After what feels like forever (but was really only 18 days), Kevin Durant is set to make his highly anticipated Phoenix Suns debut. He hasn’t played since Jan. 8 due to a right knee MCL sprain, but KD will finally suit up for his new team against the Charlotte Hornets Wednesday night.
With an all-time scorer like Durant in tow, the Suns have a guy who fits right in with their 0.5 offense but can also operate outside the confines of the system as one of the greatest midrange and isolation scorers the game has ever seen. When a superstar like that joins a team that already has Devin Booker, Chris Paul and Deandre Ayton, it’s only natural to focus on the offensive firepower.
There’s a reason the first part of our Kevin Durant breakdown was a deep dive into the offense, and Durant himself acknowledged at his introductory press conference that he gets why his defense often flies under the radar.
“I mean, yeah, I understand why,” he said. “I can score the basketball. People like scoring, and defense is not the glamorous thing in the game. So yeah, I understand why it may not be discussed as much.”
However, coach Monty Williams will be the first to tell you that overlooking Durant’s greatness on the defensive end would be a mistake. And he’s right.
“It’s the thing that I kind of — not laugh at, but always I marvel,” Williams said. “You have to be really, really good on the offensive end to be a defensive player like Kevin and nobody talk about it. But it just speaks to how good he is on offense. But he’s a really good defender.”
In his age-34 season, Durant is playing some of the best defense of his career. There’s no replacing an elite point-of-attack defender who navigates ball screens as well as Mikal Bridges does, and with another high-caliber, switchable team defender like Cam Johnson gone in the deal, there’s a chance the Suns’ eighth-ranked defense never quite climbs back to the elite territory it resided in before all the injuries and trades.
However, just as we did for the offense, it’s time to take a look at Durant’s defensive skill-set in order to determine where he immediately fits in, the new elements he brings to the table, and where Phoenix will need to adapt.
The length and perimeter defense of Kevin Durant
The Brooklyn Nets were a top-10 defense until Durant got hurt, and he was a big reason why thanks to his length, basketball I.Q. and mobility on the perimeter.
“I think people forget that KD’s really a two-way superstar,” Deandre Ayton said. “Dude can defend. He’s just a competitor. He’s not gonna just let you score this got-damn ball, but he’s gonna guard you. I’ve seen it with my own eyes, man. And he’s taller than you think he is, ’cause his arms are long as hell.”
As Ayton mentioned, Durant’s mesmerizing length is a defensive boon. He won’t be chasing around superstar ball-handers like Bridges did on a nightly basis, but there’s a strong case to be made for Josh Okogie as the fifth starter to fill that role instead. That would allow the Suns to hide Chris Paul and prevent Devin Booker from trying to stick with the Ja Morants or Stephen Currys of the world.
If the Suns start Durant and Okogie, they’ll replace the 7-foot-1 wingspan of Bridges and 6-foot-10 wingspan of Cam Johnson with Durant’s 7-foot-5 wingspan and Okogie’s 7-foot-1 wingspan. Throw in Ayton’s 7-foot-6 reach and that’s quite a lot of length for opponents to contend with on the back lines!
You know there's more to defense than just this, but replacing Jae Crowder + Mikal Bridges at the wings with Josh Okogie + Kevin Durant is a net gain of 7 inches of wingspan. Surprised more people haven't mentioned it.
They can get a lot more aggressive schematically.
— Sam Cooper (@scooperhoops) February 23, 2023
In Brooklyn, the Nets ran a switch-heavy defense that utilized the foot speed of Durant and Nic Claxton to stick with ball-handlers on the perimeter. According to The BBall Index, KD ranked in the 88th percentile in both defensive position versatility and defensive role versatility, which indicates his ability to defend primary and secondary ball-handlers, as well as slashers, across a number of positions:
- 67th percentile in time spent on primary ball-handlers
- 71st percentile in time spent on secondary ball-handlers
- 92nd percentile in time spent on slashers
- 72nd percentile in matchup difficulty
- 85th percentile in time spent on power forwards
- 71st percentile in time spent on small forwards
- 32nd percentile in time spent on shooting guards
- 41st percentile in time spent on point guards
Durant is clearly still best-suited for guarding 3s and 4s, but in a pinch, he has the size, instincts, lateral quickness and tentacle-like limbs to make life difficult for anyone.
“My coaches and my teammates trust in me on that side of the floor, and I’m looking forward to adding that to this team,” Durant said. “I see they do a lot of switching on some stuff and they fight over a lot of screens and stuff that I like to do, protect the rim, and I think I add value to a team and my defense. And like I said earlier, I think my defense always feeds into my offense. So when I’m locked in on that end, I could be better on the other side.”
Whether he’s staying light on his feet like a boxer to shadow quicker dribblers, digging in to make a play on the ball, or crowding ball-handlers from the side as he herds them into uncomfortable, contested shots, Durant is no picnic to attack in a one-on-one setting.
Because Durant has largely been used as a 4 this season, he only ranks in the 49th percentile in on-ball perimeter defense. He rarely stretches those arms out onto the perimeter either, ranking in the 30th percentile in both passing lane defense and deflections per 75 possessions.
Durant (56th percentile) also rates much lower than Bridges (97th percentile) in ball screen navigation, so anyone expecting him to hound opposing teams’ leading shot creators will be disappointed.
But come playoff time, when switchability is king, Durant has the physical tools, mental stamina and veteran know-how to string stops together. His experience in big-time moments will pay dividends when push comes to shove, because that’s when he’s most determined to overwhelm opponents with his smothering wingspan. Even Booker, one of the game’s most prolific bucket-getters, knows how bothersome Durant’s reach can be.
“I know it firsthand from playing one-on-ones against him and tight boxes and tight circles where it’s tough to score over that length,” Booker said. “I think he adds a presence to our paint and our rim protection, but at the same time, if you want him to go out there and guard the best player on the court, he can do that too — and takes pride in it. So it’s something that’s contagious, it’s something that I think not everybody’s picked up on about his game, but he definitely does it.”
"I'd say he's one of the best defenders in the game also. Tough to score on. I've played 1-on-1 versus him. He likes to play in that pinch post and elbow area and he has a 7-3 wing span."
Devin Booker on Kevin Durant's defense. #Suns pic.twitter.com/GFFoPaphyD
— Duane Rankin (@DuaneRankin) February 11, 2023
Even when Durant does get beat by quicker players off the dribble, he’s never truly out of a play because of his reach and his aptitude for getting a hand on the ball at the perfect time. It’s part of the expertise that comes with being an all-time great scorer, and he routinely uses that knowledge to dislodge the ball at opportune moments.
In fact, a decent number of Durant’s blocks feel more like steals, as he perceptively pokes (or outright smacks) the ball away during an opponent’s gather:
Williams referenced the precursor to some of the violent swipes Durant takes on the ball.
“The thing that I always watch with him is when he closes out to a smaller guy, a bigger guy, he always has a stick hand up,” Williams observed. “And he moves his feet and tries to stay in front and he just competes. Being with OKC when he first came into the league, I think Ron Adams was in that group of coaches that allowed for him to have a huge defensive base. And he’s athletic and he’s tenacious, and so you add all that stuff together — and he’s long — it leads to a guy that can be a really good defender. And he has been for a long time.”
Durant may not get credit as a lockdown wing defender like Bridges, Kawhi Leonard or OG Anunoby, but he’s physically and skillfully equipped to rise to any perimeter challenge come playoff time.
Secondary rim protection and small-ball possibilities
None of Durant’s perimeter skills should detract from his defensive instincts and capacity to disrupt shots or drives, especially when it comes to his abilities as a weak-side rim repellent.
As ESPN’s Kirk Goldsberry pointed out, of the 137 players who have contested at least 500 shots this year, only Draymond Green, a former Defensive Player of the Year, has a better defensive field goal percentage than Durant’s 39.8 percent mark.
Playing alongside a current DPOY candidate like Claxton, Durant’s secondary rim protection was a major reason coach Jacque Vaughn felt comfortable deploying switch-heavy schemes. Brooklyn was fine with Claxton switching onto ball-handlers on the perimeter, not only because he had the lateral quickness for it, but because if he or another Nets defender got burned by a resulting mismatch, Durant’s 7-foot frame was there to clean things up.
“It’s always tough, ’cause he can give you a little bit of space and you feel like you have room to shoot, and he can still get a good contest on it or get a finger on it,” Booker said. “So it’s really tough to score on him.”
This season, Durant is averaging 1.5 blocks per game as a 4. His 3.5 block percentage is the third-highest mark of his 15-year career, trailing only the two seasons where he won a championship with the Golden State Warriors.
It cannot be emphasized enough, but again, in his 15th NBA season, Durant ranks in the 74th percentile in rim shots contested per 75 possessions and the 86th percentile in blocks per 75 possessions. According to NBA.com, he’s holding opponents to 8.0 percent worse shooting on shots at the rim, which represents the 18th-best mark in the league among 144 players who have defended at least 200 shots within six feet of the basket.
For reference, Ayton ranks 78th in that grouping at -1.7 percent. Bismack Biyombo (-15.5 percent) and Jock Landale (-8.5 percent) did not meet the 200-shot requirement, but provide further context as to how well Durant has done this season…and how important his secondary rim protection might be on the back lines.
Williams acknowledged it takes time to pick up those defensive rotations in a new system, but the Suns are hopeful he can provide them with the type of rim-deterring security blanket they’ve never been able to put next to Ayton.
“I think his length and his willingness to rim protect is something that we haven’t had,” Williams said. “Most times when you think of rim protection, you think of a 5. You don’t think of a guy that can play 3, 4, 2, who can close out and block shots and contest shots, but also can go to the rim and stop guys from scoring at the rim with hard contests or even blocking shots.”
With Durant lying in wait, the Suns can reduce the number of times they resort to drop coverage in the pick-and-roll, taking advantage of Ayton’s perimeter mobility to bring him out further on the perimeter or even blitz.
As Basketball News’ Nekias Duncan noted, in last year’s playoff series against the Dallas Mavericks, of the 150 instances where Ayton was involved in a Luka Doncic pick-and-roll, DA hedged or blitzed on only five of them. He was usually in a drop, but if the Suns choose to get more aggressive with Ayton because they now have Durant patrolling the paint, that could minimize mismatch-hunting like when the Mavs repeatedly targeted Chris Paul on switches.
In a similar vein, another asset the Suns didn’t have with Bridges is Durant’s familiarity with scram switching, which refers to an off-ball switch (especially in the post) to mitigate mismatches caused by earlier switches. In other words, when opponents run pick-and-rolls to get their big matched up on a small like CP3, Durant can communicate a defensive switch with Paul while he’s tagging the roller, taking that rolling big as his new assignment.
KD may need to run around in the shower to get wet, but don’t mistake his skinny frame for weakness. He’s logged plenty of minutes as a small-ball 5 in seasons past, and the Nets’ three most-used lineups where Durant played center on defense this year posted Net Ratings of +8.8, +3.0 and +28.5. Take Ben Simmons out of the equation, and Brooklyn’s most-used lineup with KD playing as a full-time 5 on both ends posted a +28.3 Net Rating.
He’s not the strongest guy on the block, but he uses his length and quick swipes to mitigate those disadvantages, which helps explain how he ranks in the 78th percentile in post defense.
For all the questions about whether Biyombo and Landale are playable come playoff time, and for all the concern over Darius Bazley‘s nonexistent minutes, the Suns have a better, nuclear option if they choose to use it in small doses. Their best small-ball 5 option is no longer the recently re-signed Ish Wainright; it’s Kevin Durant, who’s like upgrading from a sparkler to a hand grenade in that respect.
Losing Bridges and Johnson means the Suns will take a temporary step backward on the defensive end. But Durant is more than capable of fitting in, and if Phoenix starts Okogie to minimize the point-of-attack damage and tweaks their coverages to incorporate KD’s rim protection, they’ll have more than enough defense to win a title.