Commentary

Durant can't reinvent playoff wheel

Kevin Durant may be MVP-worthy, but his game is counter to what playoffs reward

Originally Published: June 14, 2014
By Howard Bryant | ESPN The Magazine

Kevin DurantTom Pennington/Getty ImagesTo win a title ring, Durant needs to do some soul-searching about his game.

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I'M AN NBA dinosaur. My religious following started in 1981, when the 3-point shot was just 2 years old and teams considered it a last resort, not a primary tactic. Offense was built from the inside, which opened up the outside shot, not the other way around. That was especially true in the playoffs, when referees rewarded an attacking offense with free throws and let aggressive defenses dictate: A regular-season 15-footer became a playoff 18-footer.

The analytics say those days are dead. They say the 3 is the key. On a team with Larry Bird and Danny Ainge, the champion 1983-84 Celtics attempted 229 3-pointers. This season Kevin Durant attempted 491 3s by himself. The game resembles a long-distance shooting contest. Yet when the trophies are raised, the winning formula is older than a pair of classic Chuck Taylors. That is why the lasting image of Durant was of him walking off the court after losing to the Spurs in the Western Conference finals, no closer to a title now than when he entered the NBA seven years ago.

Losing left the Thunder with plenty to think about this summer: whether Scott Brooks is right for the job; whether he can demand more from his stars if he returns; whether Russell Westbrook is the problem, the solution or both; and whether the West is just so loaded that some unlucky future Hall of Famer might get fewer title shots than he deserves.

The biggest questions, however, surround Durant himself. He yearns to be in the same historical category as Jordan and Kobe, to be more than just an electric, high-scoring footnote overshadowed by the Age of LeBron. He's now an MVP, and yet, as the postseason played out, my conviction deepened that his current game will never result in a title.

The numbers say he isn't the problem. The numbers say he is efficient. The numbers say he isn't just a behind-the-arc gunner: No one shot more free throws than the 805 he attempted this season. The numbers also show that in the past five years Durant has been to the Finals once and to the Western Conference finals twice more. He appears to be close.

But history says it is impossible for a superstar to win 25 feet from the basket; Durant's game runs counter to what playoff basketball rewards. Yes, the Heat take plenty of 3s, but LeBron sharpens his game for the playoffs. He penetrates more, becoming tougher to defend and thus going to the line more. About 23 percent of James' shots were taken from behind the arc in the regular season and in the playoffs leading up to the Finals, but his foul shot attempts increased from 7.6 to 8.7 per game.

In contrast, as the trophy nears, Durant moves farther away from the basket. Over the course of his career, he has averaged 4.4 3-point shots per game but 6.2 in the playoffs. During the 2013-14 regular season, 29 percent of his shots were 3-pointers, and he went to the line 9.9 times a game. During this year's playoffs, 29.6 percent of his shots were from 3, and he went to the line 8.6 times a game. Last season 23.3 percent of Durant's shots were 3-pointers, compared with 28.5 during the playoffs. A similar increase occurred in the 2011-12 Finals.

The changes might appear modest, but the point remains: Durant is either choosing to move or being forced farther away from the basket when it counts. He made 34.4 percent of those 125 3s he took during this year's playoffs, compared with 50.8 percent of 2-pointers. Given his scoring talent and the preciousness of postseason possessions, this is a huge, fatal number. An aggressive Durant is a deadlier one.

If he wants to join the ranks of James, Jordan and Bryant, he must attack as they did. When it was go time, they went -- to the basket. The price of Durant's game in the 2014 playoffs -- fewer fouls, less pressure on defense, lower-percentage possessions -- makes him easier to guard, easier to beat. Maybe all he needs is the right point guard to provide him the ball in more advantageous positions, a coach who knows how to run an offense and an offseason conditioning program to get stronger, add more muscle and improve his low-post play, penetration and mismatch recognition.

Whatever the solution, the current plan isn't working. Durant might be the MVP, but when it comes to championship basketball, the wheel cannot be reinvented. Many have tried. All have failed.

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