Kevin Durant's Evolution Is the Final Step in OKC Thunder's Maturation

Bryant Knox@@BryantKnoxFeatured ColumnistFebruary 25, 2013

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - JUNE 06:  Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder watches the clock run out against the San Antonio Spurs in Game Six of the Western Conference Finals in the 2012 NBA Playoffs on June 6, 2012 at the Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. The Thunder beat the Spurs 107-99.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using the photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Brett Deering/Getty Images)
Brett Deering/Getty Images

It wasn’t long ago that the Oklahoma City Thunder were the up-and-coming new kids on the block—a fun team with loads of untapped potential upon arriving in OKC. Now, the Thunder have become perennial title contenders, and that has everything to do with the growth and evolution of Kevin Durant.

It’s no coincidence that as Durant has gotten better, so have the Thunder. Yes, the organization has put the pieces around him to speed up the process, but without Durant, where would this team be?

The truth is, they’d be in a small market with only a loyal fanbase to back them. Durant is one of the most likable players that the league has today, and when you combine his skill set with his personality, you get the kind of person that fans root for all across the basketball world.

When this team first arrived in OKC, it missed the playoffs as the 13 seed out West. Since then, the group has placed higher and higher every year, and they’re fighting for a spot atop the conference in 2013.

Durant’s impact on this team passes the eye test, but when you look at the numbers, you see how his growth has propelled them to success.

Throughout the 2008-09 season, the Thunder outscored their opponents 23.6 percent of the time Durant was on the floor. As Durant’s skill set has continued to expand, that number has grown year after year, and it’s at an all-time high 75 percent in 2013.

The old cliché is that defense wins championships, and while Durant is still improving in that area, he’s seen his opponents’ PER (per 48 minutes) at the small forward position drop from 15.7 in 2009 to just 10.5 four years later.

But going back to the eye test, there’s a leadership quality about Durant that you simply can’t measure. His emotions are on full display, he’s becoming more vocal and, according to NBA.com’s Jeff Caplan, he’s more focused on being a good teammate than winning his first MVP award.

In his sixth season, Durant has the Thunder competing for first place out West while also on pace to complete his first-ever 50-40-90 season (50% FG, 40% 3PT, 90% FT). He’d be the second player in NBA history to achieve such numbers while averaging at least 28 points, and he’s also on pace to become the second player to average 28 points while taking 18 shots or fewer per contest (according to ESPN’s Justin Page).

The 24-year-old is having a career year, but the scary part is that he’s still getting better, which means the Thunder haven't even reached their own ceiling.

Durant may not have the do-it-all style of a LeBron James, but he’s well on his way to becoming one of the more versatile players in the Association. He’s pulling down 7.5 rebounds per game, he's averaging a career-high 4.5 assists, and he's proving that the feared style clash between he and Russell Westbrook has yet to truly come to fruition.

The megastar has been willing to limit his shots for his teammates, yet his points-per-game average hasn’t taken a hit. He’s looking for his fourth-straight scoring title, and it’s no coincidence that the Thunder are the highest-scoring team in the entire NBA.

Although Durant is predominantly known as a perimeter player, he’s begun to show that his future may be more diverse. The 6’9” forward has spent 15 percent of his team’s total minutes at the 4 spot in 2013; a spot where he’s boosted his already-impressive 28.4 PER to 36.7.

Players such as Carmelo Anthony have redefined their games during their primes for the good of the team, and while Anthony spends more time down low than Durant, the Thunder forward has begun to adapt much earlier in his career.

But as much as winning and getting better sets the path for the future, the taste of defeat may be his biggest driving factor. 

Losing to the Los Angeles Lakers in 2010 was expected, and being eliminated by the Dallas Mavericks in 2011 was disappointing; but when the team fell to the Miami Heat in 2012, you could see the emotion on Durant’s face as he walked off the court for the final time.

The NBA is a star-driven league, and it’s players like Durant who keep fans invested.

As much as we love our stars, we’re extra critical of them when their production comes at the expense of their efficiency. Durant’s game has evolved into one of the most efficient in the league, which is exactly what a team needs when aiming for greatness.

The 24-year-old has gotten OKC to where it is today, and the question once again becomes, where would it be without him? 

People want to see the Thunder succeed, and with Durant locked up through 2015-16, the superstar will be the reason the fans get their wish.

 

All advanced statistics are provided by 82games.com.