When you hear "security blanket" within a sports context, you
might think of a tight end in football.
A quarterback has his top target. A speed demon on the outside
like Tyreek Hill; a route technician like Stefon Diggs; a YAC
(yards after catch) machine like AJ Brown; a "Yes" build like NFL
Offensive Player of the Year Justin Jefferson.
But then, there's the check. Your hot read. Your
if-all-else-fails option if the primary or even secondary look
isn't there. That guy can be your running back, but my mind goes to
the tight end. Releasing to the flat in play action. Sitting down
in the middle of the zone for the eight yards you need on
In all the ways I thought about breaking down Kevin Durant's fit
with the Phoenix Suns, whenever he makes his return following an
MCL sprain, I kept coming back to the tight-end angle.
Durant is Phoenix's very-large, very-skilled,
frankly-overqualified security blanket.
(Is the upcoming Super Bowl, particularly the participation of
the Philadelphia Eagles, a factor in why I landed on a football
analogy? Who's to say, really. But we rally on, friends.)
If we're extending the analogy, it's worth reiterating that
Durant is overqualified for this. He is more George Kittle or
Travis Kelce than he is [insert run-of-the-mill possession tight
end here]. You can build the boat around Durant much like you can
with those two.
On the field, their teams enjoy deploying them all over the
place. On the line, split out wide, in the slot. Their presence
alone forces the defense into checks; demands a level of attention
that is both necessary and uncomfortable in light of the talent
Durant will be moved all over the chess board, used in a
multitude of ways.
Directly, he can operate as the screener or ball-handler in
pick-and-rolls. He will be a hub in the middle of the floor, as
part of their Elbow sets — read a detailed breakdown here — or the recipient of
clear-outs following an off-ball screen.
I can't emphasize how important Durant's screen work will be,
and how seamless of a fit he'll be in the Suns' offense because of
His off-ball work is the stuff of legends. Guys his size
shouldn't be able to navigate traffic the way he does. Throughout
his career — in Seattle (RIP), Oklahoma City, Golden State and
Brooklyn — Durant has made a living flying off screens and raising
up for easy (for him) ones.
Pick-and-rolls involving Durant, on either side, have been
dominant. Possessions featuring a Durant-led pick-and-roll are
generating 1.12 points per possession (PPP) this season, which
ranks second behind Luka Doncic (1.123 PPP) among 76 players who
have received at least 500 on-ball picks this year, per Second
With Durant as a screener in pick-and-roll, that mark
drops to 1.09 PPP, which is "only" a top-10 mark in the NBA among
150 players who have set at least 200 picks. A majority of those
were screens set in the half-court, with the purpose of forcing a
mismatch before going one-on-one.
A fun wrinkle to keep an eye on with Durant: drag screens in
early offense or transition, especially when set for Chris
Mikal Bridges would set-and-slip those suckers as a way to draw
the eyes of defenders. If it was played poorly enough, Paul (or
Devin Booker) could slip a pass to Bridges for a paint touch —
something the Suns don't generate all that much. This
is a team that has ranked 30th, 30th and 29th (this
year) in rim rate during the Paul Era.
Durant set them in Brooklyn, but not only were those instances
less frequent, he'd also fade to the perimeter or simply cut his
path short to set up a mid-post touch. Much like the screens set in
half-court situations, he'd operate in a way to help set up his
Here's an example from Bridges. He doesn't get the ball on this
rep, but peep his path after the slip, how open he is, and the
attention he draws from the weakside corner defender because of it.
This is the threat those screens can pose.
And now here's a rep from Durant. Again, it's less about the
result and more about Durant's ideal pattern and how he reacts to
It'll be a fun dichotomy to keep track of. On one hand, you
could see even more of a dip in paint pressure with Durant in the
fold. If those slips turn into isolations, the pace could also drop
further; Per Inpredictable, the Suns rank
19th in seconds per possession (14.6), and that falls to 26th
(11.6) on trips following a defensive rebound.
On the other hand, the degree of difficulty may be lowered. Paul
or Booker hitting Bridges on those slips are impressive. Fruitful,
even. You still have to wait for the window, get the right angle
and hit Bridges in the pocket — early enough to where Bridges has
time to gather the pass and make a decision, but not too early
where the defense has time to load up in front of him.
With Durant, you have a 7-foot target — a security blanket, if
you will — to toss the ball to before getting the heck out of the
way. During his Nets tenure, possessions featuring a Durant
isolation generated 1.1 PPP, putting him in a virtual tie with
Doncic. On post-ups, he was even more effective (1.13
Beyond that, think about how teams have tried to stifle the
ball-screen brilliance of Booker and Paul over the past two
seasons. I've written about Booker's need for
growth when seeing traps. Paul pick-and-rolls are being switched at
a higher rate than they've ever been, per Second Spectrum — part of
why Paul has passed the ball on a career-high 59.1% of his PnRs
Can you afford to trap Booker if Durant is the screener? Do you
want to switch Paul-Durant ball screens?
On the Paul front, I think about how teams have felt
increasingly comfortable putting size — sometimes 4s — on Paul so
they can switch the Paul-Ayton pick-and-roll. The Warriors have
thrown Draymond Green and Andrew Wiggins at him. Ben Simmons got
the Paul assignment earlier in the week.
What does that gambit look like with Durant in the
Also, Durant doesn't just provide safety on the offensive
Defensively, Durant is — or I guess, "was" before the injury —
arguably in the midst of his best defensive season. He's challenging more shots at the
rim than he ever has, holding opponents to roughly 56% shooting
inside, and blocking 1.5 shots per game to boot.
Among the 50 players to defend as many isolations as Durant has
this season (125), only six of them — headlined by OG Anunoby (0.81
PPP allowed) and Patrick Williams (0.69 PPP) — have been stingier
than Durant (0.88 PPP), per Second Spectrum.
The amount of ground Durant covers is so important to this
group. While not the perimeter defender Bridges is, he can
approximate some of the off-ball danger he poses. Durant's arms are
hard to avoid when sinking down to help on a drive; they're even
harder to avoid when attempting a shot inside.
Oddly enough, the Suns may have gotten a little worse on the
perimeter while becoming better equipped to deal
with some of the mismatch hunting Paul has dealt with the past
couple of seasons. At the very least, they can afford to get more
Think back to the second-round loss the Suns suffered at the
hands of the Dallas Mavericks last year. Bridges got the primary
assignment on Doncic, but didn't guard him as long as he probably
could've. The Suns would sometimes switch Bridges out of the
assignment when Doncic called for a screen, only to have Bridges
zone up and provide (the illusion of) relief afterwards.
There are subtleties to keep in mind here. The Mavs didn't just
go after Paul; they made sure Bridges had to navigate a screen
first. Throwing him off balance early made it easier for him to
concede the switch later.
Bridges was navigating that screen because 1) he's really
freaking good but 2) Ayton was in a deep drop. Of the 150 instances
Ayton was involved in a Doncic-led pick-and-roll, he hedged or
blitzed on five of them, per Second Spectrum. Five! The switch
count was barely above 20.
And this is what interests me about the Durant move: The Suns
may be willing to ramp up the pressure in a series like this,
against mismatch hunting like that, with Durant capable of
patrolling a back-line.
It could be Ayton playing closer to the level or blitzing more
often. It could be as simple as the help defenders themselves —
namely the defender one pass away from a Doncic or Kawhi Leonard
isolation — getting more aggressive, knowing they've got reliable
backup behind them.
That's certainly the case through the lens of rim protection,
but it also tracks in terms of rebounding. The Suns should be
better at it with Torrey Craig and Durant on the floor more than
the Bridges-Craig duo. That's important considering they've fallen
to 22nd in defensive rebound rate this season.
Durant is one of the most versatile superstars the NBA has ever
seen. An elite scorer. Elite shooter. Opportunistic playmaker. Post
hub. Isolation specialist. A walking mismatch. A 7-foot-0 backspace
button on the defensive end.
You simply can't cover him. But most importantly for the Suns,
Durant provides so much cover for their roster shortcomings.