“He can’t do it without Russell Westbrook” has been a common line for Kevin Durant detractors since Westbrook’s injury in the playoffs last season. The series loss to the Memphis Grizzlies in the second round of the playoffs created the rouse that Kevin Durant isn’t a functional player without Westbrook. And while it’s clear that they do need each other, I think we can safely make the assumption that Durant is just fine without Westbrook.
Westbrook hasn’t played basketball since Oklahoma City’s Christmas day game against the New York Knicks. Since, Durant has averaged 35.8 points per game on 54% shooting from the field. What’s more, during that stretch Durant has averaged 21.8 shots per game. Durant is carrying even more of the load than ever on a team that has a flawed offensive philosophy with very few offensive pieces outside of Durant and Westbrook to work with.
Despite that, Durant has been able to put together quite the stretch. On the season, he’s averaging a league leading 31.1 points per game on 19.7 shots per game. He’s shooting 51% from the field. But this stretch without Westbrook has been what has put him over the hump as the best player in the league this season. At this point, the MVP trophy is his to lose.
He was behind LeBron James and Kevin Love in PER before Westbrook’s injury. Now he leads the league in PER at 31–John Hollinger’s scale notes that this is the mark of a surefire MVP candidate. Durant has had 14 30 point games since the Christmas day showing. Along with that, he’s had seven games with over 35 points and four games with over 40 points.
Durant has had 10 straight 30 point games and the Thunder are currently in the midst of a seven game winning streak. Durant just had his 5th career triple double in a win against the Philadelphia 76ers on Saturday night. He isn’t just scoring during this stretch, he’s showing his capability as a do-it-all forward, rivaling the effort and impact of LeBron James. Durant has averaged 5.9 assists per game and 7.6 rebounds per game since Christmas day.
He won player of the month in December and should definitely be taking home that award for the Western Conference again in January. In the month of January, Durant has averaged 36.5 points per game on 54% shooting, 6.2 assists per game and 6.4 rebounds per game. A few years ago, Durant didn’t have such a well-versed game. His improvement has come to bloom during this stretch.
There should be no question about how great Durant is as a player. He’ll go down as one of the better scorers to ever pick up a ball and could probably retire as a Hall of Famer right now. But this stretch really solidifies what we’ve known for two or three years now.
What will be interesting to see is how Durant performs come playoff time if Westbrook is absent. He should be back by then, but if he isn’t defenses will obviously stack the lane against Durant and force him to play outside. It’s not something that he isn’t capable of doing, but rim shots are the most desired in the game. Let’s take a look at Durant’s shot distribution during this stretch.
37.8% of Durant’s attempts are coming in the restricted area. He’s shooting a gaudy 63% from that spot; that doesn’t include the attempts that he draws shooting fouls on. The rim is an important part of Durant’s scoring and that’s clear. Now, looking at his shot distribution from the playoff series against the Memphis Grizzlies.
Most of Durant’s offense during that series was coming from the middle of the floor or the outside. He was shooting a lot of threes and taking a lot of midrange jump shots because Memphis wouldn’t allow him to get into the lane without giving the ball up. Only 15.8% of his shots came from in the restricted area. That’s over 20% less than how many of his attempts have come at the rim during this stretch.
Durant obviously isn’t facing the Memphis Grizzlies 2012-13 defense in a series right now, so things are different. When the opponent has multiple games to scout you, find your weaknesses and capitalize on them things get harder. That’s what happened to Durant last season. But if he’s caught in that bind again this season, will things be any different?
Only time will tell. And, again, Westbrook should be playing barring any complications with his nagging knee. But things will open up again once Westbrook is back on the floor.
Still, playoffs be damned, there’s no questioning the stretch that Durant is putting together right now. We’ll see how long he can keep this up, but there’s no doubt that he’s playing the best basketball in the league right now.