Durant is Back in his Comfort Zone at Small ForwardThe most fascinating storyline in Oklahoma City, one that will have ramifications for years to come and could very well determine the future of the Thunder, concerns Kevin Durant. Shortly after the Thunder--then known as the Seattle SuperSonics--drafted Durant, Coach P.J. Carlesimo announced that he planned to shift Durant from forward to shooting guard and I immediately expressed skepticism:
Maybe some people have visions of Durant being the 21st century version of George Gervin, a slender forward who moved to guard early in his pro career and won four scoring titles--but there are some important differences to consider between Gervin and Durant. Gervin started his career at his natural position of forward and proved that he could rebound, draw fouls and even block shots, averaging 8.4 rpg, 6.3 FTA/g and 1.6 bpg in his first full ABA season (Gervin played just 30 games as a rookie after the Virginia Squires discovered him in the middle of the season while he was playing in the minor league Eastern Basketball Association). San Antonio Spurs Coach Bob Bass moved Gervin to guard late in Gervin's third season, after Gervin had already established himself as an All-Star forward.
Durant has not played one minute of regular season action in the NBA, yet even though he has been advertised as a great inside player his coach already wants him to switch positions. Carlesimo clearly wants to spare Durant from being pounded in the paint but the move to the backcourt will lead to other problems. To the best of my knowledge, Durant has never played guard; now he will have to learn how to do so against the best guards in the world. Also, from what I saw in the summer league, Durant has a very high dribble and is not a great ballhandler, so he will be a turnover waiting to happen if he is relied upon to do a lot of dribbling.
Durant clearly needs to put on some weight but that will be true regardless of which position he plays. I think that he and Seattle would be better served if he takes his lumps at his natural small forward position where he will at least be in the comfort zone of playing in areas of the court that are familiar to him.
It is interesting that the first thing that interim Coach Scott Brooks did is put Durant back at his natural position, small forward. During Brooks' pregame standup on Wednesday, I asked him to explain specifically why he made this move and if he expects this to be a permanent change. One thing that is important to keep in mind is that Carlesimo hired Brooks to be one of his assistants, so Brooks feels very loyal to Carlesimo; in fact, Brooks specifically told the assembled media that the fact that Carlesimo essentially gave Brooks his blessing to take the job, saying that this is just part of the business, made this a much smoother transition for Brooks then it otherwise might have been. So, whatever Brooks thinks about Carlesimo's original strategy of putting Durant at shooting guard, he obviously is going to choose his words carefully. With that caveat in mind, here is Coach Brooks' response: "We're just evaluating it as the season goes along. I think that the advantage that we have with Kevin and Jeff (Green, the starting power forward) is that they are both very good, talented, young forwards--kind of like throwback guys. It seems like the league is going small. You've got 6-2 two guards (shooting guards), 6-5, 6-6 three men (small forwards). With Kevin, he's good enough to do a lot of things in a lot of different spots. The guy's a terrific young talent and we're all excited that we have him. He works extremely hard. You can put him on the floor and he's going to perform well."
I followed up by asking, "By putting him at forward, does that allow him to operate in different areas of the court or attack in different ways than he was attacking at guard, giving him some kind of advantage?"
Coach Brooks replied, "Well, I think a job as a coach whether he is at the two or the three or the four is that we put him in those spots where we can dictate where he takes most of his shots and that's our focus: getting good shots. We don't want to just say that now that he's at the three we assume that he is going to get good shots. It goes hand in hand with the player and the coach to find the best spots on the court that he is going to be successful in. I think Kevin is a smart player and he looks forward to getting better every day and he--along with myself--will figure out what are the best spots on the court for him. But he's good, he's one of those players who can score high, side, low, free throws, transition. He's a talented player."
Coach Brooks' answers are very informative, if understood correctly. He diplomatically avoided criticizing Carlesimo and he made sure to emphasize that Durant is a talented and hard working player but he made it clear that the idea moving forward (no pun intended) is to "dictate where he takes most of his shots" and to improve Durant's shot selection; the first part of that process is putting Durant at his natural position, thus getting him into a comfort zone.
After getting Coach Brooks' take on the matter, I went into the Thunder's locker room to find out what Durant thinks about the change; Durant had just finished his pregame shooting drills (see Notes From Courtside in my recap of Cleveland's 117-82 win over Oklahoma City for a description of his shooting form) and he was sitting by his locker reading the pregame notes. I made sure that I was not disturbing his pregame routine and then conducted a brief interview with the 2008 Rookie of the Year:
Q: "In the early part of your NBA career you have predominantly been playing shooting guard but since Coach Brooks has taken over he has switched you to small forward. Tell me about that adjustment and what are some of the differences in playing those two positions. What is the advantage of having you at small forward?"
Durant: "I think that in our system the two and the three is basically the same but moving me to the three puts me closer to the basket. I'm going to be able to post up a little bit more now. Other than that I think it's just about the same. Wherever coach puts me I just want to come out and play hard."
I think that many writers would take that quote, run with it and use it as the basis of a story saying that the change does not matter. However, if you understand the game and know the history of Durant's career then you realize that his first answer was just a polite, superficial response to what he may have assumed was a generic question from a generic reporter. Many players assume--in some cases, correctly--that members of the media don't understand much about the sport, so when players are asked a question they often just give a simple, formulaic answer because they figure that all the reporter wants is any kind of sound bite. So Durant simply said that the positions are basically the same and then showed that he is "on message" by echoing Coach Brooks' emphasis on the importance of playing hard.
As you will see, after a few more questions the truth about the position switch emerges. First, I asked Durant, "But through all of your career prior to the NBA you always played forward, right? You hadn't played guard until getting to the NBA level, right?"
Durant confirmed this: "I hadn't played guard until my rookie year; that is the only year I played guard in my entire life."
Q: "So wasn't that an adjustment in terms of getting the ball in different spots on offense and wasn't it totally different on defense as well?"
Durant: "Exactly. Playing against the smaller guys, guarding them on defense, and then having little guys who could reach up under me and guard me--it was an adjustment. It was something I had to go through but I'm glad I'm at my natural position now."
Read that last sentence again. Playing shooting guard was "something I had to go through but I'm glad I'm at my natural position now." In other words, the two positions are not "basically the same," particularly for someone who had never played guard before at any level and who was now forced to learn the position at the very highest level of the sport.
Q: "What is the one aspect of your game you worked on the most during the summer in order to improve from your rookie season to your second season?"
Durant: "Just everything--getting stronger, my post up game, my ballhandling. Everything. I think that I did a good job on working on that and I just have to continue to work to become better."
Durant struggled with his shot during most of his rookie season but really picked things up down the stretch. I asked him what changed and he told me, "I think that I was getting easier shots. I started to post up more in the second half of the year. I was knocking down open shots and my teammates did a great job of getting me easy baskets, layups and dunks and things like that. That helped me out a lot."
Q: "The process of getting easier shots--was that an adjustment that you made in terms of your shot selection?"
Durant: "Most definitely. I stopped shooting three pointers. I was shooting close to six or seven a game early on and I cut that down to maybe one or two. By doing that, my field goal percentage went up and I was getting easier shots."
Q: "Was that an adjustment the coaching staff suggested to you or you just decided on your own that you needed to stop doing that?"
Durant: "It was something that I told myself that I need to stop doing until I get comfortable with the three point line and consistently knocking it down. I think that was me growing up, learning to move in some and not shoot too many threes."
Q: "Watching you shoot when you were warming up, it looked like the midrange shot--the elbow jumper and the shot from the baseline--you hardly missed those at all but when you backed up just one or two steps to the three point line you still shot a good percentage but it seemed like there was a difference in your comfort level. Would you say that is true with the three point shot still, that the extra step makes a difference?"
Durant: "I'm still trying to find my comfort level at the three point line but I think that the midrange game is where my shot is; that's why I knock all my (midrange) shots down. The midrange game is something that I love doing and my teammates do a great job of finding me there. I work hard on it after practice, before practice, shootarounds, after shootarounds--just knocking that shot down. If I continue to work then it will be an even better shot for me."
Q: "Is there a veteran player, either on your team on another team, that you watch and on whom you model your midrange game?"
Durant: "There are a lot of guys. LeBron has a good midrange jumper, I think. Carmelo (Anthony), Michael Redd, also Paul Pierce does a great job of shooting from midrange. I watch those guys and learn a lot from them."
It is a bit ironic that Durant mentioned LeBron James, because I think that Durant's midrange shot is already better than James' midrange shot; maybe Durant was simply being deferential to a player he respects and who he was about to face that night. Anthony, Redd and Pierce certainly do have midrange games worth admiring. I thought that Durant might mention Richard Hamilton.
During Coach Brown's pregame standup on Wednesday, I asked him if the position switch for Durant changed his defensive plans in any way. Coach Brown replied, "For us (defensively), the two and the three are the same. We just look at the two guys and have LeBron guard whoever is bigger and Delonte (West) guard whoever is smaller...It really doesn't make a difference to us but psychologically in their minds it may make a difference. I don't know, because I am not in their locker room." It is important to remember that even though the defensive matchup does not change for Cleveland that is not the case for other teams. Also, Oklahoma City's lineup switch is not only designed to impact who guards Durant but also where Durant is stationed on the court offensively--"put him in those spots where we can dictate where he takes most of his shots" is the way Coach Brooks put it, as noted above--and who Durant guards when the Thunder are on defense.
My analysis of Durant's game in previous posts since he was drafted may have seemed harsh at times but all I am doing is reporting what I see and then drawing logical conclusions; in the process I also tried to tone down all of the hype that was showered on him. In the long run, I think that the groundless hype could do him more damage than my substantive criticisms, many of which he clearly has figured out on his own to be true (such as the importance of getting stronger, improving his ballhandling and shooting fewer three pointers). Durant is an earnest, soft spoken and likable person and I can honestly say that I hope he does succeed in becoming a great player--but with his body type and skill set I think that he has his work cut out for him to become as great as some people projected. Jeff Van Gundy recently called Durant a disappointment but in my opinion that says more about overheated expectations than it does about what should realistically have been expected of Durant by this stage. Moving Durant to small forward is a big step in the right direction that I predict will pay noticeable dividends, possibly as soon as the end of this season.
posted by David Friedman @ 9:45 AM