Kevin Durant’s Scoring Brilliance Has The Brooklyn Nets Surging

Everything was on the verge of spiraling out of control for the Brooklyn Nets. Starting the season 1-5, tuning out their head coach, and dealing with the controversy sparked by their point guard, the team (and franchise) appeared hopeless.

Although it was still early, the firing of Steve Nash didn’t lead to any optimism about the Nets’ chances of recalibrating and getting back on track. How often does an in-season coaching change transform a team and put them back in the title mix? Very rarely, if ever.

All signs were pointing to Brooklyn getting worse. Ownership and the front office were likely stressing out about Kevin Durant’s trade request reappearing at any moment.

Then, darkness quickly turned to daylight.

Soon after Jacque Vaughn was given the head coaching job and the Nets pivoted away from the Ime Udoka possibility, things shifted in a hurry. Winning 12 straight games and leaping up to second in the East standings, Brooklyn rediscovered hope.

Since Nov. 14, the Nets have posted the league’s fourth-best offense and third-best defense. This is over a sample size of 31 games, which is almost equivalent to 40% of a regular season. In other words, it shouldn’t be scoffed at or deemed insignificant.

The Nets have a 24-7 record in that span, tops in the league and good enough to place them 1.5 games behind the Celtics heading into Sunday’s action.

Brooklyn’s net rating over the last seven weeks is 7.2, elevating themselves into the championship contender tier despite a tumultuous start. Vaughn’s voice, coaching style, and charismatic personality have helped the Nets regroup and find their way. More than anything, it’s now a team that’s extremely well connected and simply enjoys basketball again. What appeared to be a chore to begin the season is now a healthy operation and work environment.

There are plenty of reasons for the team’s turnaround. One could point to the surprisingly effective defense that everyone has bought into. Kyrie Irving’s spectacular clutch performances have to be acknowledged, as he’s found a way to stay out of the news for the wrong reasons. He’ also back to connecting on his threes, shooting 43.4% on nine (!) attempts per game since Dec. 9.

Nic Claxton’s dominant paint protection cannot be ignored, nor can Ben Simmons’ resurgence as one of the fiercest switch defenders in the league (by the way, Simmons is making a career-high 59.8% of his twos, albeit on much lower volume).

Yuta Watanabe, the 28-year-old with barely 100 games of NBA experience before this season, is providing a crucial spark with his indispensable catch-and-shoot prowess, defensive IQ, and tendency to make the right play when Brooklyn’s stars get blitzed on screens.

But make no mistake — this comeback story has Durant’s fingerprints all over it.

We likely have never seen a complete 180 shift in leadership during an NBA season that mirrors what KD has shown. From seeking trade partners to rallying his teammates and becoming the calming presence in a locker room that could have – and maybe should have – combusted, Durant is illustrating one of his most impressive feats.

The only chance Brooklyn had to finding its desirable path this season was to receive generational efforts from the two superstars. From day one, Durant has held up his end of the bargain. His offensive brilliance has never faltered, and he’s the biggest reason the Nets are in the midst of one of the wildest shooting seasons in NBA history.

Brooklyn’s effective field goal percentage is nearly leading the NBA (58.8%), despite being 29th in location/expected eFG percentage (53.6%). In plain English: The Nets are scorching teams on a shot diet that typically wouldn’t be ideal, mostly because they have a unicorn that nails the toughest looks in basketball.

At age 34, Durant is averaging 30.4 points, 6.8 rebounds, and 5.5 assists on a per 75 possession basis (the best way to adjust for minutes and pace across the board). His efficiency profile is off the charts, as he’s boasting a 67.5% True Shooting mark on his typical 31% usage.

Adjusting for offensive inflation, Durant’s TS is 9.8 percentage points above league average, tying his 2016-17 season with Golden State (and narrowly behind his 2012-13 campaign in OKC (+11.2). Thinking back to that Warriors season, as KD was surrounded by the best spacing he’s ever had and often found himself coasting down wide-open lanes, it would’ve seemed silly to suggest he could remain at that level as he aged.

There have only been two players in NBA history to finish a season north of 66% TS with at least 30% usage. If Durant continues this scoring tear, he’ll be the third — and the most efficient:

  • 2022-23 Kevin Durant: 67.5% TS on 31.0% usage (38 games and counting)
  • 2017-18 Stephen Curry: 67.5% TS on 31.0% usage (51 games)
  • 2015-16 Stephen Curry: 66.9% TS on 32.6% usage (79 games)
  • 2021-21 Nikola Jokic: 66.1% TS on 31.9% usage (74 games)

Interestingly enough, this year’s version of Jokic would be on pace to make a second appearance on this list, but he’s naturally dialing back his shot attempts (offensive usage) this season to help reintegrate Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr.

Although there hasn’t been much evolution in Durant’s individual scoring — he still doesn’t shoot enough threes, still gets to the line at roughly the same rate, and his proportion of rim attempts has largely stayed the same — he’s achieving something that will be invaluable for players moving forward.

To be in the running for best player on Earth at 34 is something LeBron James and Michael Jordan could relate to. But to do it after suffering an Achilles tear and not missing a beat once returning, Durant is exemplifying the miracle of modern science while simultaneously proving why he’s one of one.

Rupturing your Achilles after 30 years old was always considered a death sentence for a professional athlete. Perhaps you could return after a rigorous rehab process and, with some luck, make it back to All-Star consideration. But prior to 2019, history had shown there was a shelf life on how long it could last. We’re approaching three full years since Durant fell to the floor in the 2019 Finals and didn’t know what his NBA future would hold.

Since then, he’s averaged 29 points on 58.7% from two, 40.0% from three, and 91.0% at the free throw line over 128 total games (not including playoffs). He’s also given us otherworldly postseason moments, such as his ridiculous Game 5 versus Milwaukee, when he finished with 49-17-10 on 81.6% true shooting … playing all 48 minutes.

Durant’s production at this stage of career, given the context of a devastating lower leg injury, has allowed spectators to appreciate his importance to the game. His place in the NBA’s all-time pantheon should have never been questioned, but he’s now barging his way into conversations many refused to have when he donned a Warriors jersey.

Too many people were caught up on where he played and how he got there. Now that he’s the unequivocal leader of another contender in Brooklyn, those same people are marveling at his talent.

Individually, KD is two points from surpassing Dominique Wilkins for 14th on the NBA’s all-time regular season scoring list. Looking further ahead, he’s only 743 points from cracking the top 10. If you combine every player’s regular season and playoff scoring, Durant is already 10th — with Tim Duncan and Shaquille O’Neale next for him to soar by on the list.

There are no signs of him declining, either. Realistically, with his body type and shooting acumen, he could join LeBron and a handful of others in the 20-season club and push to be the NBA’s version of Tom Brady from a longevity standpoint.

Durant is in the middle of his 15th season and somehow improving on his greatest strength. He’s always been a mid-range assassin, but he’s now proving there are levels to it.

In 38 games this year, Durant is 155-of-270 on long two-point jumpers (15-feet extended). That’s 57.4%, a career-high rate:

KD continuing to set new standards for himself in year 15 is not only bonkers … it’s also unfair to the league. Defenders can try everything within the rules — honestly, that isn’t much in this era — and still get burned by Durant’s inhuman combination of length and precision.

Teams often try to stick smaller, gritty defenders on him to disrupt his balance, hoping the extra physicality will rattle his cage and force turnovers when he puts the ball on the floor. So, he shoots over them without opening the door for such mistakes.

In the past, Jrue Holiday, Marcus Smart, and Patrick Beverley would fit those archetypes. Now, he invites the matchups versus any guard.

Try to place someone with similar size on KD and it’s even worse. What makes Durant an alien — particularly when he’s at the five — is the difference in speed and lateral quickness compared to other centers around the league. Seven-footers aren’t supposed to move like he does. In fact, where else can you find a player who matches his height and wingspan that is equally as shifty? Giannis has the size, but he’s not using his physical tools to create space for outside looks. The only answer might be Victor Wembanyama, a 19-year-old yet to arrive in the NBA.

Durant is essentially Joel Embiid with five times the quickness, Giannis with five times the shooting touch, and Jayson Tatum with a god-given stature every scorer wishes they had.

The mid-range excellence we’ve seen this season is purely a joke. Watching one game of KD operate with the ball in the mid-post is guaranteed to incite laughter. Count how many times you giggle at the nonsense below:

That’s just 22 shots, but it would fit perfectly next to Durant’s future plaque in the Basketball Hall-of-Fame.

Crowding his space does absolutely nothing but make him more competitive, and thus, more efficient.

Against ‘tight’ or ‘very tight’ coverage (0-4 feet of space), Durant has shot 232-of-379 on two-pointers this season. It’s not a typo — he’s converting 61.2% of all shots within the arc with a defender either smothering him or closing out.

I believe that is what we call illogical.

Among all 29 players to attempt at least 100 mid-range jumpers this season, Durant is lapping the field in success rate. Jaylen Brown, who has attempted 150 fewer long twos, is nearly four percentage points below Durant.

DeMar DeRozan, the NBA’s most prolific shooter from this range, has taken 110 more mid-range jumpers than KD. But, he’s not in the same stratosphere as the Slim Reaper, shooting 9.5 percentage points below KD.

Durant is owning the interior, regardless of where you try to force him:

Per Synergy’s Todd Whitehead, Durant has scored the most points above expectation from every angle on non-rim twos:

One of the underrated components to Durant’s league-leading efficiency from these spots is how composed he is against a flock of defenders. Thinking back to the Celtics-Nets series from last year’s playoffs, Durant had perhaps the worst four-game stretch of his postseason career, shooting-wise. He also had 21 turnovers to 32 made shots across the series. Boston forced him to play in traffic and repeatedly shrunk the floor, shading him with multiple bodies to crowd his vision.

This year, he’s improved his handles and ball security in the mid-post. What also doesn’t get enough attention is how much physicality he’s able to endure. While he’s never going to have the frame of LeBron or Kawhi to knock defenders back and create space in that fashion, he’s noticeably stronger than his OKC and Golden State days, which will certainly come in handy during playoff time. But with the Nets having reinforcements on the perimeter this season, the hope is that Durant wouldn’t face the same frequency of doubles in the halfcourt.

Although this isn’t the same physicality we see from Giannis on his semi-transition drives, the premise is the same for KD. It often requires a full team effort to slow him down once his mind is set on scoring. He’ll take the bump from his initial defender, use his craftiness to spin middle, attract two more bodies, and finish gracefully in the paint:

His contested shots from beyond the free throw line will always be the hardest to believe. However, where he’s really boosted his efficiency is from the floater range, or shots within the paint that aren’t directly at the rim.

Durant’s 61.3% mark this year is approaching 10 full percentage points above last year:

Teams can park their rim-protecting big inside the paint all they want. With Durant’s high release point and guard-like touch on his runners, there isn’t much anyone can do. He won’t force anything at the rim if he doesn’t have to.

The offensive execution might be the number one factor in Brooklyn’s two-month hot stretch, but Durant having one of his best defensive seasons also deserves some shine.

Aside from his 2016 and 2017 seasons, the former with OKC and latter with Golden State, this year would probably rank third in terms of the defensive havoc he causes.

His role can vary on a possession-by-possession basis. Whether he’s asked to be a switch defender in space or free safety roamer that helps at the rim, mistakes are limited and the effort is remarkable.

So far this season, 43 players have contested at least 150 rim attempts. As expected, most of those are paint patrolling centers. There are also a handful of forwards who are routinely asked to provide secondary rim protection

Durant has held opponents to a 56.0% conversion rate at the rim, which is currently the 15th best mark in the league. Last year, he finished 31st out of 163 players with that type of volume.

The most impressive part, however, is that he’s 21st in the league in total rim contests – it gets even crazier when you realize Rudy Gobert, widely considered the model for elite rim defense, has only contested 30 more shots than Durant in the restricted area. Of course, that doesn’t factor in Gobert’s rim deterrence, as penetrators often think twice before testing Minnesota at the rim and ultimately settle for jumpers or long floaters.

KD jokingly calls himself a god. He’s not far off. The list of seven-footers capable of everything he does to impact a game is non-existent.

His 2023 season is just a reminder of the unique talent we’ll be lucky to watch for another few years.