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Durant’s versatility has nothing to do with position, just greatness

Oct 14, 2010, 2:44 AM EST

Oklahoma City Thunder v Atlanta Hawks

This is not about positionality. It’s not about the transcendence of Kevin Durant’s athletic ability and basketball skill to cross-over to any spot on the floor. And it’s certainly not about the antiquated conditions of position that too often limit where and how we think of players and both their potential and liabilities.  It’s about the individual nature of Kevin Durant, and his progress. A progress that is both terrifyingly supplementary and drastically necessary.

I’ll explain.

You’ll remember earlier this week when the Daily Oklahoman reported on Kevin Durant being used at all five positions. All the talk was of how the young superstar is learning to play different slots on the floor. How he’s learning to orchestrate the offense as a point guard or work as a bigger power forward, a position he says he has to make up for with “heart. ” But the reality of the situation is this. Durant isn’t learning to be Chris Paul. He’s not working on emulating Tim Duncan. And he’s not stretching what it means to be a center. It’s the evolution of his specific game. It’s being Kevin Durant, only wearing different outfits. Or, as a better analogy, it’s a lot like when Mario would don the different suits in Super Mario Bros. 3. Just because he’s throwing hammers doesn’t make him a turtle. Mario is still Mario, and KD is still KD. He’s just doing different things as he continues his role as KD.  That’s partially out of respect to his talents, and partially because those talents simply can’t be transformed.

When we talk about players adapting to new positions, we usually mean they’re actually playing those roles. For example, when Dwyane Wade plays point guard, he’s actually setting up the offense, calling out plays, actually weaving through pick and rolls to find open shooters. Rashard Lewis moving to the three has entirely different meanings than what Durant is doing. When Amar’e Stoudemire slides down and plays the five, it’s because the Knicks need a role filled. That’s not what’s happening with Durant. With Durant, it’s the exploration of his potential as a small forward, or more accurately, as a player. It is, to be honest, a stunningly similar situation to what LeBron has evolved into.

Both LeBron and Durant play small forward, but they’re so much more than that. Because they’re so talented, they receive the ball in a myriad of ways. High post. Wing. Top of the key. Off the cut. Low-post. All of these positions are classically maintained by positions other than the one they occupy. And that’s the genius component. LeBron is able to post a small forward defending him as a power forward. Durant is able to take a small forward off the dribble as if he were a point guard. It doesn’t mean that Durant actually is a point guard, anymore than it means that Kevin Durant is a small forward at this point. He may need to be surrounded by two bigger players, and two smaller players, but that still doesn’t make him a small forward.

What Durant is, is a franchise player and a scoring behemoth. There’s just not a lot he can’t do with his skillset. He’s not the distributor that James is and he never will b.e But what he can do is do what he does (score) in any conceivable fashion. He just has to learn how. And that’s what this is about. Take Chauncey Billups, for example. Billups is a point guard who doesn’t weave through traffic with the greatest of ease, doesn’t whip behind the back passes or fancy alley-oops all that often. But he’s reliable in what he does, and in addition to his perimeter shooting, floor leadership, and system management, Billups can back that smaller guard into the post and bury him from the block. It’s an element that so few of his defenders have. Durant is extrapolating this to its furthest degree. Force the other team’s small forward into a helpless position, be it on the perimeter or in the paint, and you’ve just forced the defense to alter their lineup specifically to stop you. And once that’s happened, as long as your teammates are competent (which Durant’s are), you’ve won the battle.

The biggest element in all this is less about what position Durant is playing, but more about how he’s playing his own. Kobe Bryant took lessons from Hakeem Olajuwon to learn how to better play in the post. Many players look to Mark Price specifically to shoot better. Durant already shoots well. What he’s doing now is learning to do those things in different ways. Again, we’re brought back to what was a very formative experience for Durant, the Lakers series. Durant got the ball in the three positions he most often did during the season. Top of the key, perimeter wing, and extended-elbow face-up. And it was in those places that Artest managed to detonate his abilities. He was limited, because as good as he was, he was only good in three ways, essentially. This new work will enable him to adapt to his opponent. If Durant is “running point” it doesn’t mean that the opponent’s point guard will spend much time on him. If they do it’s because they’ve switched to a huge lineup, not simply because Durant is doing the dribbling. It’ll still mostly be players who can physically match him.

And those players won’t react well when taken off the dribble as LeBron James was last Friday. They won’t be able to adjust to his  post-play or work on the offensive glass. Durant isn’t becoming anything else with this evolutionary position shifting. He’s simply becoming the best thing he can be. It’s a complete approach to the game. And if you’re not scared of that, you live in Oklahoma City.

It reflects a work ethic to deliver the best of what Durant is, not become something else entirely. In this way, Durant is the very polar opposite of Anthony Randolph. Randolph is still lauded as having the potential to be anything, take on any role, yet in reality he’s so incomplete and scattered he’s almost nothing identifiable. He’s nondescript in his prolific near-versatility. Durant is the opposite. He’s able to be what he is in every way, playset, and situation. And most importantly it changes the answer to the question that helped the Lakers beat the Thunder in April. The question was how do you stop Kevin Durant? And with his skillset at that time, there were a series of deliberate mechanisms Artest and the Lakers’ defense employed to limit the things he was good at. But now Durant is learning to be more than those things, even as he remains what he is: the league’s most devastating scorer.

So now the question is: “How do you stop Kevin Durant?”

And terrifyingly, the answer is getting closer and closer to: “You can’t. “

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