The Fundamentals: How Kevin Durant, other proven vets are handling bigger roles
While the responsibilities of NBA veterans often appear stable, they are at their core a dynamic enterprise. Circumstances change, and with them so do the roles of established and successful players. In this week’s installment of The Fundamentals, we focus on three such cases — all experienced pros with proven track records thrust into bigger roles this season.
Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder
As if being the second-best basketball player on the planet weren’t enough of a burden, Russell Westbrook’s latest knee surgery gave Durant a call to action. Gone were the days of merely bordering on a top-five usage rate. With Westbrook off the floor this season, Durant has used a cool 35 percent of his team’s possessions — a mark that would solidly lead the league. Durant no longer can work so consistently off the ball because Oklahoma City needs him to be in control as often as possible, contorting the defense in a way that no other healthy Thunder player can. In the absence of a primary ball handler, Durant has been forced to become one.
The degree to which he’s succeeded in that role is astonishing. Durant was expected to score in volume even without Westbrook, but to put up a career-high 54 points on 28 shots against one of the best defensive teams in the league — as he did versus the Warriors on Friday — is a fundamentally profound achievement. To completely invert his scoring profile — from having 68.1 percent of his field goals assisted when Westbrook plays to just 31.8 percent when operating without his superstar teammate — at no cost to his scoring efficiency is remarkable, even for a player this flexible. All that Durant does as a ball handler and playmaker is dissected in film rooms across the league, and yet he’s responded by turning the ball over less frequently, getting to the free-throw line with outrageous frequency and scorching along with typically fabulous efficiency.
That synthesis hasn’t been easy for Durant, but he’s taken to his new responsibilities as a creator with pride and discipline. He’s the first to chime in when he feels that his shot selection has drifted out of balance, even as his combination of scoring volume and efficiency this season puts him in a rarefied air — a cloud shared by Michael Jordan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Larry Bird and George Gervin. Along those same lines, it’s not by coincidence that Durant’s passing style is all function:
Draw two to the ball, find the open man. Survey the defense, hit the available cutter. Cause opponents to hesitate, exploit the mistake. These aren’t difficult passes to complete, but the fact that Durant makes them so consistently is part of what keeps the Thunder rolling. Oklahoma City remains within a game of the best record in the Western Conference because of Durant’s responsible elevation. He’s willing to do more in all the right areas of the game, which in tandem is more rare among superstars than it should be.
Mike Conley, Memphis Grizzlies
His field-goal attempts might not show it, but Marc Gasol was the focal point of the Grizzlies’ offense when healthy. Memphis’ revolving spokes came into play through his work in the high post. A high-low game with Zach Randolph made for a reliable scoring resource. Gasol’s hand-offs and pick-and-rolls with Conley allowed the Grizzlies to change directions quickly. His ability to thread timely passes to baseline cutters and corner shooters from the elbow fleshed out the offense and brought it toward solvency. Gasol’s knee injury, then, an MCL sprain that would cost him 23 games, not only damaged the team’s defensive identity but also compromised its entire offensive operation.
Thus began an unusual season for Conley, a complementary point guard who began to assert himself in broader strokes. He’s well surpassed last season’s career high in usage rate, crystallizing his transformation into a more straightforward drive-and-kick threat. The result has been the best basketball of Conley’s career, a lofty level of shot creation that kept an injured, limited team scoring at league-average levels. Being a ball-dominant force seems to suit Conley — who ranks near the top of the league in time of possession and frontcourt touches, per Sport VU — even though it runs contrary to how he’s played throughout his seven-year career.
Conley’s latest success is built on his quickness off the dribble and his ability to control his bounce — both underrated aspects of the 26-year-old guard’s game. Though his name rarely comes up in discussions of players with the flashiest handles or the most deadly burst speed, Conley flies around screens with a special level of quickness and control. At that velocity, even the most minor of fakes is a weapon, even the slightest hesitation potentially lethal to defenses. That Conley is so skilled with both hands only expands his toolbox, to say nothing of his quick pull-up jumper and increasingly reliable floater.
All those strengths are crucial in Conley’s focused attempts at scoring and have guided him to the highest point totals of his career behind personal-best shooting efficiency. For players as small and quick as Conley to succeed as scorers, they need both the means to get the best of taller defenders and the mentality to do so consistently. The former has been in the works for a while with Conley, but the latter is a new development. It’s a startling change in approach from a point guard so measured in the past that he sometimes appeared tentative. That streak is all but expunged from Conley’s game, even with Gasol back in the fold since last week.
Pau Gasol, Los Angeles Lakers
The elder Gasol has also never been the kind of player to force the issue offensively, but most of his struggles this season have stemmed from his unwillingness to play his own game. Gasol acted as a dominant offensive force as recently as the 2012 Olympics, where his work from the high post brought Spain a hard-earned silver medal. In his time with the Lakers since, Gasol’s admirable restraint seemed to turn remote. He disengaged completely in spots from his function in Mike D’Antoni’s offense, along with failing in many of his responsibilities as a team defender.
All of this in a contract year that was supposed to highlight Gasol’s talents, if largely by default. Dwight Howard’s departure was expected to have a catalytic effect on Gasol, who would be used again in his preferred spots and privy to his preferred shots. Kobe Bryant got a late start after recovering from a career-altering Achilles injury, only to go down with a knee injury six games into his return. Steve Nash has played sparingly and poorly as he deals with a back injury and lingering nerve damage. Steve Blake, Jordan Farmar and Xavier Henry have missed time, stretching the offensive void that many anticipated Gasol would fill. But Gasol struggled to do so for months, putting him on track for the worst shooting season of his 13-year career. The Lakers’ myriad injuries have made the circumstances far from ideal for Gasol, but he actively contributed to L.A.’s problems rather than lending his skills toward an attempt at a solution.
But all of that has changed lately, with Gasol’s play in his outsize role taking a sharp turn for the better. Over the last 11 games, Gasol has looked like an entirely different player and seen improvement in most every aspect of his performance:
It’s not a coincidence that point guard Kendall Marshall’s arrival has more or less coincided with Gasol’s resurgence, though it would seem more of a contributing factor than a causal force. Gasol works well off Marshall, but he’s made this redeeming run largely on his own.
Gasol has regained his fluidity in the post. He’s refocused his shot selection, with almost 80 percent of his field goals now coming within the shot chart’s inner circle — zones immediately around the basket and within post-up range. It doesn’t hurt that Gasol’s mid-range shot has actually started falling as well, particularly from the area just around the free-throw line, a space on the floor primed for pick-and-pop play. That everything — the scoring, the rebounding, the defensive commitment — snapped back into place for Gasol so quickly is both promising and irritating, a reinforcement of the thought that his level of focus as a member of this Lakers team is decidedly fluid.
NEXT PAGE: The impressive Andre Drummond, some advice for the Bucks and more.
• Per-minute production, a fairly basic measure of performance, can’t account for very real factors such as fatigue, scouting, lineup fit and quality of competition. Rarely is it quite as simple as extrapolating a player’s production per 36 minutes over 36 actual minutes per game, leaving a void between that simple system of projection and reality.
There are exceptions, of course, and Andre Drummond is among the most notable. The Detroit center’s rookie season was 60 games of intrigue: an outrageous line of 13.8 points (on 60.8 percent shooting), 13.2 rebounds, 2.8 blocks, and 1.7 steals per 36 minutes, doled out in portions of merely 20.7 minutes per game by then-coach Lawrence Frank. Drummond, 20, is playing much more under Mo Cheeks this season — his minutes are up to 32.5 — while maintaining the same, ridiculous per-minute standards. Drummond’s function within the offense remains relatively small, but that jump alone brings the sophomore big man within range for All-Star consideration.
• It’s a delight to see a player as unapologetically joyful as Leandro Barbosa back in the league, particularly after he looked to have played his way out as a Celtic last season. That was an ACL tear ago, and while Barbosa’s defense remains a problem, he’s done remarkably well for a player signed in a pinch. Phoenix needed precisely what Barbosa has been able to provide: a sound 10 points and 2.4 assists per game with few turnovers. What makes Barbosa so unusual among minimum-salary types, though, is his capacity to create offense for himself. Eighty percent of Barbosa’s field goals have been unassisted, an impossibly high mark for a player picked up from Brazil midseason.
• Gordon Hayward’s offensive efficiency has dipped this season, but worry not: Most every indicator on the board seems to suggest that he’ll be just fine once he stabilizes into a form-fitting role. For one, spot-up three-point shooting was a big part of Hayward’s game last season, and this year’s Jazz simply don’t have the means to support him in that way. Rookie point guard Trey Burke is capable of driving and drawing bits of defensive attention, but nothing on par with the help thrown at since-departed big men Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap last year. Beyond that, Hayward has largely been left to his own devices as a creator, where his skills are very evidently a work in progress.
Along those same lines, it’s not all that surprising that Hayward’s turnovers have increased since assuming a larger role, particularly with how often he’s been handling the ball in pick-and-roll situations. Utah only dabbled with using Hayward off the dribble last season, which effectively steepened the slope of his learning curve as he looks to create for a lesser team. One of two things will happen: Either Hayward will stop committing turnovers on almost a quarter of his pick-and-roll possessions (per Synergy Sports), or he’ll stop being used in that manner.
NOTES FROM AROUND THE ASSOCIATION
1. The haze of Philadelphia’s chaos
Of all the players to assume more responsibility with their respective teams this season, I find myself most leery of Philadelphia’s Evan Turner. There’s no question that the fourth-year guard is playing better; he seems to have a better grasp of his own abilities and is channeling his off-the-dribble game in interesting ways. But the outright insanity that is the Sixers’ offense makes everything a bit difficult to gauge, especially the work of one of the team’s primary ball handlers. I don’t write off those putting up good numbers on bad teams as a rule, but contextually Philadelphia is unusual enough to inspire some doubt.
No teams employs a style more fast and loose than this. With all that freedom, Turner has posted some minor personal bests. But he’s still fundamentally a player best served by having the ball in his hands who can’t maximize a team’s scoring chances when in control. He still neither thrives around the basket nor from beyond the arc, and his career high in free-throw attempts is under suspicion given the Sixers’ transition-heavy bent. Turner was already a weird player, but to put him in an offense this idiosyncratic makes it all the more challenging to read the tea leaves of his performance.
2. Timofey Mozgov finds footing in Denver’s imaginary depth chart
The Nuggets’ three-year, $14 million offseason deal for Mozgov was odd at the time and remains curious. But Mozgov has worked his way into a nice role through effort plays and low-risk decisions, earning an impressive 20.1 minutes in one of the most erratic rotations in the NBA. Seriously: Anyone who manages to play that much for Brian Shaw deserves the utmost respect, as it is only they who have cracked the code. Things might be very different if JaVale McGee were healthy, but Mozgov has done rather well under the circumstances to give Denver a conventional, rotation-worthy presence at center — something of a surrogate Kosta Koufos.
3. Holding the reins tight with Jonas Valanciunas
Toronto has been taking things slow with Valanciunas in his first two seasons, but I can’t say I mind the patience much. Valanciunas’ absence seems glaring at times, and at other times he appears to be held to different standards from other Raptor big men. But I also think there’s something valuable in a coaching staff setting objectives for young players and holding them accountable — which seems to be the situation here. This isn’t a player flailing against some arbitrary expectation, but a case of coach Dwane Casey expecting certain things form Valanciunas that he has yet to perfect, such as defensive positioning.
The 21-year-old big man is still averaging 28 minutes, up four from last season. He’s still used in a variety of situations, has started every game he’s played this year and is an active contributor to the Raptors’ success. Valanciunas’ time will come, and by the time it does I suspect the fact that he assumed a prominent role gradually will be to his benefit.
4. A public inquiry regarding the future of the Milwaukee Bucks
Just a thought: If John Henson and Larry Sanders are going to be fixtures of the Bucks’ frontcourt (and, hey, maybe they’re not), might it be a good idea to play them more than 36 minutes — a tenth of Sanders’ total minutes this season — together?
5. The history of Samuel Dalembert repeats itself
Dalembert had a clear opportunity to play big minutes in a primary role for the center-deprived Mavericks this season, but let’s not pretend as if his failure to do so is at all unexpected. After all, Rick Carlisle is but the third coach in two seasons whom Dalembert has rubbed the wrong way. Those who expect consistent effort from their bigs (as was the case with Scott Skiles and Jim Boylan in Milwaukee) are bound to be disappointed by Dalembert’s flightiness, which has been a problem in most every one of his basketball stops. This is just who he is and what he does, and yet as long as there is some team desperate for size, he will continue to gain meaningful — and profitable — NBA employ.
Statistical support for this post provided by NBA.com and Synergy Sports.