Kevin Durant And The Heroism Of Specialized Labor

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - MAY 23: Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder addresses the media after the Dallas Mavericks defeated the Thunder 112-105 in overtime in Game Four of the Western Conference Finals during the 2011 NBA Playoffs at Oklahoma City Arena on May 23, 2011 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Kevin Durant is not as good a passer as LeBron James, Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant. Does that matter? The Hook considered specialized labor in the context of Durant's penchant for being a finisher instead of a creator.

It's another Summer of Kevin Durant, and as HoopSpeak's Ethan Sherwood Strauss implies, it can be a little grating to those of us who love players who are maligned because they are less humane than the great Durantula. Last summer, LeBron James took the brunt of the collateral damage -- albeit mostly due to the sword of his own Decisions -- as KD was heralded as a God and Angel all in one for the great feat of ... quietly signing a max contract extension (as LeBron had done in 2006) and winning a gold medal (as LeBron had done in 2008). 

Durant's not exactly taking the shine at anyone else's expense this year (does Michael Beasley count?*) and the reaction to KD has been less Heavens To Betsy! than Wow, He Loves Basketball. So it's another Summer of Durant, but it's not like that Summer of Durant, and as such, the MVP campaign, the push for basketball sainthood and the requisite critical blowback will all be muted. Fool me once, shame on you.

* Trick question: Beasley never counts.

But Strauss has another odd angle in his bucket of cold water: that KD isn't the next potential G.O.A.T.

Think about it this way. KD struggles to create his own shot, relative to other superstars. He still manages to lead the league in scoring on mostly assisted jumpers. While some score easily on layups and dunks, he rakes in points by lofting difficult attempts over the best defenses. Durant somehow fills it up while only averaging 3.6 shots at the rim (73rd in the league).

So when the game comes easier-as it does in these summer days-he's Harrison Bergeron unbound. Kevin's one dimension is absolutely crushing when it faces no rebuttal. Durant's shaky handle and lack of court vision mean nothing when his scoring brilliance is free to flex and shout.

KD's inability to create should hold him back from becoming the league's most effective player, though. I hope I'm wrong, because Durant is so fun to root for. But it's a bit odd to predict "best" for a wing who has never tallied more assists than turnovers through four years in the league. "Consistently great" seems like a more realistic expectation.

It's true: more of Durant's shots are assisted than is the case for other superstars, he doesn't get most of his points at the rim, he's not a great passer, he's pretty one-dimensional as a scorer. These all look like Bad Things.

I have a one-word retort: So?

Okay, a few more words: Durant is being dinged for specialization. He doesn't create shots for others (low assist rates), even to the level LeBron or Dwyane Wade or Kobe Bryant do, for himself. (I will note that while 62 percent of Durant's shots last season were assisted, that means he still created more than seven shots per game for himself. That's no small amount.) Durant is a finisher. Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Eric Maynor set Durant up, and he puts the ball in the bucket. More than a third of the time, he skips the middle man and does it himself.

In every other economy in the world, specialization is valued, appreciated for the benefits it presents. Different scales of specialization have transformed industries and, hell, civilization itself. LeBron isn't a great passer period. LeBron is a great passer ... for a high-scoring small forward. There are about two dozen better passers than LeBron in the NBA. He's only notable because he's also scoring 25 points a game. Yet because Durant is single-minded in his focus and singularly talented in one given area of import, he's dinged and it's suggested he's not a reasonable candidate for the label of Greatest Of All Time. It doesn't make any sense.

But it's easy to see why Strauss would get to this point: in sports, we're in love with the well-rounded player. The five-tool prospect, the unholy combinations of strength, speed and athleticism we see at combines. Basketball is worse than other sports in this respect, because (unlike football) players have both offensive and defensive roles and (unlike baseball) everyone on the court has the potential to be involved in every play.

Flexibility of purpose is required by basketball -- even if you're 5'11, you're expected to rotate onto that 7-footer if your team is switching on picks-and-rolls. A constant, deafening refrain around the NBA Draft concerns what players can't do on the court, never mind what they do best. Tell me what you remember about Durant's combine appearance in 2007. It's that he couldn't do the bench press once, right?

So we have a brilliant scorer who is as efficient as anyone his age and we put a cap on his promise because he's not also, I don't know, as good a passer as Kyle Lowry? Maybe it's the curse of Jordan and LeBron, two exceptional scorers who also set up teammates and handled the ball quite often. At this point, Durant is, at age 22, as potent a scorer as LeBron James has ever been. In 2010, at age 21, Durant scored 30 points per game on better than 60 percent True Shooting. Jordan didn't start doing that regularly until he hit age 24. We could very well be watching the league's greatest scorer bloom. As with everything futuristic, we'll see. There's no sure thing, ever.

To me, the high rate of assisted baskets is a feature, not a bug. I mean, do we really want more isolation plays? If Durant can be the two-time defending NBA scoring champ taking passes from a chaotic guard like Westbrook, where's the issue? To beat your man off the dribble is heroic, but to find open space is divine. How can we denigrate the predictability and inefficiency of "hero ball" and in the next breath ding Durant for letting his team's creators create? 

Maybe Durant won't be the Greatest Ever -- Almost no one tagged with the potential to get there makes it. But I see no on-court flaw right now that will prevent him from doing so. The greatest summit that lies ahead is not within Durant. It's what MJ has set as the standard. 



Kevin Pelton And His Wonderful Database extended The Hook's Tuesday thoughts on the age of the NBA by tying age to Wins Above Replacement Value (WARP). As it turns out, the league is both younger and older than in previous eras. Take a look.


The Hook runs Monday through Friday. See the archives.

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