Kevin Durant is playing like an MVP in Stephen Curry’s absence

OAKLAND, CA - DECEMBER 11: Kevin Durant
OAKLAND, CA - DECEMBER 11: Kevin Durant /

Draymond Green wasn’t disrespecting Kevin Durant when he said the Warriors don’t really need him during the regular season. He was just being honest. As they have proven in the past, the Warriors at full strength are good enough without Durant to win over 60 games and enter the playoffs with home court advantage. Durant raises their ceiling considerably on both ends of the court, but the primary reason they signed him was to give them the edge they needed to take down the Cavaliers in the NBA Finals, not to necessarily make them a better regular season team.

Where having Durant in the regular season does help is when one of their core isn’t able to play due to injury. While Klay Thompson and Green have both stepped up in Stephen Curry’s absence in the past — Curry dominated in the games Durant missed last season with a knee injury as well — Durant is better equipped than both of them to replace Curry’s production as a scorer and facilitator. So when Curry went down with an ankle injury on Dec. 4, Durant was the obvious candidate to step up.

It’s not a new situation for Durant, whose dominance when Russell Westbrook missed 27 straight games in the 2013-14 season paved the way for him to win MVP. It is, however, a relatively new situation for the Warriors considering Curry hasn’t been sidelined for more than four games in a single season since 2011-12. It’s why Warriors general manager Bob Myers told ESPN’s Zach Lowe at the time he was “curious” to see what his team would look like without Curry in the lineup.

Read More: Russell Westbrook has not played like an MVP

The good news for Myers and the Warriors is Durant is putting up numbers comparable to his MVP season with the Thunder. He’s averaged 34.2 points, 10.4 rebounds, 7.4 assists and 3.0 blocks per game since Curry’s injury on 49.2 percent shooting from the field, 41.0 percent shooting from the perimeter and 94.3 percent shooting from the free throw line. The Warriors are 5-0 in those games and have outscored opponents by 10.5 points per 100 possessions with him on the court with what would be the third-best offense and the sixth-best defense in the league.

Steve Kerr usually plays Durant a handful of minutes every game with Curry on the bench, but Durant doesn’t play as aggressively as he is right now. His usage rate in those situations has increased from 31.6 percent to 37.4 percent in wake of Curry’s injury, and he’s gone from averaging 26.5 shot attempts per 100 possessions to 32.1 shot attempts per 100 possessions. His assist percentage has also jumped from a Damian Lillard-like 28.4 percent to a Ben Simmons-like 34.6 percent.

There was one particular stretch during their current win streak where Durant put his versatility on full display. Following a tightly contested first half against the Mavericks, Durant was personally responsible for 27 of Golden State’s 32 points in the third quarter, doing so without any contributions from Curry (ankle), Green (shoulder), Zaza Pachulia (shoulder) and Nick Young (concussion).

Durant scored 15 of those points himself on 6-for-9 shooting from the field:

He then assisted on the remaining 12 points with five assists, each of which ended in either a layup or 3-pointer for Jordan Bell, Omri Casspi or Quinn Cook:

With an average of 9.6 assists per 100 possessions during this Curry-less stretch, Durant is putting up similar assist numbers as Green on the season. It comes with 4.1 turnovers per 100 possessions — the only thing Durant has struggled with as the lead creator this season — but he basically becomes a nightly triple-double threat when Curry isn’t around. He already has one triple-double in the five games Curry has missed, and he’s come close to posting another on three occasions.

Putting the ball in Durant’s hands does change how both he and the Warriors get their shots. Less of his own offense is made up of catch-and-shoot 3-pointers without Curry in the lineup and more is made up of 2-point pull-ups. It almost doubles how reliant the Warriors are on mid-range shots to generate their scoring.

That might be a troubling development for most teams, but it hasn’t prevented the Warriors from averaging 112.5 points per 100 possessions over the last five games with Durant on the court because he is practically automatic off the dribble. According to, he has made 46.2 percent of his 2-point pull-ups since the 2013-14 season on 1,290 total attempts, both of which are mind-boggling totals for someone his size.

As a 7-footer with a 7-foot-4 wingspan, Durant can get his shot off against smaller defenders by simply shooting over them. According to, over half of his shot attempts have come within four feet of a defender since Curry’s injury and he’s converted 46.3 percent of those opportunities. Even someone like Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who stands at 6-foot-7 with a 7-foot wingspan, doesn’t stand much of a chance of bothering his shot when he fades away off of one foot.

Someone like Lonzo Ball therefore stands almost no chance:

And with his guard-like handle, there aren’t many players Durant’s size who can stick with him in isolation, where he is scoring 15.7 percent of his points this season at a rate of 1.04 points per possession. There isn’t, for example, another 7-footer in the league who can string together crossovers this well and this effortlessly:

Whether or not this stretch ultimately puts Durant alongside James Harden and LeBron James at the top of the MVP ladder at the season’s end likely depends on how much longer Curry is out. As Kerr explained following their win against the Mavericks, part of what makes Durant so special is he’s capable of flipping the switch whenever needed. Whereas the Warriors need him to take over right now, he will happily go back to playing in a more complementary role when Curry is ready to return, whether that happens this week week or next month.

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Not that it makes what Durant is currently doing less impressive. Stretches like these are a good reminder of what he is capable of when he’s the center of attention and how much of his game he sacrificed when he decided to join the Warriors in the prime of his career. He could be doing this somewhere else on a nightly basis, but he has chosen to be a part of something bigger than himself.