It seems like every paragraph about the Thunder these days makes some reference to OKC winning games without Kevin Durant. And true, the Thunder’s put together their best stretch of the season with their best player on the bench. No denying that.
The Thunder is 5-2 in their last seven with a three-game winning streak squeezed in there. Needless to say, it has brought up talk of the Chewing Ewing Theory and people wondering if KD was the actually the problem. Maybe they’re joking or maybe they’re serious. Who knows. Oh, and keep in mind, for four of those games there was no Jeff Green either (and OKC went 3-1 without him). Double Ewing Theory? No. No! No no no no no no.
You make think the stats are there and it may make sense to say it. Yes, the Thunder’s defense has been night and day better with KD on the bench. It’s not secret that Durant isn’t a great defender, but he more than makes up for it by putting the ball in the basket – a lot.
Look, OKC really turned everything around New Year’s Eve. The team won that night against Golden State and then went 7-7 in January, shedding all that “worst team ever” jibberjabber. But February wasn’t as kind to OKC, with the team going 3-9 and 3-8 with KD in the lineup. Then he goes down with an ankle injury against Dallas and the Thunder pushes the Mavericks to overtime in Dallas and then goes 5-2 without their star.
But let’s be realistic here: The only game out of those five that OKC really shouldn’t have won was at home against Dallas. Other than that, wins against Memphis, Philly, Sacramento and Washington were kind of expected. In February, eight of the 12 opponents the Thunder played were above .500 and in playoff races. OKC played the Lakers twice, New Orleans, Portland twice, Denver, Dallas and Phoenix. Oh, and seven of those 12 were on the road. And you know, OKC’s kind of stinky on the road.
But in this stretch of good basketball, OKC has played just three plus-.500 teams and won three of the five at home. And the two road wins were over Memphis and Sacramento. Not exactly powerhouses there.
I don’t deny that something’s changed without Durant in the lineup. Some very, very good things have happened. The team has worked together and focused on all the details and little things. They knew in order to win, there couldn’t be any room for error. There would be no “Pass it to Durant, stand back and watch.” It was five working as one on both ends of the floor. Guys like Kyle Weaver and Nenad Krstic picked up their offensive games. Russell Westbrook was making everybody better around him. Thabo Sefolosha was a bear defensively and a smooth operator offensively. And when Durant steps back on the floor (presumably tomorrow against Phoenix) things should be better for him because he’ll have a group of guys playing with more confidence and a better understand of their role.
But you can’t entirely judge Durant on the immediate results. Instead of playing below average opponents, OKC has four straight potential playoff teams looming on the schedule. As reader Joey wisely points out:
“If we go 0-3 when he comes back, it won’t mean a thing because we SHOULD lose to those teams. We SHOULD have lost to the Mavs but the Thunder played out of their minds and the Mavs…well, played so poorly that Cuban temporarily lost his mind. And the Hornets crushed us in crunch time. Can’t compare apples (worst teams in the league) to the oranges (playoff competiton).”
One thing to remember is that Durant hasn’t really has the chance to play with Thabo yet. KD hasn’t been able to reap the benefits of a teammate that can wreak havoc and entirely change a game by himself on the defensive end. Thabo can pull off and help with the best of them. And he’s also a better offensive player than people give him credit for. He plays smart, takes good shots, makes solid cuts, moves well without the ball and is a solid passer. The first really serious minutes Thabo got was against the Lakers and he played 30 minutes there. He played 30 against the Mavericks (which KD went out early in), but got serious minutes against Memphis the next night (41). So Durant and Thabo really haven’t had a ton of burn together. And Thabo is clearly a very important key to winning some of these games. So that’s another thing to consider.
Playing without Durant has been a great thing for the team. Everybody has had to elevate themselves and play better. KD is an incredibly efficient offensive player that seems to score almost every time he gets it. He takes just at 19 shots a game and averages 26 ppg. The offensive focus is not entirely on him – it’s just when he gets a clean look, he takes it and most times, makes it. He isn’t the “black hole” type of offensive player like a Allen Iverson or Stephon Marbury. He’s not dribbling 16 seconds off the shot clock and then taking a fadeaway 20-footer with two hands in his face. He just rolls off a screen, catches, shoots and swishes. And maybe he’ll take someone off the dribble and score. He’s really an incredible scoring machine. I’ve never seen someone score 30 points so consistently and so quietly. It will be late third and KD’s numbers will flash and he’ll have 26 on 8-14 shooting and it seems like I didn’t even notice. When Jeff Green or Russell Westbrook scores 30, you know it. But Durant can do it without you hardly even blinking. And that’s a very, very good thing. But that also means the team can get stuck just watching him and assuming he’ll bail them out with a deep three or an impossible jumper. Hopefully with this solid stretch without him, the team has realized that they are a major part of this success. It’s not Kevin Durant and four other guys. It’s five guys and one of them happens to be Kevin Durant.
Yes, his defense needs to improve. But remember, HE’S ONLY 20! He’s got the offensive thing down. Now he can move on and work on defense. Don’t worry about that. He’s a driven player and wants to be great. He wants to win and he’s seen the team do it primarily with solid defense. You don’t think he’s noticed that and will really go to work on it? Smart guy Gregg Popovich put it this way: “Kevin Durant is a potential Hall of Famer. He has the passion. He works hard. Actually he can’t be stopped because he can score in so many different ways. He will complete his game soon. Right now he’s just scratching the surface.”
The whole point here is that nothing is wrong with Kevin Durant. OKC is NOT better off without him. I know people are just saying that haphazardly and half-joking, but it shouldn’t even be close to anyone’s lips. It’s just crazy talk.
Don’t entirely judge KD on the results when he comes back. Tough teams lie ahead. Obviously, something is working without him right now. And if the Thunder loses a few it shouldn’t with him, some questions will surely be there. But don’t flip out and assume Kevin Durant is a problem for the Thunder. He’s just 20 and he’s learning a lot about the game. He’s actively working on his defense. He has absolute superstar capability and in order for OKC to contend over the stretch of a full season, he has to be involved. Sure the team can put together a nice stretch against some poo-poo teams, but what will they do on the road against playoff teams when nothing seems to be working (see Wednesday night in Denver)? They need someone to carry them. They need that star that can say, “It’s cool guys. I got this.”
For the rest of the year, I know I’m going to be paying a little closer attention to the things Durant does (and maybe doesn’t do) to help the Thunder win. Is he making his rotations? Is he actively helping and recovering? Is his man the one hurting the Thunder? There’s nothing to worry about offensively because he does his job there. But the little thing – the nuances that nobody really notices – is he doing those things? He may be totally awesome/incredible/unbelievable/studly now, but he can get better. I know, crazy. But he really can. He has a LOT of room to improve. Think LeBron at 20 and now. Or Kobe. Or Wade. They aren’t close to the same players. Durant is going to get better (much, much better, in every way) and we’re going to be lucky for it.