People come to watch Kevin Durant score. They come to their televisions, come to sell out every Oklahoma City home game, come to make the Thunder one of the NBA's toughest tickets when they visit your city.
Durant has been a cold-blooded scorer since the moment he entered the public consciousness as a freshman at Texas, and he's only gotten better every year. Now 25 years old, Durant's ability to get bucket after bucket has become so transfixing that he's threatening to take home MVP. Durant's numbers are up across the board this year; he's scoring more with improved efficiency. With a scoring average of 31.5 points per game, he's averaging 3.5 points more than the last time he won the scoring title two seasons ago. He's shooting 51 percent from the floor. He's currently putting up one of the 15 highest PERs ever.
But as much as Durant's scoring binge has captured hearts and minds, it's another facet of his game that could be the real difference maker for the Thunder this year.
Durant's playmaking, floor vision and passing have been remarkable this season. Not just by KD's standard, but by anyone's. That's the real secret of Durant's career-year in his sixth season. He's no longer just special because he can score the ball at will. Now, he can also make everyone around him a better player.
If you've been paying attention, you know how big of a development this is. Durant averaged more turnovers than assists his first five seasons in the league. He didn't start averaging three assists per game until his fifth season. For a perimeter player who was taller, more athletic and unquestionably more talented than almost anyone he's ever played with, playmaking remained the one hole in Durant's offensive game.
Not anymore. Durant's climb as a passer has been steady through recent years, and it's hitting a new high this season. Durant has increased his assists by nearly one per game each of the last four seasons. This year, he's dropping 5.6 dimes per game.
It's easy to credit Durant's improved assist numbers to Russell Westbrook missing 29 games this year, but he's proved he can rack up the helpers even with Westbrook on the court. The Thunder might be 0-3 since Westbrook returned to the lineup after the All-Star break, but Durant has made it a point to keep the ball moving. Durant finished with 10 assists in a 42-point outing against the Clippers on Sunday. He nearly tallied a triple-double in his last game, finishing with 28 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists vs. the Cavaliers on Wednesday.
The Thunder will come around with Westbrook back in the mix because he's one of the best players in the NBA, but there may have been value in his absence even beyond the extended playing time for young guards Reggie Jackson and Jeremy Lamb. When Durant had the ball in his hands playing a point-forward role, the Thunder were deadly. They won 15 of the last 17 games Westbrook missed, and Durant's numbers were almost at a LeBron level. In the 26-game stretch Westbrook missed from the end of December to the his debut against the Heat on Feb. 20, Durant averaged 35 points, 6.3 assists and 7.5 rebounds per game.
James has been putting up those type of assist and rebounding numbers (a little better, even) since his second year in the league as a 20-year-old. LeBron is a freak like that. For all of Durant's otherworldly talents as a scorer, LeBron has always been a step or two ahead as a passer, playmaker and defender. That remains the case this year, but there's no denying Durant has gained serious ground.
Consider it the LeBron effect. While everyone else debates who's better between the league's two best players, KD has used James as the rabbit in a dog race. James' example is likely one reason why Durant keeps pushing his game to new heights.
This summer, he may just have the opportunity to beat the King at his own game. If there's a way to combat Miami's blitzing trap defense, it's by swinging the ball. Last season's Spurs didn't have nearly as much individual talent as the Thunder team the Heat beat in the Finals in 2012, but the Spurs knew how to get around Miami's defense. The Thunder, even with James Harden, did not. Durant's performance was a microcosm of the entire series for Oklahoma City. He averaged 30.6 points per game, but also only 2.2 assists and four turnovers a night.
It doesn't matter how much talent a team has: you're not going to beat Miami's defense going one-on-one. If Durant, Westbrook, Harden and Ibaka couldn't do it, no one will be able to.
The hope for Oklahoma City is that one-on-one ball is out the window. Even with Harden in Houston, it isn't difficult to make the argument this Thunder squad is every bit as good, if not better, as the team that made the Finals in 2012. The bench is certainly improved behind Jackson, Lamb and Steven Adams. Ibaka is better, too. For as good as Durant was as a 23-year-old, he's a much better player today.
It isn't hard to see why it took Durant some time to get better as a playmaker. For a guy who led the league in scoring as a 21-year-old, doing it himself probably always seemed like the easiest route. He also didn't have great (or even good) teammates his first few years in the league. But with a supporting cast as good as ever and the type of wisdom that can only come with six years of experience, Durant is now a fully formed offensive colossus. Run two or three defenders at him now, and he'll pass to a capable teammate.
Moving the ball doesn't bring people to stands or get them to turn on their TVs, but very well might be the difference between winning and losing. It's something to remember this summer, when all of Durant's talents will be on full display for the world to see.