Forget the talk about the MVP because it’s essentially in the bag for the three time scoring champion. Kevin Durant will likely bring that home along with his fourth scoring title while leading the league in PER. Durant has been the headline of the NBA over the last two months or so.
Durant has scored over 25 points in 18 straight contests dating back to January 5th in a blowout victory against the Boston Celtics. Durant has turned the focus of the national media away from LeBron James’ stellar season and potential three-peat to Durant’s success and his chase for a title. He’s etched his name in the history of the league as not only one of its greatest scorers, but one of its greatest players.
And to do that, Durant has had to play both ends of the ball–offense and defense. There’s no way to become a complete player without committing yourself to both ends. Name a great player and most of them have done so. Michael Jordan did it, Kobe Bryant did it, LeBron James did it, Larry Bird did it and now Kevin Durant is doing it.
A few years ago, it would’ve been a stretch to call Durant a good defender–even calling him a solid one was somewhat of a reach. In Durant’s rookie year, the Seattle Supersonics were a full 8.8 points better per 100 possessions on the defensive end with him off of the court. Durant played 66% of his minutes at the shooting guard position that season. Durant’s PER was 17.9 that season at the two spot, but opposing shooting guards had a PER of 18.5 against Durant.
Fast forward to just a year later when Durant began to blossom as an offensive player. He played the majority of his minutes at the small forward position in the Oklahoma City Thunder’s inaugural season. Durant held opposing small forwards to a PER of 15.7–an improvement, but still league average. He wasn’t known as a defensive stopper and shouldn’t have been expected to be one in the second year of his young career.
Fast forward once more, but this time we’ll come back to the present. Kevin Durant is arguably the best offensive player in the NBA and there’s no questioning that. But most wouldn’t consider him when talking about the best players on both ends in the league. A casual NBA fan would think LeBron James or Paul George. Maybe even the likes of Andre Iguodala. Guys who have been known as defensive stoppers and possess some type of essential offensive skill.
LeBron James would be the best out of that group, obviously. With his offensive skill set coupled with some of the best physical measurements in the league will get you instant recognition as a great two-way player. Being in the conversation for defensive player of the year every season helps, too.
We could probably throw Dwight Howard in the conversation while we’re at it. Howard’s offensive production hasn’t been the same since his Orlando days, but even though the volume has disappeared the efficiency hasn’t. Howard hasn’t been the main offensive option for a team in nearly three years. He’s still averaging 18.8 points per game on only 11.7 shots. Howard is shooting 58% from the field–a ridiculous clip, even for a big man.
But the only player mentioned above with offensive skill close to Durant’s is James. Paul George has dramatically improved on the offensive end since last season. He’s averaging 22.6 points per game and has the highest usage rating of his career. But, still, it isn’t as good as what Durant has been able to do this season from an offensive standpoint.
After a hot start, George has somewhat regressed because of his shot selection and hasn’t been the same on the defensive end. While he’s still a stellar defender, numbers indicate he’s somewhat regressed on that end because of his offensive load. Last season he allowed opposing small forwards a PER of 12.0. This season that mark for opposing small forwards is up to 13.4. That’s still a below average mark, but it’s risen from what George did last season. This isn’t me saying George is a bad defender, because that’d be a lie. Truthfully, George’s regression on defense should be expected with an increased usage rating this season.
That’s what makes players like LeBron James so special. He’s managed to stay relatively the same on the defensive end while also keeping a high usage rate. James has played 36% of his minutes at both forward positions. He allowed opposing small forwards a PER of 11.8 and he allows opposing power forwards a PER of 12.8. Both of those are below average marks and it’s a remarkable feat that he’s able to defend both positions on almost equal footing.
Some consider James’ season subpar as far as his defensive effort goes. But the numbers seem to suggest that things are quite the opposite. He’s allowing a lower PER for opposing small forwards this season than he was last season. Last season James only played 29% of his minutes at the small forward position. He played 42% of his minutes at the power forward position where he allowed opposing fours a 17.2 PER–substantially greater than what he allows them this season.
So James defends both of his positions at a better rate than he did last season. His usage has gone down just a tick, but his defensive effort seems to have increased. The Miami Heat’s roster hasn’t been able to keep a clean rotation this season because of injuries to key players like Mario Chalmers, Dwyane Wade and Chris Anderson, so their defense has suffered a bit. Most of the blame seems to go with James, but I think he’s been just fine on that end this year.
Now, making the case for Kevin Durant. Durant is clearly worlds above everyone else in the league offensive outside of Chris Paul and LeBron James. James and Paul might not be better offensive players than Durant, but they’re somewhere close to the realm he’s in. We should take into account that Durant has been scorching the nets since Christmas day and has been the best offensive player in the league during that stretch. But once Westbrook comes back, we should see a bit of deflation in these numbers.
Paul is nowhere near as good as James or Durant on the defensive end. He’s a solid defensive point guard, but he isn’t the great defender that he once was at the position. Both James and Durant are otherworldly beings when it comes to defense. We’ve gone over James’ credentials as a two-way player, but what about Durant?
Well, Durant almost all of his minutes at the small forward position. He’s played during 77% of the Thunder’s possible minutes this season. For 61% of those minutes, Durant has been at the small forward position where he allows opponents a 9.1 PER. Durant’s PER at that position is 31.1. That makes for a differential in PER of 22.1.
It doesn’t stop there; Durant has even played some power forward this season. He’s played 14% of his minutes at the four spot this season and has a PER of 38 while in that spot. His opponents have a PER of only 10.2 when Durant plays the power forward position. That makes for a differential of 27.8–far greater than James’ differential of 16.5. Durant’s sample at the power forward is much smaller and that should be taken into account. However, his opponent’s PER is still below James in both categories by at least a full point.
PER isn’t the be-all, end-all stat that some make it to be, but it does give us a bit of insight on how these players are defending their respective positions. Durant’s opponent PER’s are far lower than anyone else’s listed above and he’s a better offensive player than all of the players mentioned above as well. We talk tons about how Durant has rounded his game out throughout his career, but this gives some context to just how chiseled he’s become when playing on both ends. This season, he’s been the best two way player in the league. While he doesn’t defend multiple positions consistently, the numbers show us that whatever position he defends, the results have been devastating for the opposition.
Best of all, they show us that bench pressing at NBA workouts is probably irrelevant in most cases.