Kevin Durant excels in Phoenix Suns debut
Kevin Durant is a master of disguise who is already blending in seamlessly with the Phoenix Suns. Not many teams can do the DMX Challenge and present as many looks as the Suns can with their new wing roaming the floor. Most guys take a second to re-integrate into an offense or to heal from an MCL sprain or, y’know, a torn Achilles. Durant just leaps back into his work uniform and acts like he’s always been there. The same happened in his debut as a member of the Phoenix Suns.
Phoenix couldn’t be more different than Brooklyn, but this is the fourth time Durant’s moved around in his career. He’s not wed to a city, a coach, an offensive scheme, a fanbase, or even a family. He’s the perfect superstar to live the trucker life.
In his new NBA residence, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Durant makes it all swell though. Thursday night’s debut in a 105-91 victory over the Charlotte Hornets was a testament to Durant’s versatility.
Chris Paul and Devin Booker had to be strategic with their jabs before, attacking the mid-range, probing the paint, operating in the pick-and-roll, and keeping the gears greased on head coach Monty Williams’ offense. En route to a nimble 23 points in 27 minutes, Durant demonstrated how his considerable length and versatility on both sides should give the Suns a knockout punch they’ve been missing.
Since 2020, Phoenix has countered the trend towards 4-out offenses that relied too heavily on the 3-point shooting by becoming the NBA’s best mid-range shooting team and deploying a true big. Durant is the king of the mid-range in the contemporary NBA. This season, he’s second league-wide in mid-range attempts, and first in efficiency over his closest peers by approximately seven percentage points.
For years, Paul was the most prolific mid-range scoring point guard in the league, Booker has become elite from that space between the paint and arc in his own right, therefore the Suns will play those strengths. There were 18 teams in action Wednesday night and Durant attempted more mid-range jumpers than anyone in The Association. Booker attempted the third-most. That small sample size is what we should expect to see for the remainder of their season.
Durant? In a team-based offense?
The move to Phoenix also means the end of his antisocial offensive tendencies. Only the Spurs and Warriors ran isolations less frequently than Phoenix did this season. Meanwhile, Durant has grown accustomed to one of the NBA’s most iso-heavy offenses with the Nets. Instead, Phoenix will lean into getting Durant better space for his pull-up jumper and, occasionally, step aside for him to take some mismatched defender’s soul.
The division of labor will be more equally spaced out. Watching Paul set the menu as Durant and Booker cook is a sight to see after years of watching KD make water and cereal in Brooklyn. Paul disappeared into the foreground on Wednesday night, scoring only two points, but dished 11 assists.
Defensively, Durant’s length gave the Hornets fits in stretches. As the secondary rim supporter, Durant’s presence allowed Monty Williams to have Deandre Ayton play more aggressively on pick-and-rolls. On two separate possessions, Durant reached up to contest Charlotte center Mark Williams and his 7-foot-7 wingspan without Ayton there in support, including one sequence in which Booker leaked out on the fast break, then lobbed a skip pass to Durant on the left wing. Durant rose up and found the bottom of the net from distance.
Durant and Paul aren’t going to be best friends off the court on the level he and Kyrie Irving were, but they’ll be better colleagues. While Durant and Paul ran pick-and-rolls on one side of the floor, teammates on the weak side didn’t just gawk. On several occasions, Booker ran off of multiple screens and wasn’t even the secondary focal point of the defense in those minutes if Durant was running some action on the other side of the court. However, that still freed him for easier buckets.
With Durant out, Booker ordered takeout, mincing the Hornets for 37 points on 15-of-26 shooting and generating seven assists of his own. Booker and his PNR partner Ayton got busy as well. It’s going to be maddening defending them and just as tough to find a mismatch on switches to take advantage of.
Staggering Booker and Durant’s minutes is where the Suns found their sweet sauce. Durant started running with the reserves for most of his shifts and never looked back, earning a plus-13 plus-minus.
Granted, Durant got to settle in against a Hornets team down LaMelo Ball and disarming for the upcoming draft lottery’s Wemby Wars. However, they clearly found a synergy that Luka and Kyrie have not been able to unlock in Dallas. In no time at all, the Suns should begin recapturing the attention economy and resemble the juggernaut that had the NBA’s best record a year ago.