Inside The Numbers: How Much Better Does Kevin Durant Make Golden State?

There’s no hiding it. Kevin Durant’s departure from Oklahoma City to Golden State may very well have been the biggest free agency move ever. That’s not simply a shot in the dark. It’s a legitimate question that’s backed up by logistical reasoning. Take it as you please, but the Warriors upgraded their roster to dynamic proportions – one that consists of the league’s back-to-back MVP winner (Stephen Curry), the league’s most prolific three-point shooter (Klay Thompson) and the most versatile big in the game (Draymond Green). Now add Kevin Durant, this unfathomable spectacle of a basketball player, one that holds the third highest career scoring average in NBA history, to a team that obtains the record for most wins in a regular reason and were few breaks away from repeating as NBA champions.

Is this picture I’m painting too surreal for you yet? I know it’s hard to comprehend but Durant’s addition to Golden State makes them undeniable front-runners next season and there are numerous reasons why. Here’s a very comprehensive look into just how Durant fits in with this mammoth of a team, statistically and schematically.

Durant makes the Warriors more dangerous in space

For the better part of three seasons, we’ve all known how flawless Golden State’s offense can be when it’s running perfectly. Like a well-tuned engine, the Warriors possess a motor that rarely malfunctions – except for the final three games of 2016 Finals, sorry that was mean I had to get that joke out of my system. But anyway, back to the point. Golden State posted the best points per 100 possessions mark in NBA history at 114.5 this season. In addition, they tied for the 10th best offensive rating in NBA history. Setting the record straight in those two offensive metrics alone is impressive. What’s also been impressive is the way the Warriors have done it – through meritorious ball-movement and exquisite motion off-the ball from its guards.

Much of that success is fed off by their unprecedented spacing as a team, where it seems every Warrior distinctively knows where they’re at on the court. Whether it’s shown through Draymond Green extensively playing up to three positions at a time during the course of a game, or Andre Iguodala maxing his efforts either on the wing or at the top of the key, Golden State has players on its roster that are indispensable.

Plug-in Durant to the fold and the Warriors positioning on offense becomes very enticing. It was just this Monday where Dallas signed former Warrior Harrison Barnes to a max-deal worth $94 million for 4 years, as well as center Andrew Bogut. Golden State needed to shed cap space to make room for Durant and that’s precisely what they did by departing the two role players. It’s obvious to say, but of course the Warriors won this deal simply because of one rule: Kevin Durant is head-and-shoulders better than the combo of Barnes and Bogut. Now with those two gone it opens up the positioning aspect of where Steve Kerr can potentially place Durant on the floor.

For evidence, here’s two GIFs that featured Durant in the Thunder half-court this season.

The first clip against Orlando involves Durant attacking on-the-ball. It starts with Serge Ibaka setting a screen to Aaron Gordon’s waist at the top of the key. Once the screen is established, space opens up in the middle of the floor. Durant recognizes this opening and steers past both a flat-footed Aaron Gordon and Kyle O’Quinn.

Durant’s explosiveness at the top of they key, essentially anywhere, makes up for Barnes’ absence. Believe it or not, even with Barnes, the two best penetrators (in terms of efficiency) were guards Leandro Barbosa and Shaun Livingston – both connecting on 60 percent of drives at the rim. Durant on the other hand, shot 68.8 percent when driving to the net this season (playoffs excluded). With that much of an increase by one player, Kerr can set up Durant in a plethora of iso situations – of the 109 players with at least 50 isolations this past season, Durant ranked 16th in terms of scoring efficiency, averaging 0.99 points per possession on such plays.

The second clip is more inclined of pointing out the vacancies of Bogut and Barnes, only this time it puts a little more focus on Durant’s constant ability to cut away from the ball. Against the Wizards, Durant flexes his strength as an inside-and-outside scoring threat, catching the ball at mid-range and then blowing past a contesting Marcin Gortat. Even though the result was the same as the first one – a driving shot at the rim – the way it played out fits Golden State’s offensive niche.

The Warriors all-season long, playoffs included, specialized in pick-and-pop situations. Oftentimes it was from the efforts of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson on the perimeter, even more so from Green or Festus Ezeli. Regardless, Durant only bolsters Golden State’s unity – 72.3% of Warriors’ made long two-pointers (from 15-18 ft out) were assisted; 81.4% of Warriors’ three-pointers went assisted also. 

Durant’s freakish length makes him recover so quickly on defense

Here’s what we know about Golden State’s defense. It’s highly efficient in a lot of areas, such as utilizing a mixture of stretch-fours and durable wings. However, it provided superfluous challenges during the most stressful circumstances. For instance, when their lack of size throughout it’s “small-ball” lineup cost them against LeBron in the later stages of this year’s Finals, or when their stagnant switching on the perimeter became exposed. Those were primarily the blemishes that cost them and their chances of a potential Finals repeat. Those are also blemishes that Durant can cover up, maybe even erase.

Remember, Steve Kerr hasn’t improved Golden State’s defense overnight. It’s taken constant refining, diligence of players and even painful position changes over the years to make the fourth most efficient defense (according to Hollinger) work in this league. Golden State holds that reputable efficiency mark of 100.9 without the service of a towering shot-blocker. While Green would abruptly attest to that notion by achieving a career-high in blocks this season with 113 (1.4 per game), his height of 6’9” puts him as the minority. Actually, Bogut’s loss would mean the most in this regard, as he was one of the best switching centers in the NBA in 2016, accounting for 24 percent of the Warriors’ blocks, compiling 3.8 per 100 possessions.

Durant might have only accounted for 85 blocks this season, but his 6’10” frame and 7’4” wingspan adds an enormous amount of length to Golden State on the perimeter [if and when Durant decides to guard on-the ball] and by essentially being the size of a power forward, he can complement Green and Ezeli well in the paint. I mean, look at the rotation Durant provides on the back-end of a defense. He seemingly covered up the Thunder’s complete weak-side against Golden State in the Western Conference Finals.

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To alter shots is one thing. But to turn those misdirected shots into points at the other end is another. Durant does the best job at this for his position. Again, look at this swat from behind and then the awareness to track it down and push it all the way down the court in a flash.

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It’s worth mentioning that 13.6% of Golden State’s points this season came while a player was in the fast-break. That’s not a surprise considering the Warriors held up a pace of 101.6, which led the league. Golden State already features players who love to burn teams in transition, such as Curry, Thompson, Green and Iguodala. So adding the prowess of Durant in transition basically makes the Warriors’ a brand-new Ferrari gunning it on a freeway.

Can Durant improve the performance from players around him?

There are times where super stars in certain sports stand out. Not just from their individual supremacy alone, but how their game impacts others around them. There’s not a hint of doubt that Durant is one of the most devastating players in terms of efficiency that we’ve ever seen in basketball. Of the eight players in NBA history to average at least 25 points for their career, Durant is the only player to crack a 60 percent true shooting percentage. He has also averaged at least 27 points per game in a single season six times, that’s the fifth-most in the NBA ever, trailing only Michael Jordan (11x), Oscar Robertson (8x), Kobe Bryant (7x) and Wilt Chamberlain (7x).

Numbers like that can be told for decades upon decades without hesitation. But as a matter of fact, what really determines a player’s legacy or ultimately the number of championships you win is how you make players around you better. We’ve seen prime cases like this with LeBron James and Tim Duncan. Sure, their games are on ultra-universe levels, but they’ve been able to branch out and make players like Tristan Thompson and Kawhi Leonard stars in their own right.

As dangerous of a core Golden State possesses, it can still get better with Durant’s guidance in these areas.

  • Giving Green a hand down-low: With Bogut gone, Golden State needs a complement to Green in the paint. The team will reportedly transition Green away from his standard role at power forward to center next season. This move carries a lot of upside considering Green’s versatility, but also a lot of uncertainty based off his stamina. As the team’s primary option in the post, Green would have to endure an entire season of physical punishment down-low, and fighting bigger players in the paint wears on anyone’s body. Cleveland Cavaliers’ big man Tristan Thompson dominated the glass in the 2016 NBA Finals, and rebounding could be a concern for the Warriors next season if they don’t fix it. Durant saw an uptick of rebounds this year, collecting 8.2 per game. While his built is not that imposing, Durant’s unique size and strength can provide mismatches within 5-8 feet from the basket. And really for a team built so much on speed and space, that’s all they would need out of him.
  • Stepping-up as an extra perimeter defender: I went to great heights earlier over how Durant’s protracted length changes the complexity of the Warriors help-side defense. Golden State didn’t falter when it came to locking up opponents from three, tying San Antonio for the best 3-point defense per percentage in basketball – holding teams under 32 percent from long-range. Iguodala is the Dubs’ best defender on the team, but this strongpoint could regress mightily if Durant doesn’t help out in a big way. Ian Clark and Kevin Looney are guards who received hardly any playing time as rookies this year aren’t developed yet to take on that sort of advanced role.

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