Kevin Durant to the Knicks isn’t as crazy as it sounds. It’s more than just the chance to build his brand. There are basketball reasons for him to make the move next summer. Durant didn’t go to Golden State just to win titles; he wanted to become a complete player. Durant has gotten better every season since coming into the league, and playing with the Warriors accelerated that process. He no longer has any holes in his game. The only thing left is to be a primary ball handler, something he can’t do while playing on the same team as Steph Curry.
Durant is close to a finished product after two seasons with the Warriors. The Thunder surrounded Durant and Russell Westbrook with defensive specialists and ran a my-turn, your-turn offense that bludgeoned opponents with isolations. Life is easier for Durant in Golden State, where he plays in a more free-flowing offense that creates shots through ball movement. He moves better off the ball, and he can focus on areas of the game other than shot-creating. Durant had a career-high true shooting percentage (65.1) two seasons ago, and averaged a career high in assists (5.7) per 36 minutes last season. His block rate (3.9 percent) is almost twice as high as it was in Oklahoma City.
This version of Durant is pushing the game in new directions. Steph and Durant are the only two players in NBA history who have a season with a true shooting percentage higher than 64.0 while attempting more than six 3-pointers a game. They are as efficient as elite roll men like Rudy Gobert and DeAndre Jordan while spending most of the game behind the 3-point line. A volume 3-point shooter who scores off the dribble puts an incredible amount of stress on the defense. Durant and Steph are the first two to ever do it. The difference is that Durant is doing it while being near 7 feet tall.
Durant is a freakish combination of the efficiency of Steph and the versatility of LeBron James. Durant, like LeBron, can defend players at all five positions, and play all five positions on offense. He may never be consistent enough through a whole season to win Defensive Player of the Year, but he can dial it up when he needs to. And while Durant will never be as good of a passer as LeBron, LeBron will never be as good of a shooter as Durant. It’s unclear how Durant would do in a role like the one LeBron had in Cleveland and Miami. He has played with either Westbrook or Steph his entire career.
But Durant doesn’t need to play with an All-NBA point guard anymore. Even if he doesn’t bring the ball up the floor himself, he’s ready to be the primary playmaker in the half court. Durant might be the most indefensible player in NBA history. He is no. 5 all-time in career scoring average (27.1 points per game), and he has by far the best career true shooting percentage (61.1) of all the players in the top 10. He has also learned how to leverage that scoring ability to make his teammates better. His assist percentage last season (25.5) is double what it was in his rookie season (12.0), while his turnover percentage (12.9) is identical.
Durant doesn’t get to show all he can do in Golden State. LeBron was no. 5 in the NBA last season in touches per game (87.1) and no. 10 in time of possession (6.7 seconds). Durant was no. 40 in the former (67.9) and no. 63 in the latter (3.9 seconds). The Warriors have no reason to feature him more given all their other talent, but he could be as dominant as LeBron if they did. A team that featured Durant wouldn’t have to run a complex offense. Put enough shooting around him and good things will happen. He can see over the top of the defense, and his scoring ability attracts attention wherever he goes.
The Knicks can build a better version of last season’s Cavs around Durant. Kristaps Porzingis, assuming he can return healthy from the torn ACL he suffered last February, is an evolutionary Kevin Love. He’s a 7-foot-3 knockdown shooter (39.5 percent from 3 on 4.8 attempts per game) who can also protect the rim (2.4 blocks per game). Durant and Porzingis could be a next-generation version of LeBron and Love. Porzingis would open up the floor for Durant, while Durant would create open 3s for him. Porzingis isn’t as good a passer or rebounder as Love, but his defensive ability makes him a better fit as a no. 2 option. There won’t be anyone calling for the old KP like they did with Minnesota Love. Porzingis, already an elite big man at 23, will be even better next to Durant.
The rest of their roster is a question mark at this point, but the Knicks may have more answers by the end of the season. The injury to Porzingis could end up being a blessing in disguise. They have no chance to contend for the playoffs so new head coach David Fizdale can develop their young players without pressure to win. New York has stumbled backward into a full-fledged rebuild for one of the first times in franchise history. New York will likely have four top-10 picks under the age of 25 heading into next season: Porzingis, Frank Ntilikina, and Kevin Knox, as well as its pick in the 2019 draft.
Ntilikina could develop into a bigger and faster version of George Hill. At 6-foot-6 and 200 pounds with a 7-foot-1 wingspan, he’s a supersized guard who can match up with players at all three perimeter positions. He was one of the best defensive guards in the league (90th percentile defending the ball handler in the pick-and-roll, 86th as an isolation defender) as a 19-year-old rookie. The Knicks played him primarily off the ball, and he could be perfect as a 3-and-D point guard next to Durant. He just needs to keep working on his shot: He hit 31.8 percent from 3 on 2.0 attempts per game last season.
Knox looked like a keeper in summer league. He has the tools to be an excellent combo forward next to Durant and Porzingis. At 6-foot-9 and 215 pounds with a 7-foot wingspan, Knox is an NBA-caliber athlete who can switch screens and match up with multiple positions on defense, and he has the skill set of a guard on offense. He’s a consistent 3-point shooter (34.1 percent on 4.5 attempts per game as a freshman at Kentucky) who can put the ball on the floor and score off the dribble. Knox didn’t get to show all he could do in college, where he was surrounded by non-shooters in supersized lineups. He could be better in the NBA than he was in the NCAA.
There’s no way to know what will happen with their lottery pick. The Knicks are one of the worst teams in the NBA, but the league has evened the lottery odds, decreasing their chances at a top-five pick. They should be targeting more 3-and-D types regardless of where they end up. The most interesting fit might be Cam Reddish, the least heralded member of the new Big Three at Duke. Reddish is an athletic 6-foot-8 wing who ran point in high school and is a better shooter than either R.J. Barrett or Zion Williamson. It’s possible the Knicks end up with the no. 1 overall pick, and get whichever one of those guys they want.
They might not even need to sign another big fish to join Durant. They won’t have enough cap space next summer to sign two max free agents unless they move two of Joakim Noah ($19.3 million), Tim Hardaway Jr. ($18.2 million), and Courtney Lee ($12.8 million). How they handle Noah’s situation and Porzingis’s extension will determine if they even have one max slot. They will have more space in 2020, when only THJ will likely still be on the books, and neither Knox nor Ntilikina will yet be up for an extension on his rookie deal. But the Knicks could already have a monster starting five at that point. Imagine a lineup of Porzingis, Durant, Knox, Reddish, and Ntilikina: five athletic 3-point shooters who can make plays for themselves and others, none shorter than 6-foot-6 or with a wingspan shorter than 6-foot-11.
Durant would be putting his faith in a bunch of young players if he came to the Knicks. It’s no different than what LeBron did with the Lakers, except that Porzingis is far more proven than Brandon Ingram. Durant has been chasing LeBron his entire career, and they could wind up with strikingly similar career arcs. The era of transcendent players staying in one place may be over. Golden State could be Durant’s version of Miami, a place where he learned how to win before taking those lessons to a new franchise that built everything around him.
Everything is on the table for Durant. A three-peat with the Warriors means he will have as many rings as LeBron, plus more options for what to do next. LeBron almost had to leave an aging Miami team. Durant could stay in Golden State and contend for titles for the next decade. His game is built around size and shooting ability so he should age even better than LeBron has. A team with Durant on it will always be a contender. If it doesn’t work out in New York, he can go somewhere else in a couple seasons and create a new dynasty. He just turned 30 in September. There are a lot more chapters in his career to be written.