Westbrook, Harden lighten load for Durant
NEWARK, N.J. -- If it seems like Kevin Durant is a little bit less active in the Oklahoma City Thunder offense this season, it's because he is. But if it seems like he doesn't really mind, it's because he doesn't.
Durant, the league's two-time defending scoring champion, has seen his numbers dip slightly in the first month of the season. But the Thunder are off to the hottest start in the NBA, and many around the league have them penciled in as a favorite to win the competitive Western Conference.
To be clear, there's nothing wrong with Durant. He's young, healthy and one of the hottest stars in the league.
Instead, most of Durant's decreased productivity -- if you want to call it that -- stems from the emergence of Russell Westbrook and James Harden as leaders on the team, maturation Thunder head coach Scott Brooks is thrilled to see.
"Russell and James have developed a lot the last few years, and it's great seeing that growth and that development," Brooks said. "They work hard, and they deserve all the credit. They put the time into it, they spend quality time with our coaches and find ways to get better, and very rarely do they take days off. We have to force them to take days off."
Durant's role hasn't exactly been transformed with the emergence of Westbrook and Harden as viable No. 2 and No. 3 options. He's still an elite scorer and one of the game's best players. Rather, the fifth-year forward out of Texas has learned to share the spotlight while Westbrook and Harden have grown more accustomed to taking it away.
"They took a lot of pressure off of me," Durant said. "Those guys are producing, and I'm just playing alongside them. Sometimes you've got to let those guys go and do what they do best and kind of play off them a little bit."
Durant's evolution, while subtle, has been significant.
During the 2009-10 season, Durant averaged a career high when he attempted 20.3 shots per game -- tops in the NBA -- and his point totals reflected it. He averaged 30.1 points that year, edging out then-Cleveland Cavs forward LeBron James for his first career scoring title, and at 21 years old, Durant became the youngest scoring champion in NBA history.
Durant also led the league in a number of other offensive categories, including field goals, field goal attempts, free throws and free throw attempts, and he was the league leader in total minutes played (3,239). However, despite those gaudy statistics, the Thunder were eliminated by the Lakers in the first round of the playoffs after finishing the regular season 50-32.
Last year, during Durant's fourth NBA season, his numbers fell off for the first time in his young career, but they certainly didn't fall far -- just far enough to earn his team a few extra wins.
His 27.7 points per game average was still enough to win him his second straight scoring title. However, it was still the lowest average for a scoring champion since the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season, when Allen Iverson led the league with 26.8.
(To find another scoring champion who averaged fewer than 27.7 points per game over a full 82-game season, you'd have to go all the way back to the 1977-78 season, when George Gervin led the league at 27.2 points per night.)
Still, though, the Thunder fell short of their grand goal.
Oklahoma City won 55 regular-season games -- which, amazingly, only earned them the No. 4 seed in the West -- but they followed it up with a memorable run to the conference finals, where they lost 4-1 to the eventual champion Dallas Mavericks.
This year, Durant's numbers have taken yet another dip, albeit another small one. Through 16 games, he's averaged 26.1 points, and his 18.7 shots and 7.4 free throws per game are also three-year lows.
But at 13-3 after Saturday's 84-74 win over New Jersey, they're playing some of the best basketball in franchise history.
And as Durant's scoring average was making its gradual descent to its current level over the last two years, Harden and Westbrook were busy becoming household names -- not just in Oklahoma City, but around the country, and to some degree, around the world.
Two years ago, while Durant was securing his first scoring title, Harden was a 20-year-old rookie taking just 7.6 shots -- and making only 40.3 percent of them -- in just under 23 minutes per game. Last year, particularly after the team traded Jeff Green to Boston for Kendrick Perkins, Harden saw his minutes per game increase to 26.7, and with it went his shots (8.3), field goal percentage (43.6) and scoring (12.2).
This year, Harden is riding high, and his efforts thus far have some discussing him as a legitimate Sixth Man of the Year candidate.
He's playing nearly 30 minutes per game off the bench, and he's scoring a career-high 16.3 points per game -- largely a result of career highs in shooting percentage, three-point percentage and free throw percentage.
"(It's taken) hard work and time, just being consistent with my effort and putting in the hard work each and every day," Harden said. "Finally, I got a chance after the trade just to be more aggressive. Teammates and coaches are telling me to be more aggressive with the basketball, and that's what I've tried to do at the end of last year and coming into this year."
For his own part, Westbrook has seen his role change from that of a trusted sidekick to one of a legitimate NBA superstar. After averaging 15.3 and 16.1 points per game in his first two seasons, respectively, he saw his scoring skyrocket to 21.9 points on the way to his first-ever All-Star bid last year.
This season, he's taking a career-high 17.5 shots per game, just one shot less than Durant. And while his assist numbers have taken a significant dive, he's still a 20-point scorer who provides a safety net for the Thunder should Durant ever struggle. (Though he rarely does.)
"He's turned into a top-five point guard in this league and a top-10 player in this league," Durant said. "You look at the stuff he's doing, and it's kind of unreal. You look at the games he's played, some of his best games are like video game numbers."
As if he needed the confirmation that he's finally arrived, Westbrook was named earlier this week as one of the 20 finalists for the 2012 US Olympic team, which will compete in London this summer -- a huge statement for a tweener who some doubted would ever live up to his billing as a No. 4 overall pick.
"Russell came in as a guy that was real questionable in terms of whether he was going to be a point guard," Nets coach Avery Johnson said before Saturday's game. "People talked about him being a two-guard in a point guard's body. Whatever he is, he's a talented player. … And I guess now he's a little bit richer."
Oh yeah, the contract.
Earlier this week, the Thunder inked Westbrook to a five-year contract extension reportedly worth $80 million. The deal will keep him in a Thunder uniform until 2017. In addition, Durant's contract runs through the end of the 2016 season.
Harden is still on his rookie contract, and last summer, the team exercised its fourth-year option on the guard, keeping him in Oklahoma City at least through the end of next season. But one would presume they'll try to keep him around much, much longer.
Furthermore, Kendrick Perkins and Nick Collison are signed with the team through 2015, and Thabo Sefolosha is under contract until 2014.
That continuity in the Thunder locker room -- and the increasing familiarity among the team's developing star players -- lends itself to the kind of invaluable growth most teams can only dream of, and in the past, it has been a recipe for success.
"That's what good teams are about," Westbrook said. "Back in the day, Detroit had a team like that, and the Lakers had a group of guys that played with each other for a while, and I think we have a chance to do some of the same things because of the group we have. … It should be a good ride for us."
It also doesn't hurt that at the end of the day, Kevin Durant is still Kevin Durant, a player who can always take over for Oklahoma City when the occasion calls for it.
"If he has to score a lot of points on a particular night, he can do that," Brooks said. "He's a terrific scorer and he can score in many areas. He's a great shooter and he loves to get to the free throw line. He led the league in scoring the last two years. I don't know what's going to happen this year, but that's not a concern for him.
"He just wants to keep moving this team forward, and when you have better players, the scoring will probably go down. He's not going to average 13 (points per game)."
And if there's one thing we know about Durant, it's that he'll trade points for wins any day.
"No doubt, no doubt," Durant said. "It's all about winning. Winning cures all. It really does."
The Thunder are doing a lot of winning these days, and no one is questioning their methods regarding who scores what and when.
Durant, Westbrook and Harden have given the Thunder a bona fide three-headed monster -- a Big 3 many around the league would love to see meet up with that other Big 3 in the NBA Finals in June.