team at Summer League. How many players let alone stars do that?

He’s also an ever improving facilitator, whose playmaking has improved every season to the point that he’s a real threat as a passer let alone a shooter. The fact he’s always willing to make the extra pass is what can separate him from most pure scorers, such as Carmelo Anthony.

His infectious presence breeds confidence in others around him, and the space his presence creates offensively is a massive asset to those around him. Dion Waiters shoots 40% from the field and 35% from 3 with Durant in the lineup, but that drops to 35% and 26% when Durant is out.

Serge Ibaka drops 7% (from 48 to 41) without him, even Anthony Morrow‘s elite 3 point shooting drops without his star man beside him (from 40% to 36%). Steven Adams might only make shots around the basket, but those a lot easier with Durant around (58%) than him on the sidelines (50%).

While some of these seem like small drops, they all matter. It’s what transforms a very good team into a contender. Kevin Durant is one of the few transformational stars whose team automatically become playoff relevant and a Championship contender by his mere presence. Because while he’s scoring exploits are well known, it’s what we does for those around him that is his most valuable asset.