Kevin Durant, one of the purest scorers of all time, has joined forces with a Phoenix Suns team that’s been one of the NBA’s top-seven offenses over the last two years.
This season’s injury woes have prompted a drop in that category, but there’s no ignoring it: One of the 15 greatest players of all time will not only fit in with Phoenix’s high-powered offense, but enhance it in a variety of ways.
Durant has yet to take the court for his first Suns game, but as his potential debut looms on Wednesday, it’s worth taking a look at how Durant fits in with Phoenix’s 0.5 offense, where he’ll expand upon it, and what adjustments need to be made in the first of many title-or-bust seasons.
Kevin Durant is a seamless fit
Even if we temporarily ignore everything else KD brings to the table, simply plugging him into Mikal Bridges’ spot serves as an extremely modest baseline for what the Suns can expect on offense.
As we’ve covered recently, Bridges’ growth as a playmaker and scorer from the elbows helped Phoenix stay afloat without Booker and Chris Paul this year. The Suns started running him in Book’s place for certain sets, and he showed immense progress in that role.
There’s a big difference, however, in Mikal Bridges vs. Kevin Durant, who’s arguably the most prolific midrange scorer in NBA history. It’s easy to envision plugging Durant’s superior height, release point, ball-handling and jump shooting into these Bridges middies off the Suns’ patented elbow sets and dribble handoffs:
Durant not only ranks in the 98th percentile in points per possession off handoffs, per The BBall Index, but he’s also better than Bridges, Booker and CP3 as a midrange scorer. Watching him work, Durant never looks rushed getting to his favorite spot on the floor. He’s got a fluid handle to pull up at any moment, enough length to rise up over any defender, and can even whip out the one-legged Dirk Nowitzki fadeaway if he needs to create extra separation.
Durant’s midrange game is poetry in motion, and the numbers back up the eye test. As ESPN’s Kirk Goldsberry pointed out, over the last 25 NBA seasons, there have been nearly 1,700 instances of a player taking at least 250 midrange attempts in a season. Among those instances, there are only three where a player hit 55 percent of his middies for the entire season. All three belong to Kevin Durant (2018-19, 2021-22 and 2022-23).
No wonder he goes by “Easy Money.”
The Nets used pindowns or extended elbow screens to free up KD — a slightly different angle compared to what Phoenix does. It’s easy to picture coach Monty Williams implementing a few Brooklyn plays or running Durant off more elbow screens to free him up for these types of looks:
Nets coach Jacque Vaughn acknowledged how Brooklyn adjusted its offense to incorporate more elbow sets for Bridges, and Williams should take the same approach for Durant. The Suns coach divulged that he, KD and video coordinator Justin Maxey have been going through “a ton of film” to match up what Phoenix does with what Durant’s done in Golden State, OKC and Brooklyn.
Durant’s adaptability doesn’t hurt either.
“I’ll ask him like, ‘Hey, where do you like the ball?’ or whatever, and Kev’s like, ‘Anywhere,'” Williams said. “We’re just trying to figure out efficient ways to help him integrate without changing too much of what we do.”
Durant’s midrange-heavy methods put him right at home with these Midrange Assassuns. As we’ve covered in greater detail already, Phoenix’s counterintuitive approach may help come playoff time, when defenses know their opponent’s every play and become more inclined to take away 3s and shots at the rim. The Suns have a collection of players who can create offense from an area of the floor that defenses are more willing to concede:
According to Goldsberry, over the last five-plus seasons, only four players have made at least 1,000 2-point jump shots. The Suns now have three of those four players between KD, Booker and CP3 (DeMar DeRozan is the other). Phoenix’s trio is averaging more 2-point jumpers combined per game (20.7) than any other team in the league.
Much like Durant joining Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, the prospect of having to stop all three in a playoff series is already giving coaches in the Western Conference a headache.
“I don’t want to think about it,” LA Clippers coach Tyronn Lue joked. “That’s a tough trio, and it reminds you of the Klay, Steph and KD, even though CP’s a little older now. But just having that three-headed monster that, you take one guy out, two guys are still available and on the floor. So it’s a tough coverage, tough matchup.”
One may notice Durant is the most elite player in that Middy Committee, ranking in the 100th percentile in midrange frequency and the 98th percentile in midrange accuracy, per Cleaning The Glass. Defenders know this, and when they try too hard to prevent him from getting to his spots, Durant burns them with sly backdoor cuts from the elbows:
“I like to take shots in the midrange, I like to cut to the basket, I like to do the little things throughout the offense,” Durant said. “I think that’s what makes you a versatile player and be able to adapt to any offense: just being able to space the floor and use my skill to help other players. So I’ve been doing that my whole career.”
Durant ranks in the league’s 70th percentile in points per possession off cuts, but more importantly, he’s a selfless player who’s aware of the gravity he has and uses it to his advantage as a playmaker.
KD as a playmaker
Remember those elbow sets we mentioned? Durant has no problem coming off a pick, dribble handoff or staggered screens before hitting the roller when defenses commit too much attention to him:
Much like Booker, Durant excels in off-ball actions before taking control of the play, which gives the offense an element of duality in being able to deploy Durant in a number of places within Phoenix’s offense.
To get him to his favorite spots, the Suns can run Double Drag screens or their elbow sets with Durant in Booker’s place. Thanks to his ball-handling, they can use him in Paul’s spot in the Spain pick-and-roll. They can even use him in Deandre Ayton’s spot at times, making defenses pay for doubling Book or CP3, utilizing his pick-and-pop ability, or even letting him “ghost,” which means setting a fake ball screen before sprinting into space.
Durant mentioned at his introductory press conference how much he looked forward to playing with Booker, whose game he felt was similar to his own because of the way they get to the same spots on the floor. Funnily enough, KD is capable of replicating any of his new teammates’ roles on any given possession.
As a pick-and-roll ball-handler, Durant ranks in the 100th percentile in points per possession. His 5.3 assists per game this season trail only Paul and Booker on the Suns, and he ranks in the 91st percentile in potential assists per 100 passes and 95th percentile in passing creation quality.
Sure, it comes with 3.5 turnovers per game, but the Suns now have a multitude of reliable pick-and-roll weapons to play with:
“It’s a different dynamic for sure,” Williams said. “Having three guys that can bring the ball down the floor and run a pick-and-roll and know what to do in that pick-and-roll, I think it’s something that we have to be open-minded about and allow them to teach us what they can do together on the floor.”
Looking at the film, Durant has no problem threading pocket passes through two defenders out of high pick-and-rolls:
Some of those feeds required Nic Claxton or Day’Ron Sharpe to dribble in the short roll first, closing the distance between themselves and the basket — something Ayton has struggled with at times. But the prospect of working with three pick-and-roll maestros is something DA looks forward to.
“I’m super excited ’cause we’re used to seeing a lot of double-teams, a lot of blitzes coming out of these pick-and-rolls, and there was always a low man,” Ayton said. “But I think I will be having the easiest job of just rolling under the basket and waiting for that ball to be dumped off to me or offensive rebound.”
Jaw kinda dropped hearing Zach Lowe say about Phoenix on his latest pod, "This is the greatest collection of pick-and-roll ball handling on 1 team, I think, in the history of the NBA."
Hadn't thought about it from that particular angle but not so easy to refute!
— Sam Cooper (@scooperhoops) February 15, 2023
It’s not just pairing one of the three main ball-handlers with Ayton or Bismack Biyombo, of course. Durant can set screens for the other two to nullify the types of blitzes Booker and CP3 are accustomed to seeing. Booker can also be used as a screener when teams start trapping KD on the ball. It almost doesn’t matter who the fifth starter is; the mix-and-match possibilities are endless.
“Yeah, it’s gonna be a problem,” Booker said. “Just less attention on each one of us. A lot of teams have one good defender or two good defenders, and now you’re gonna have to try to find where you’re gonna put them. Who are you gonna put ’em on?”
Booker doesn’t get enough credit for doing the dirty work, but imagining him filling Kyrie Irving’s role as a screener is tantalizing, especially after what Williams said about Book back in October.
“I think it’s how they open up the game for those guys, at least on the offensive end, and I think that’s where a lot of Book’s value is,” Williams said. “It drives him nuts, but I’ll draw up a play and I’ll be like, ‘Book, I want you to be a decoy here.’ He’s like, ‘That’s an expensive decoy, coach.’ You know, he’ll say something typical Book, but because he can do that, it opens up the floor for other guys.”
With Book setting screens for Durant or vice-versa, KD’s arrival makes the Suns downright deadly in pick-and-roll situations:
Those types of plays allow Paul to conserve energy too, since he can focus on table-setting rather than bearing the brunt of initiating. They even create opportunities for him to fill the Booker role, careening around off-ball screens and catching the rock going downhill.
“It’s really nice to come off with a live dribble,” Paul said. “It’s something we’ve been doing a little bit more of, probably when we get KD out there [too].”
Paul’s increasing comfort playing off the ball is big here. He’s taking the highest frequency of catch-and-shoot looks of his career, and he’s making a career-best 53.8 percent of them from beyond the arc (tracking data only goes back to 2013-14).
He’s not the only one who will benefit; proven shooters like Damion Lee and Terrence Ross are about to enjoy more open looks than they’ve ever seen before, while comparatively unproven shooters like Torrey Craig and Josh Okogie can continue building the confidence they’ve shown over the last few months.
“That’s one of the greatest to ever touch a basketball,” Lee said. “So it’s just the respect and understanding of what he brings, what he commands when he’s out there on the court, and knowing that you have to make sure you’re on your P’s and Q’s if you’re playing with one of the greats.”
The Suns should take Lee’s message to heart, because as The Athletic’s Sam Vecenie pointed out, most of Durant’s teammates saw a surge in efficiency whenever they shared the court with him. It’s the reason T.J. Warren referred to playing with KD as “basketball heaven.” He just makes the game easier for everyone.
“Our guys, we locked in and ready to shoot,” Cam Payne said. “It’s cool though, man, to have prime-time guys on your team. That’s why you gotta stay ready and keep working on your game, ’cause them shots are gonna be there.”
Kevin Durant, floor-spacer
Because of Durant’s prowess as a cutter and perimeter shooter, the Suns don’t need to put him in every initial action either. They can post him up in the corners too, allowing his gravity to open up the floor or punish defenses for leaving him too much room.
Durant has made 37.6 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3s this season, ranking in the 84th percentile in movement points per 75 possessions and the 100th percentile in points per possession on spot-up looks.
“We got a lot of shooters, we got a lot of scorers, and it’s gonna be hard to pack in the paint,” Payne said. “I feel like we’re gonna be able to find mismatches some way all over the court, especially with KD in there, and I mean, even Book. I feel like it’s gonna be hard to hit us, double-team, ’cause we got so many options.”
Guarding the Suns is going to be a huge pain in the ass.
— Keith Smith (@KeithSmithNBA) February 9, 2023
Durant’s gravity as a scorer is going to make life easier on every single player sharing the court with him as they’re bumped one spot down the pecking order. KD ranks in the 98th percentile in both scoring gravity and box creation, and Booker could feel the difference after one scrimmage.
“It makes it a lot easier,” he said. “Obviously less attention on me, less attention on Chris and the other guys, and we all know how to play the game. I said before, I think our games complement each other very well. We’re all unselfish players that know how to play the game the right way, but also have the ability to do, I think, very talented things out there.”
Bearing that in mind, Durant may be utilized from the corners more so than he’s ever been before. Despite making 42.7 percent of his corner 3s in his career, Durant has only attempted 342 of them over 14-and-a-half years in the league. For reference, Mikal Bridges attempted nearly that many over the last one-and-a-half seasons alone (319) and has made nearly as many (306) in four-and-a-half years as a pro.
A player as good as Durant should be directly involved in more sets than someone like Bridges, but there’s value in using KD in exit screens with Booker in the corner, fooling defenses during Paul-Ayton pick-and-rolls with distracting off-ball activity.
Even if the Suns avoid relegating Durant to floor-spacing duties, he remains interchangeable in nearly every conceivable way, as David Nash covered in an excellent Twitter thread:
☀️Kevin Durant is a member of the Phoenix Suns
🤯I'm sure I am not the only one who is wondering what it will look like to add one of the greatest scorers of all time to a well established offense in PHX.
🧵A thread with a video a day until KD plays… pic.twitter.com/WT4JGGwQQm
— David (@theIVpointplay) February 19, 2023
It’s a fantastic problem to have, but all that interchangeability — plus new arrivals to evaluate like Terrence Ross, T.J. Warren and Darius Bazley — means it will take some time for Williams to sift through all his options. The Suns have the right pieces to build their high-powered offense but limited time to iron out all the kinks.
“It’s new for all of us,” Chris Paul said. “I think everybody’s probably like, ‘Ooh, what are they gonna do? What’s it gonna look like?’ Shit, we tryin’ to figure it out too! But we also understand we only got 20-some games to figure it out, and we’re pros and we’ll manage it.”
It’s pretty easy to recognize that a guy averaging 29.7 points per game on .559/.376/.934 shooting splits will help a good team get better, but Durant is the rare talent who doesn’t need the system to be predicated around his strengths and weaknesses; in fact, part of his allure stems from the fact that he’s one of the most malleable superstars the game has ever seen.
Kevin Durant this season: 29.7 PPG, 6.7 RPG, 5.3 APG, 55.9 FG%, 37.6 3P%, 93.4 FT%
Automatically the greatest NBA player to ever wear a Suns jersey. Trading Mikal Bridges, Cam Johnson and 4 unprotected firsts stings, but for a guy like that, it's an all-in move. Title or bust.
— Gerald Bourguet (@GeraldBourguet) February 9, 2023
With the Oklahoma City Thunder, he shared the floor with Russell Westbrook and James Harden while dominating whenever they were out. He went from those slower-paced teams the high-octane Golden State Warriors, meshing perfectly with Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green in an offense designed around motion and numerous actions. With the Brooklyn Nets, he adjusted once again to play alongside another iso scorer in Kyrie Irving.
“He’s been the best player in every environment and been able to adapt in every situation,” Williams said. “So I think it’s gonna help us. Certainly when you have a guy you can give the ball to and he’s that long and can get a shot off at any time, it certainly helps your offense. So we’re gonna try to do our best to make him comfortable and try to streamline what we do so we don’t inundate him with too many plays.”
Over the All-Star break, Williams said Durant was in the practice facility all the time, absorbing everything he could to make the transition as smooth as possible.
“Everywhere I’ve been with him, he’s been a guy that adapts to the program,” Williams said. “And he’s so good, you want to adapt to him as well.”
Suns must adapt to Kevin Durant, elite iso scorer
Durant is a pure hooper and true sicko like Booker and Paul. He’ll be right at home with the Suns’ mentality of sacrificing for the good of the team.
However, this franchise hasn’t seen a player like Kevin Durant under the current regime — or ever. He’s the ultimate mismatch punisher, routinely making grown men look like children as the tallest and most cerebral talent on the court.
He’s an offense unto himself, methodical in getting to his spots and one of the league’s more unstoppable bailout options. Booker is a top-10 superstar, but Durant is on a whole ‘nother level. As such, the onus is on Williams to give him a little more leeway to deviate from the system.
Fortunately, Williams is well aware of the otherworldly security blanket James Jones added to his arsenal.
Kevin Durant is the best shotmaker in the tracking data era.
If the average NBA shooter were to take Kevin Durant’s shots since 2013-14, against the same defense, his expected eFG would be 45.6%.
Durant’s eFG on those shots? 56.9%. That +11.3 difference leads the league. pic.twitter.com/FR4a5zhNxf
— Second Spectrum (@SecondSpectrum) June 30, 2022
“A lot of basketball is not about plays, it’s not about schemes,” Williams said. “Sometimes on offense, you gotta be able to give the ball to a guy and let him do what he does because they’re gifted. [Book] and Chris are amazing at that….and having Kevin on the team, you add another guy. Those guys are just gifted.”
In his age 34-season, the only sign Durant has showed of slowing down is time missed due to injury. When he’s been on the court, he’s ranked in the 98th percentile in usage rate while still posting a career-best 67.3 true-shooting percentage. As an isolation scorer, he’s in the 97th percentile in total isos per 75 possessions and points per possession on those plays.
The presence of Irving and a litany of Suns injuries obviously influenced these rankings, but it’s no coincidence the Nets are first in points per possession on iso plays this season while the Suns rank 28th. When you need a guy who can create his own offense and hit big shots, Durant is quite literally the NBA’s best bucket-getter off the bounce.
It’s not just getting the ball to Durant on the perimeter and letting him operate either; as the clip above shows, KD flourishes as a post-up hub too. He’s a living, breathing scalpel in those situations, surgically picking apart defenses by getting to his turnaround jumper.
Durant ranks in the 78th percentile in total post frequency and the 99th percentile in post-up points per possession. When opponents wisely send a second defender at him, Durant can either locate the nearest outlet or dissect the help defense by kicking out to weak-side shooters in the corner:
As a penetrator, Durant ranks in the 81st percentile in drives per 75 possessions, but he doesn’t fix the Suns’ problem of ranking 29th in shot rate at the rim. He only takes 15 percent of his shots at the basket, per Cleaning The Glass, which ranks in the second percentile at his position.
However, he’s highly efficient when he gets there, shooting 78 percent on non-garbage time shots at the rim and ranking in the 95th percentile in effective field goal percentage there.
That’s not to say he settles for jumpers either; with long, sweeping strides down the lane, Durant often launches near the paint or just outside it, contorting his body in midair and putting those longs limbs to good use by extending over the trees:
KD may not get all the way to the rim very often, but he does bait a defenders into fouling him on drives. Durant ranks in the 91st percentile in contact finish rate and the 88th percentile in and-1 rate. His 7.3 free-throw attempts per game would easily be a team-high ahead of Booker’s 6.3 mark. That should help a team that ranks 27th in free-throw attempt rate.
Durant also keeps defenses on their toes by rising up from behind the arc on a whim and firing off devastating 3-pointers that few people on this earth can properly contest. Despite his “openness rating” on 3s being in the zero percentile, Durant is hitting 37.8 percent of his pull-up treys and ranks in the 97th percentile in 3-point shot creation.
Bearing all this in mind, Williams will have to be more flexible as a coach when it comes to letting KD work outside the confines of the offense. Durant is a perfect fit for the system, but his ability to exploit mismatches, run isos and work out of the post are offensive fulcrums unto themselves. He can amplify what the Suns do best, but he also needs the freedom to do what makes him such an all-time flamethrower on offense.
At the very least, a text message from one Gregg Popovich conveyed the right approach.
“We know that we have a lot of work to do,” Williams said. “This is a step-by-step process. I got a text message from coach Pop, and he just said, ‘Don’t skip steps.’ That’s something that he taught us a long time ago and that’s something that I’m gonna lean on.”