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How Kevin Durant provides cover for the Phoenix Suns

How Kevin Durant provides cover for the Phoenix Suns

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 third-and-six. 

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 around them.

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 it.

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 Spectrum.

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 Paul.

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 jumper. 

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 openings.

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 PPP). 

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 this year.

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 fold? 

Also, Durant doesn't just provide safety on the offensive end. 

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 aggressive.

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.

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