OKLAHOMA CITY -- Kevin Durant is an unapologetic stathead. He knows exactly what he's averaging. Knows exactly what he's shooting in a game. Knows how many turnovers he has committed. He'll even sometimes stop and chat up the Thunder's home scorekeepers during a break in play to make sure he has it all right.
Durant's main concern always has been efficiency. He's not so much consumed by the raw numbers as he is with what those numbers are telling him. Like against the Memphis Grizzlies on Wednesday, he was well aware he was just 2-of-10 shooting in the first half. That's why he gave himself a little pep talk at halftime and came out and hit 7 of 8 in the second half.
That's pretty remarkable, right?
"What's PER?" Durant responded when this was brought to his attention recently.
You know, player efficiency rating.
"What's that mean? I've heard of it, but I don't know what it means," he said. "Can you explain it to me?"
Uh ... well, it's a math formula that calculates your per-minute productivity ...
"Analytics? I ain't into that."
Well, analytics are into you, Kevin. For example: Westbrook (29.74) and Durant (29.70) have a combined PER of 58.3 this season, which is the highest total of any two players on the same team in the shot clock era. No team in the shot clock era has ever had two players with a PER of more than 28.
So if there were any narrative "truthers" still out there banging the Westbrook-and-Durant-can't-coexist drum, that's a pretty significant blow. Because not only have Durant and Westbrook proved throughout a number of seasons that they very much can coexist, they're flourishing simultaneously this season in a way no duo in league history ever has.
"I think we've been in this league so long we know how to get what we're supposed to get," Durant explained. "For me, if I don't touch the ball, I still know how to score. For Russell, he knows how to offensive rebound, get steals, get baskets. Just being in the league so long, we've carved out a niche and know how we're supposed to play. And we stick to it. Over time that experience has helped us out and that's why our PER is so high."
Space and efficiency
Part of Billy Donovan's charge when he took over was to help deepen the Thunder's offensive package, to add another pitch to the arsenal so they'd be less predictable. They could take advantage of their depth, and the game would be easier for Durant and Westbrook, which during an 82-game schedule might pay off later.
And there's the rub: Durant and Westbrook are doing less, while getting more. Durant is third in the league in scoring at 26.6 points a game. Westbrook is fifth, averaging 25.2, the second-highest mark of his career (the highest came last season, when Durant played just 27 games). Durant is taking the fewest shots per game since his rookie campaign (excluding last season, when he was on a minutes restriction). Westbrook is shooting more than he ever has when playing with Durant, but has the highest field goal percentage (45.9) and true shooting percentage (56.0) of his career.
"With both of those guys, the thing I've talked to them about and the thing they've talked the most is efficiency," Donovan said. "They want to be efficient players."
Donovan has been mindful of trying to create extra space for Durant and Westbrook to play in while emphasizing more player movement and ball movement. The result has been higher-percentage shots, and less work to get them.
"I will say this about those two guys, and I think this goes for any scorer that plays the game, the most important thing they can have is space," Donovan said. "And they have [to] understand that when space is taken away, someone else is open and they've been really mindful in creating opportunities for other guys. I think any really explosive offensive player wants to play in space rather than a crowd."
One thing Durant says helped develop their skills was playing without each other. In 2013-14, Durant spent 45 games playing without Westbrook, which helped contribute to him putting together some absurd numbers en route to an MVP. Last season, Westbrook played 40 games without Durant, and put up Oscar Robertson-ish numbers. The takeaway was clear: Each player seemed to be able to reach his individual peak playing without the other, but the Thunder weren't as good. The challenge was to somehow get the best of both worlds, and this season, they're finding that balance.
"It opens your mind to a different realm of basketball that you play in," Durant said of learning to play without the other. "Gives you a little more confidence and makes it a little easier when you have a better team around you. You can kind of hone in and play within the flow of the offense, but when it's time to go superhuman, you've done it before, you've been in that situation before and it makes it a little easier in the fourth quarter when you need to make a shot, or get a big stop. You've been in those situations before. It helped. I think that's a part of the journey and we both learned a lot from those situations and it's made us all better players."
Westbrook was asked in the preseason if there was any concern he'd be able to reacclimatize with Durant after a season spent largely without him, and he scoffed, saying "it's not rocket science." But their ability to not only seamlessly reintegrate their games, but go to a higher place collectively, is a sign of the strong chemistry between them. They can spend months apart on the floor, discover new facets of their own games, and then blend it back together with the other.
The other part: Durant and Westbrook are making the team around them better. Add Enes Kanter to the mix, who ranks eighth in PER (23.74), and the Thunder have three players in the top 10. No other team has more than one. No team has ever had three players with a PER over 23; their combined PER of 82.0 would be the highest PER ever for a trio.
The Thunder think this is the deepest they've ever been. NBA rules say you can play with only one basketball at a time, so the Thunder have to figure out how to maximize all the offensive talent they have, while still revolving it around their superduo. The answer they've come up with so far: Have Westbrook and Durant play maybe the best they ever have collectively. At least that's what the numbers seem to say. But do they think that?
"I'm not sure," Westbrook said. "That'll kind of have to wait to see what we get at the end of the season."
Westbrook knows. That's really the only guaranteed way to kill any remaining doubts.