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Never Mind the Rule Changes, Here’s Kevin Durant

There are two story lines dominating this NBA season. One is the rule changes impacting some of the game’s best scorers. The other is how little those changes bother the game’s very best scorer. 

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It hasn’t been this hard to score in the NBA in a long time. After so many years of favoring offenses, the rules have swung the other way. It’s not just that officials are blowing their whistles less. The threat of the foul is as powerful as the foul itself. Defenders can play much closer to ball handlers without worrying about them creating contact and going to the free throw line. Stars around the league are having to adjust their games.

But not every star. Some are so dominant that not even rule changes can stop them. When the NBA adjusted the rules to boost perimeter scoring at the expense of post-ups in 2004-05, it didn’t stop Tim Duncan and the Spurs from winning two of the next three titles. The same dynamic is happening with Kevin Durant. Scoring has somehow gotten easier for him as it’s gotten harder for everyone else.

Durant is leading the NBA in points per game (29.6), with a career-high mark in field goal percentage (58.6). His play through 14 games doesn’t just put him above his peers: He’s off to one of the greatest starts in NBA history. Only one player has had a full season in which he scored as much as Durant while shooting at as high a percentage: Shaquille O’Neal.

Even a Shaq comparison undersells how dominant Durant has been. Comparing their field goal percentage is misleading because Durant takes so many more 3s (4.7 per game) than the iconic center. The more telling number is 2-point percentage. Durant is shooting 64.0 percent from 2-point range on 14.1 attempts per game. Shaq never shot higher than 61.0 percent until his final season in the NBA, with the Celtics.

Wilt Chamberlain and Giannis Antetokounmpo are the only players in NBA history to have seasons when they shot the same 2-point percentage as Durant on as many attempts. But there’s an obvious difference between Durant and Shaq, Wilt, and Giannis. They are three of the greatest athletes in NBA history, 7-footers who could essentially dunk at will. Durant is just as tall but he’s nowhere near as strong or athletic. He’s as efficient shooting jumpers as they are at dunking.

His current percentages will likely regress, if only because no one has ever done this before. But that shouldn’t take away from what he has accomplished so far, nor should we be all that surprised that Durant has taken his game to new heights. He was the most efficient elite scorer in NBA history even before this season. He’s no. 4 all time in career points per game (27.1) and he has the third-highest career 2-point percentage (53.5) of anyone in the top 10.

Durant came into the league in 2007 able to score with volume and efficiency. He averaged 20 points per game as a rookie and hasn’t averaged fewer than 25 points in a season since. What has changed over the years is that he has learned how to leverage his individual scoring ability within a team context. He’s taking easier shots than ever because he knows how to read the defense and pass when double-teamed.

He isn’t a basketball savant like LeBron James. LeBron came into the NBA at 18 with the ability to run point and control the game. Acquiring those skills has been a more painstaking process for Durant. Coming into the league, he played more like Carmelo Anthony than LeBron. He has doubled his assist average (5.1 per game) from his rookie season (2.4), while his turnovers (3.2) have stayed nearly the same (2.9).

Most players who make it to Year 14 in the NBA have made many changes to their game. What’s different about Durant is that his rising basketball IQ has not been offset by declining athleticism. He isn’t the same athlete that he was when he was younger, especially after tearing his Achilles two and a half years ago. But he relies less on his athleticism to score than anyone who has come before him. There has never been a 7-footer with his ability to shoot and handle the ball. Durant is the next step in the evolution of the game after Dirk Nowitzki. He doesn’t need to create space to shoot. He has it as soon as he walks on the court. Players use cones to simulate defenders in drills. NBA defenders are cones for Durant.

The fully formed version of Durant can always take what the defense gives him. They can’t prevent him from shooting, driving, and passing at the same time. Something is always open. He has made a complex game look simple by breaking it down into its component parts, mastering each individual one, and then putting them all back together.

The rough spots have been ironed out of his game. Durant has streamlined it to the bare essentials because that is all that he ever needed. He doesn’t need to dribble the ball into the ground to create an advantage. He can make a simple move, force the defense to respond, and then go from there. If he doesn’t like what he sees, he can give the ball up, get it back, and try again.

The result is a player who is incredibly efficient not just with the shots that he takes but with the ball itself. According to NBA Advanced Stats, Durant averages fewer touches per game (69.5) and less time of possession (four minutes) than any of the other top-five scorers in the NBA this season. And he laps them in points per touch:

Top Five Scorers in Points per Touch

Player Points Per Touch Points Per Game
Player Points Per Touch Points Per Game
Kevin Durant 0.427 29.6
Steph Curry 0.357 28.1
Giannis Antetokounmpo 0.354 26.5
Paul George 0.334 26.5
Ja Morant 0.301 26.2
Stats through Sunday’s games.

Efficiency leads to consistency. There haven’t been many swings between games for him this season because he has removed almost every variable when it comes to scoring. Durant takes the best possible shot on the fewest number of dribbles every time down the floor. He has total control until it leaves his hands.

All great shooters have consistent and repeatable mechanics. It’s like a golf swing. The shot never looks exactly the same for any two players but that doesn’t matter. It’s less about how you get the attempt up than about getting it up the same way every time. It all goes back to leaving as few variables outside your control as possible. The only variable left for Durant is whether the shot goes in.

He has become a living, breathing version of the jump-shooting robot from the Summer Olympics. Durant hasn’t scored less than 20 points in any of his 14 games and has scored less than 25 only twice. He hasn’t shot lower than 44 percent from the field and has shot lower than 50 percent only two times.

It doesn’t matter where he is playing, or who is guarding him, or what the defensive coverage is. Nothing really matters with Durant anymore.

Not even his teammates. The leaguewide offensive environment isn’t the only thing working against Durant this season. The Nets are one of the most dysfunctional teams in the NBA. No one knows whether Kyrie Irving will play for them again and James Harden has looked like a shell of himself while dealing with the rule changes and recovering from a serious hamstring injury that he suffered in last season’s playoffs. Brooklyn has gone from cooking with gas on offense to rubbing two sticks together. And one of those sticks isn’t working.

Durant rarely begins the game firing up shots. That doesn’t usually happen until Harden checks out and Durant takes control of the offense. His usage rate goes from 29.4 percent with his costar to 35.7 without him, while his assist rate almost doubles from 22.3 to 43.5 percent. The only thing that stays the same is his true shooting percentage—68 with Harden and 68.6 without him. Durant has an incredibly high scoring baseline regardless of his role on offense. Then he toggles the rest of his game up or down based on what the Nets need.

He’s doing everything in his power to keep Brooklyn afloat until Harden can get going again. (We’ll see whether Harden’s 39 points against New Orleans on Friday is an aberration or a return to form.) The Beard is averaging the fewest points (19.5 per game) since his last season in Oklahoma City and his lowest 2-point percentage (46.6) since his rookie season. He should be able to figure it out. Players like Harden rarely fall off a cliff at 32. But the margin for error in Brooklyn is gone without Kyrie. They need Durant and Harden at full strength to win a title.

The Brooklyn Big Three could go down as one of the greatest what-ifs in NBA history. No team has ever had three players who could create their own shots like this Brooklyn trio. Now they may get broken up before they ever had a chance to really play together.

The only thing we know for sure is that Durant will score at a high level. Dirk is the closest historical comparison. Players like Dirk and Durant can be effective for longer than almost anyone else because size and shooting don’t decline with age. Incredibly tall shooters don’t have primes in the normal sense of the word. Dirk made his final trip to the playoffs in Year 18, averaged more than 18 points per game until Year 19, and played until Year 21. And he was declining from a much lower peak than Durant. His career high in points per game (26.6) would be the ninth highest of Durant’s career.

Durant should be able to keep this up as long as he can stay healthy. He has already dealt with serious injuries a couple of times in his career. He missed one postseason in Oklahoma City with a broken foot even before his Achilles injury. Relying so heavily on Durant at this point in the season wasn’t part of Brooklyn’s plan. Kyrie’s absence and Harden’s struggles put a lot more pressure on him. The Nets can’t give their best player nights off and expect to win. Balancing those two conflicting priorities will be the biggest challenge for Brooklyn coach Steve Nash this season. He said after their win against Oklahoma City on Sunday that Durant has been playing through a “little tweak” in his shoulder.

What has happened with Harden and Kyrie is proof that the popular complaints about superteams were overblown. There is no way to guarantee a championship, no matter how talented a team is. No plan survives contact with reality. Something always goes wrong.

Players like Durant are judged on rings even though no one can win one by themselves. It all comes back to control. The only things you can worry about in life are the things that you can control. Durant can’t make Harden healthier or more comfortable with the new rules any more than he can make Kyrie get the vaccine. All he can do is be the best possible version of himself. Durant has reached his ceiling and no one has ever had a higher one. That has to be enough both for him and everyone else.

Stats are through Sunday’s games.