Kevin Durant is more than just an NBA superstar—and an unassuming one at that.
He's also a supremely talented specimen at the center of an ongoing experiment in the science of basketball ecology known otherwise as the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Not to get too bogged down in the boring details, but Durant, like any player within a team concept (or a species within a ecological community), occupies a niche. This niche (or role, if you will) is further divided into two aspects—a fundamental niche and a realized niche. The fundamental niche is that which a player (or species) has the potential to occupy, while the realized niche is that which he actually occupies.
What does any of this have to do with the Durantula, you ask? His realized niche looks more like his fundamental niche this season than it ever has.
This is due, in part, to the natural progression of Durant's pro career. He came into the league in 2007 with the then-Seattle SuperSonics as a gifted scorer who, at his size (6'9"), could shoot better than anyone not named Dirk Nowitzki.
It didn't take him long to establish himself as the premier point producer on the planet, a spot-up sniper who could attack off the dribble and lead the NBA in scoring three years in a row as a result.
Along the way, Durant's worked diligently to raise the rest of his game. Durant has spent a week during each of the last two summers doing so alongside LeBron James, who knows a thing or two about finding niches and filling them to perfection.
Not surprisingly, Durant's averages in rebounds, assists, steals and blocks have improved steadily from year to year, as have the more advanced indicators in nearly every corresponding category. A cursory glance through his profile on Basketball Reference reveals as much, especially if you don't have the time or the inclination to watch the Thunder play.
Durant isn't scoring quite as prodigiously as in years past, though his 26.6 points are still second best in the league. Of greater note is the efficiency with which he's putting the ball in the basket—50.5 percent from the field, 44.1 percent from three and 89.9 percent from the line. Those numbers put Durant within range of joining the likes of Nowitzki, Steve Nash, Larry Bird and Reggie Miller in the vaunted 50-40-90 club.
Beyond that, Durant is rebounding more than ever before (9.1 per game), sharing more than ever before (4.4 assists per game, on 20.8 percent of his teammates' makes) and defending better than ever before.
According to 82games.com, he's limiting opposing small forwards and power forwards to below-average Player Efficiency Ratings (PERs). Moreover, he's upped the ante in blocks (1.5) and steals (1.8) while helping OKC to limit its foes to 97.1 points per 100 possessions when he's on the floor (per NBA.com).
It would seem, then, that Durant's repertoire has expanded partly as a result of him going toe to toe with—and, at the 2012 London Olympics, playing next to—the versatile James, a superb stat-sheet stuffer in his own right.
LeBron has never been (and likely never will be) the pure shooter that KD is, though he's done plenty to sharpen his jumper into one that opponents must respect, if not account for, in an overall game plan.
Along the way, James has evolved from an athletic slasher into the game's most complete player, one who can now post up at one end of the floor and perform at an All-Defensive Team level at the other. It stands to reason, then, that Durant would look to complete his resume in the same methodical fashion as his part-time rival/workout buddy.
But to heap credit solely on Durant's offseason regimen and LeBron's involvement therein is to overlook a pair of critical factors.
For one, crashing the boards has always been a prominent (if at times underutilized) part of Durant's fundamental niche. In fact, he was the leading rebounder in NCAA Division I men's basketball during the 2006-07 season, when he collected 11.3 caroms per game at Texas.
Considering that Durant's offensive rebounding numbers have held relatively steady over his NBA years, it would seem that he's simply become a more active participant on the defensive glass. KD's minutes at the 4 have seen him defend closer to the cup, where he can more easily pick up misses.
That is not unlike LeBron, who's averaging a career-high 8.8 rebounds this season on account of his celebrated sojourns as a nominal power forward for the Miami Heat. James has thrived in that role, as have the Heat with him in it.
And if Scott Brooks would consider playing small ball more frequently, his Thunder, while already successful at 12-4, could emerge as an even more unstoppable juggernaut. According to NBA.com, the Thunder are plus-57 in 114:10 with Durant at the 4.
Which, over the course of a 48-minute game, comes out to an advantage of just over 27 points.
The other factor here—one that better explains the expansion of Durant's role as a playmaker—is the reshaping of OKC's team dynamics in the wake of James Harden's departure.
In shipping Harden to the Houston Rockets, the Thunder relinquished a player who was not only the league's reigning Sixth Man of the Year, but also arguably the best ball-handler and facilitator who called The 'Peake home.
Kevin Martin has done an admirable job (if not an outstanding one) of replacing Harden's scoring and shooting; Martin is chipping in 15.8 points per game on 45.3 percent shooting from the field and 48.8 percent from three off Scott Brooks' bench.
But Martin doesn't attack the basket, run the pick-and-roll or create for his teammates like Harden did once upon a time. Nor have the Thunder asked him to.
Instead, OKC has essentially split Harden's other duties between the remaining stars.
Russell Westbrook has pared down his scoring a bit while spending more of his time and energy as an honest-to-goodness point guard. He currently ranks sixth in the NBA in assists at 8.6 per game.
And among players who've participated in a majority of their respective teams' games, he checks in fifth in assist percentage, having helped on a career-high 43.5 percent of his teammates' makes when he's on the floor (per Basketball Reference).
Durant, too, has absorbed many of Harden's former duties this season.
As mentioned earlier, his assist totals and assist percentage are up. SI.com's Rob Mahoney recently noted that this uptick in point guard-like productivity stems from Durant's improved ability to read and react to ball pressure and distribute off of dribble drives.
And, of course, his need to do so sans Harden. As capable of LeBron-like all-around production as KD may be, such skills wouldn't likely have come to the fore had the Beard still been in town. There would've been no pressing need for Durant to venture into uncharted territory.
But, as pointed out by Beckley Mason of Hoopspeak, the Harden-for-Martin swap has put the onus on Durant to spot up less and facilitate more. It's by necessity, not necessarily by choice, that KD has become the NBA's latest Mr. Everything, that his fundamental niche and his realized niche have nearly become one in the same.
A similar story can be told of LeBron's development into the Heat's central hub.
For most of his first two years in Miami, LeBron was forced to strike a tenuous on-court balance with Dwyane Wade and, to a lesser extent, Chris Bosh. James and Wade often took turns trying to take over games rather than doing the obvious thing—having everyone else play off of LeBron.
Not until Bosh went down with an abdominal injury and Wade waned in the postseason against the Indiana Pacers was Heat coach Erik Spoelstra presented with a golden opportunity to put LeBron front and center without stirring up any controversy.
The result? LeBron put together a playoff run for the ages, culminating in the Heat's five-game series win over Durant's Thunder in the NBA Finals.
And if Durant continues to play like LBJ, to fill his niche to the fullest, the tables may well be turned in OKC's favor come June.
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