When the Thunder traded James Harden shortly before the season began, the small-market contender did more than clear salary cap space. In dealing the heady two-guard, the Thunder also signaled that they believed Kevin Durant was ready to expand his game and to fill some of the roles Harden formerly occupied.
Durant has come through so far this season, and then some. Not only has he assumed Harden’s playmaking abilities with career highs in assists and assist percentage through eight regular-season games, but he is also more active on the glass, averaging more than 10 rebounds per game for the first time in his career. All the while, he is still one of the most effective scorers in the NBA and one of the league’s most cool-headed closers.
Last Thursday’s game against the Bulls was the ideal example of the new, improved Durant. He scored 24 points, including 10 of his team’s 31 points in the final quarter, as the Thunder came back from a six-point deficit entering the final period to win 97-91. Durant also had three steals and blocked three shots in the victory, so only the pickiest observer could find any fault with his performance.
Being picky, we found one.
Durant took two free throws in that game. Two days before, he took only six free throws against the Raptors. A day later, he took just five free throws against the Pistons. The Thunder won all three games, so Durant’s failure to generate foul shots did not hurt Oklahoma City, but the trend could be troublesome if it continues throughout the regular season and into the playoffs.
The playoffs bring a different style of play, where the importance of every single point is heightened. It was no coincidence that LeBron James‘ free throw attempts per game almost doubled from the regular season to the playoffs last year, when James finally won his ring. Two seasons ago, his attempts actually fell from 8.4 per game in the regular season to 7.4 per game in the playoffs, when he infamously fell short against the Mavericks. All other things being equal, the ability to get to the foul line sets apart elite clutch scorers like Kobe Bryant and Paul Pierce.
The sample size is ridiculously small, but so far Durant is not getting to the line very frequently at all, never mind in the clutch. He was getting 7.0 free throw attempts per game, his lowest total since he was a rookie, and his 6.5 free throw attempts per 36 minutes were the second-lowest of his career. That may be enough to beat the Pistons, Raptors, Cavaliers and Derrick Rose-less Bulls in November, but it probably will not be sufficient to beat the Spurs or Lakers in May or June. (If you need any more proof that getting to the foul line can be beneficial to Durant and the Thunder, there is this: In Oklahoma City’s one “quality” win in their first eight games, a 106-92 victory over the Trail Blazers, Durant took a season-high 12 foul shots.)
Is this a minor thing, considering Durant has 74 games left in which to get his attempts back up to a workable average? Of course it is, but this is a sign that Durant has entered the upper stratum of NBA stars. James reached that stature long ago, which is why everybody spent the last three or four years fixating on whether he possessed the intangibles to win a championship. Like James, Durant has so few flaws in his game that even his slightest defect could be something opponents hone in on when they game-plan against the Thunder.
Whether Durant’s inability to get the free throw line continues or if he magically transforms into Wilt Chamberlain in getting to the stripe may not have much impact on his scoring average or the Thunder’s regular-season record. If the Thunder are to continue their ascension and break through with a title this season, though, they will need Durant getting easy points at the foul line, not just on difficult fade-away jump shots with a hand in his face.