Much has been made about Kevin Durant’s newfound post-game this season, and for good reason: Durant is currently ranked 2nd in the NBA in post-up opportunities at 1.1 points per possession, according to Synergy Sports. This is a huge accomplishment for a player who averaged just 0.89 PPP last year and was ranked 50th in the NBA.
What’s more: Durant has been used in the post more than he was last year. He has taken 11.5% of his shot attempts in post-up situations as opposed to 10.5% in 2011-2012. It’s not a huge jump, to be sure, but it shows that his improved post-up play isn’t an anomaly. Last year’s numbers were respectable, but his success with his back to the basket this year shows an enormous progression.
When trying to isolate Durant in the post, the Thunder frequently run an interesting set that is designed to get him in a comfortable position with his back to the basket. It’s a simple variation on a pick and roll that forces a switch with Durant’s defender and the ball-handler’s defender. When Durant comes off the screen, instead of rolling to the basket like he would in a traditional P&R, he puts his back into the smaller defender and backs up, creating too much space between himself and the ball-handler to allow the defense to switch back. At this point, it’s easy for the ball-handler to get Durant the ball, since his wingspan could roughly cover the distance between OKC and Tulsa. Then Durant can read the defense and go to work against a smaller defender.
The Thunder ran this set a few times in the playoffs last season with varying results. Part of the problem was the learning curve in post-up situations for Durant. Since this play was run so irregularly, Durant was used to battling for post positions against stronger players. Much of Durant’s post-up game in 2011-12 was based on other players’ post-up games: physical and bruising. This minimized Durant’s effectiveness, since it minimized the very physical advantages that make him so dangerous: his length and his height. When Oklahoma City DID run this play, Durant often didn’t seem to realize that since a smaller player was guarding him, he didn’t need to try to body that player out of the way. He could just do what came naturally. But since he was forcing the issue, it was often a baby-deer-on-ice type of situation, as evidenced here with Durant trying to go to work against Jason Kidd.
The set is a little bit different than the one described above (this season, it’s often simplified to just a Westbrook/Durant screen and roll), but clearly this isn’t exactly the fluid, practiced Durant we’ve grown accustomed to. He seems to be under the impression that “posting up” HAS to mean a shot near the basket, and as he attempts to force his way into the paint, he stumbles and turns the ball over.
Contrast what you see above with this from 2012-13:
It’s a lazy screen and roll, to be sure, but Durant and Westbrook are able to get their defenders to swap, putting the considerably shorter Kobe Bryant on Durant. But against Kobe, incidentally a much better individual defender than Jason Kidd, Durant is perfectly comfortable. Instead of trying to bump and smash his way down into the paint to get closer to the basket, he gets comfortable in his spot, takes a couple of dribbles to feel where Kobe is guarding him and simply turns to his right and hits what amounts to an unguardable baby hook shot. Instead of trying to play outside of himself, Durant plays to his strengths: impeccably soft touch, finesse, and an unbelievably long wingspan.
Sometimes the defense just throws in the towel early.
Evans recognizes the problem he’s about to encounter and he immediately engages Durant physically. More often than not, Durant gets the call in such scenarios, and he does so here.
Here’s one more variation on the same set. In this case, Durant himself is the ball-handler, but the result is the same, as poor Mike James is forced to defend Durant’s post-up attempt.
This play is, perhaps, less about Kevin Durant’s continued improvement in the post and more about his unbelievable ability to knock down tough shots. Instead of facing up against James and either firing over top of him (James is only 6’2) or trying to drive to the basket, Durant spins and fires a tough shot falling out of bounds. Perhaps Durant recognized Elton Brand sagging off Nick Collison waiting to help, perhaps he just felt more comfortable taking a mid-range jumper than trying to get to the basket (and for fun, check out the Dallas coach who recognized James’ predicament right away and is disgusted with Durant’s shot falling through). But either way, the result was two points.
Durant’s problems in the post remain similar to last year’s, although they are also much less pronounced. Sometimes he tries to force his way to the basket and sometimes he fails to recognize when a double-team is arriving. But while last year he often tried to be too physical in the post, thus negating his own physical advantages, this year he is more comfortable using his length and his mid-range jump-shooting to score an absurdly efficient percentage of his post-up opportunities. Big picture: Durant is continuing to improve his post-up efficiency, and little sets like this one (as well as quite a bit of offseason work on the technical aspects of his post-up game) are allowing him to do so more comfortably than last season. He is at his best when he is able to take advantage of mismatches, and the screen and (semi) roll creates those mismatches fairly consistently.
If he finally manages to add some muscle (thus allowing him to back his opponents down more effectively) or if he adds a pump-fake and drop-step combination (thus allowing him to take advantage of his quickness against bigger, slower players) or if he manages to do both (which, given his work ethic, doesn’t seem unlikely), his efficiency in post-up opportunities is likely to improve. Durant — already one of the most statistically dominant post-up players in the NBA — is somehow still trending upwards.
God save us all.
Follow Tom on Twitter: @Tom_NBA.