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Kevin Durant’s Defensive Player of the Year Candidacy Isn’t Perfect, but It’s Real

Like the Warriors as a whole, though, regular-season accomplishments mean little. What makes KD the most important defensive presence in the league will show itself in the postseason.

Kevin Durant stands with his hands on his hips Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Kevin Durant’s candidacy for Defensive Player of the Year began picking up steam on Christmas Day. Durant locked up LeBron James in the fourth quarter of the Warriors’ 99-92 win over the Cavs, forcing a turnover and blocking a James shot attempt in the final two minutes of the game. There aren’t many players in NBA history with the length and athleticism to shadow LeBron all over the floor. Durant has the ideal physical dimensions for a basketball player, and he’s dedicated himself to using them on defense in Golden State.

It’s not just James—Durant can guard just about every player in the NBA.

He is a 3 who can slide up to the 1 as easily as he can slide down to the 5. He can bang with the biggest players, contest the shots of the longest, and stay in front of the fastest. Even in a league full of some of the best athletes in the world, Durant has unique physical gifts. There’s nothing he can’t do on a basketball court. One of the most unguardable players in the NBA might also be its most gifted defender.

The most striking part of Durant’s defensive transformation is his shot-blocking. He has become an elite rim protector. After never averaging more than 1.3 blocks a game in nine seasons with the Thunder/SuperSonics franchise, he’s no. 4 in the NBA this season at 1.9. Opposing players shoot a lower field goal percentage at the rim against Durant (57.9 percent) than high-level interior defenders like Steven Adams, Clint Capela, and Myles Turner. No shot is safe when he is on the floor, no matter where it is taken. There’s almost nothing an offensive player can do when Durant is hunting them down at the end of a possession. According to the tracking numbers at Synergy Sports, he has guarded 67 shots taken with fewer than four seconds left on the shot clock this season and allowed only 24 points. Look at what happens to poor Danny Green in this sequence:

Golden State has essentially stuck a jet engine on a shot-blocking platform and turned it loose on the perimeter. What Durant did against LeBron on Christmas wasn’t an isolated incident. It’s almost impossible to get around him. He covers far more ground than most players would in the same amount of time due to his length and agility. Even when Durant is beaten off the dribble, his recovery speed keeps him in plays. Few players in the league are better at defending isolations. Watch how he gets down in a defensive stance and hounds Kyle Lowry, who is a foot shorter than him:

Many of Durant’s stops on isolations have come after he’s switched on a ball screen. A defender with his versatility has never been more valuable because of the way he can short circuit the pick-and-roll, the foundation of most NBA offenses these days. The play is designed to create mismatches by forcing big men to guard in space on the perimeter and then generate ball movement when the defense sends help. There aren’t any mismatches to create against Durant. If his man is setting a screen, the defender on the ball can hand off his assignment to Durant, allowing the other three Warriors to stay at home.

Durant’s versatility means the Warriors don’t have to make any compromises when he’s on the floor. Most elite perimeter defenders struggle to defend bigger players in the paint, so opposing teams often scrap the pick-and-roll on the switch and throw the ball inside to the screener to take advantage of the mismatch. That doesn’t work against Durant. He’s in the 71st percentile of defenders leaguewide against post-ups. He’s no longer the skinny teenager who couldn’t bench press 185 pounds once at the NBA draft combine. Al Horford is one of the best centers in the league, and Durant makes him look small. Horford seals him onto his back in this sequence, and Durant still reaches over him and sends his shot flying across the lane:

This is the most well-rounded version of Durant we have ever seen. He’s averaging fewer shots (17.6) and minutes (34.5) this season than he ever did with the Thunder, with the exception of an injury-shortened campaign in 2014-15 when he played 27 games. Durant and Russell Westbrook dominated the ball in OKC and were surrounded by defensive-minded role players. Responsibility is distributed more evenly in Golden State. Almost everyone in their rotation is a two-way player. Durant doesn’t need to isolate his way to victory and catch his breath on defense. He can do anything Warriors head coach Steve Kerr asks on a given night.

Everything is set up perfectly for Durant to become only the fifth player to win an MVP and a Defensive Player of the Year in his career. The field has been cleared this season. Draymond Green, last year’s winner, has struggled with a shoulder injury and hasn’t looked quite himself. He’s even campaigned for Durant. Kawhi Leonard, who won the previous two, has played in only nine games, while Rudy Gobert, last year’s runner-up, has played in 30. Andre Roberson, who was tied for fifth in the voting, is out for the season after rupturing a tendon in his leg.

A deeper dive into the stats, though, reveals some holes in Durant’s candidacy. The Warriors defend significantly better when he’s off the floor this season (defensive rating of 100 in 1,041 minutes) than when he’s on it (defensive rating of 106.3 in 1,657 minutes). Defensive Player of the Year is typically given to the captain of an elite defense, and even a limited version of Green is still Golden State’s most valuable defender. Green directs traffic, anticipates what the offense is doing, and ensures the other four Warriors are in the right position to make a play. Durant leans more on him defensively than vice versa:

The Defensive Impact of Kevin Durant and Draymond Green

On-court Combinations Minutes Defensive Rating
On-court Combinations Minutes Defensive Rating
Durant and Green 923 105.7
Durant w/o Green 732 107.2
Green w/o Durant 672 97.5

The biggest issue for Durant is locking in mentally. The Warriors, like most defending NBA champs, have been on cruise control this season. Durant will fall asleep as a help-side defender, and he doesn’t always fight over screens. He’s in only the 45th percentile of players leaguewide when defending spot-up attempts this season, and in the 28th percentile when defending the ball handler in the pick-and-roll. It’s mostly little stuff, but little stuff adds up. A good example is this sequence where he lets Kyle Anderson get him off his feet, and he gives up an easy floater in the lane:

Durant is also being held back by his coach. Kerr saved some of his best lineups for the playoffs last season, and he appears to be doing the same thing again. He rarely plays Durant at center in the regular season. Even when Golden State goes small, it will usually keep in Green or rookie Jordan Bell, although he has been out for nearly a month with an ankle injury, to give them the more difficult defensive assignment up front. Durant is a giant with a long history of foot injuries. Kerr is not going to push him until he has to. According to the lineups numbers at NBA Wowy, Durant has played only 11 minutes this season without one of Golden State’s seven centers next to him.

One of the most interesting tactical moves in last season’s NBA Finals came when Kerr played Durant as the small-ball 5 in the Lineup of Death. Durant filled Green’s shoes on defense while transforming the offense. There’s no way to guard a 1-5 pick-and-roll between Curry and Durant with three shooters around them. Green usually screens for Curry on those plays, but defenses can switch the screen and leave smaller players on Draymond, or trap Curry and live with Green shooting off the dribble. Trying that strategy against Durant is like shooting yourself in the foot.

Durant is the ultimate chess piece. Kerr can sic him on any player, and he can shut down any combination of players in the pick-and-roll. That’s what happened in the 2016 Western Conference finals between the Thunder and Warriors: Durant switched onto Curry whenever Green screened for him. Now that Durant is playing with Green and Curry, Kerr can use him on defense in the same way Erik Spoelstra used LeBron James in Miami. There were times when the Heat would turn over the offense to Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh and have LeBron take out the best player on the opposing team, most notably in the 2011 Eastern Conference finals, when LeBron swallowed up Derrick Rose, the season’s MVP.

Durant is 29, the same age LeBron was in his final season in Miami. He’s an all-time great at the peak of his powers. LeBron rarely plays defense anymore, while Durant still has the energy to take over games on both ends of the floor. It’s his league now. Any team that wants to win the title has to dethrone the Warriors, and Durant can solve any matchup problem they try to create. It doesn’t matter whether he’s the Defensive Player of the Year. All that matters for Kevin Durant is what happens in the playoffs, and no player in the NBA can do more to change a playoff series on defense. If he isn’t the best defender in the game, he’s the most important.