Nylon Calculus: Kevin Durant’s shooting has gone from good to great

Golden State Warriors forward Kevin Durant (35) is in my FanDuel daily picks again today. Mandatory Credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports
Golden State Warriors forward Kevin Durant (35) is in my FanDuel daily picks again today. Mandatory Credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports /

There was kind of a lot to take in during the Golden State Warriors’ thrashing of the Indiana Pacers on Monday night. There was Klay Thompson. He had a big game; scoring 60 points in 29 minutes. There was Stephen Curry. He had probably the nicest assist of the young season. And there was Golden State. As a team, the Warriors scored 142 points — their second highest total of the season — and the 36-point margin-of-victory was their second biggest win of the season over the Pacers (wow, they already beat Indiana by 37 this year? Yikes, that’s just not fair).

With all that excitement it would be easy to lose track of another impressive Warrior achievement: Kevin Durant scored 20 points on 9-for-14 (64 percent) shooting from the field. With the Warriors now 21 games into the season, Durant has scored at least 20 points on 19 separate occasions and he’s made at least half of his shots in 16 different games. That’s a remarkable demonstration of consistency, especially for a wing player.

Overall this season, Durant is shooting a career-high 56.5 percent from the field. If he can sustain his hot shooting for the remainder of the season, he would smash his previous season-best of 51.0 percent posted in the 2012-13 season. At 42.0 percent, Durant’s 3-point success rate is also close to his career high (42.2 percent) and much better than his mark from last year with the Oklahoma City Thunder (38.7 percent). Most impressively, Durant’s true shooting percentage of 67.9 percent is leading all qualified shooters (300+ FGM) in the league (including his teammate, Stephen Curry, who is in fourth place). This league-leading mark translates to an absurd rate of 1.36 points per possession for Durant.

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Aside from being wildly entertaining, the Warriors’ win over the Pacers offered a blueprint for understanding Durant’s improved shooting this season. As a team, the Warriors assisted each other on 45 of their 54 made field goals (83 percent), and the story was the same for Durant. Here’s a list of his nine baskets:

Q1, 11:19 – 14-foot jumper assisted by Draymond Green
Q1, 9:10 – 17-foot jumper assisted by Zaza Pachulia
Q1, 6:07 – dunk assisted by Draymond Green
Q1, 0:45 – layup assisted by Stephen Curry
Q2, 7:24 – unassisted driving layup
Q2, 2:54 – layup assisted by Draymond Green
Q2, 1:43 – layup assisted by Stephen Curry
Q3: 9:18 – alley-oop dunk assisted (backwards) by Stephen Curry (while in midair)
Q3: 5:33 – tip shot

So for those of you scoring at home, out of nine made baskets, seven were assisted, seven were taken from within the restricted area, and only one was created off the dribble.

That’s the secret to Durant’s improved shooting this year: he’s getting easier shots! One of the Warriors’ team mantras is “Good to Great”. Coach Steve Kerr’s offense is predicated on player and ball movement with the goal of trading makeable shots — i.e., challenged shots, off-balance shots, deep shots — for unmissable shots — i.e., wide open shots, rhythm shots, usually-still-very deep shots but sometimes also, layups — all for the sake of optimizing efficiency. Nobody has more demonstrably benefited from Kerr’s Good-to-Great philosophy than Durant.

Check out, for example, how Durant has changed the types of plays he uses to get shots this year compared to last year (data available from NBA.com/stats):

kd-play-types-updated /

On the left side of the plot above is Durant’s shot selection with the Thunder last year and on the right is his improved shot selection with the Warriors this year. Each box represents a play type for Durant, for example, the shots he’s taken in transition. The height of the box represents the frequency of the play type and the width of the box represents the efficiency of the play type. So, for example, the transition box on the the right is taller (19.1 percent of Durant’s possessions have come in transition this season) and wider (he’s scored 1.48 points per possession in transition) compared to the transition box on the left, which is relatively shorter (15.1 pecent of Durant’s possessions came in transition last year) and skinnier (he scored 1.32 points per possession in transition).

Last season, more than half of Durant’s shots came from his four least-efficient play types: in isolation, as the ball handler in the pick-and-roll, working off of screens away from the ball, and via “miscellaneous” other shots. These were still good shots, because every shot Durant takes is a good shot; but they weren’t great shots. This season, Durant is taking more of his shots as part of his most-efficient types of plays: in transition, off of cuts, off of hand-offs, and in the post. For Durant, these are great shots.

What’s really unfair is that not only has Durant’s move to the Warriors resulted in a smarter shot selection, he’s also improved his efficiency within most of these play categories: shots off of cuts, in transition, off putbacks, on spot-up jumpers, in isolation, working off of screens away from the ball, and as the ball handler in pick-and-roll. As a result, Durant is above the 90th percentile league-wide for scoring efficiency in each of these seven types of plays this season (except for off-screen plays, where he has only managed a pathetic 78th percentile ranking).

Whereas the redistribution of Durant’s attempts by play type (i.e., the taller green section and shorter pink section, above) can be attributed to the Warriors’ offensive philosophy; the improved efficiency within play types (i.e., the wider boxes of all colors) is probably due to more subtle influences such as increased floor spacing, fewer opportunities for opponents to double team, and fewer offensive responsibilities.

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The advantages afforded Durant by playing with the Warriors are borne out by a variety of other shooting statistics, too. As highlighted in the Pacer game, Durant is scoring more assisted baskets this year (62.2 percent) than he did last year (55.0 percent). He is also shooting more of his shots when he is open or wide open (39.7 percent, combined) this year than he did last year (36.5 percent). Likewise now that he has Curry and Green to set him up, he’s been able to get more of his shots off without putting the ball on the floor (49.6 percent with 0 dribbles) than he was able to with the Thunder last year (38.0 percent with 0 dribbles). As a result, he has generated more of his shots using short touch times (58.4 percent with 0-2 seconds) this year compared to last (48.7 percent).

All of these indicators point to Durant getting great shots with his new team and suggest that his improved shooting will be sustainable for the duration of the regular season.