What We Learned from Kevin Durant’s First Game with the Phoenix Suns

Kevin Durant made his debut for the Phoenix Suns little under a month after being traded to the franchise. His first game saw them win 105-91 on the road against the LaMelo Ball-less Charlotte Hornets, who were in the midst of a rebuild.

The opponent and small sample size mean that there may not be much to learn from the game, although there were some promising signs.

Here, we’ll develop those into full-fledged controversial opinions.

To begin, KD will be just as influential on defense as he is on attack, where we can probably anticipate his contributions.

Before Devin Booker’s initial injury absence, the Suns were second in the NBA in points per 100 possessions despite having a plethora of other weapons. They probably paid more in the long run for the transaction that sent Mikal Bridges to the Brooklyn Nets. This calls for Durant to assume leadership responsibilities, and he is ready to the task.

Second, Phoenix has a shot of finishing the season in third place in the West because to Durant’s two-way influence and the very small distance between them and fourth place. Hot-take style, we’ll argue that it will, too.

However, even if this squad manages to climb all the way to third place, they still risk being eliminated in the first round.

KD’s Effect on Defense Will Be Equal to His Effect on Offensive

kevin durant suns defense

On Wednesday, Durant led all Phoenix starters with a plus-13 rating, and he did so in only 26 minutes of action.

His fluidity and range on defense were a major factor in his plus-minus even after he returned from a lengthy layoff due to a knee ailment.

Against the Suns, Terry Rozier, Kelly Oubre Jr., and Gordon Hayward combined to shoot below 50% from the field. Even if Durant wasn’t in the immediate vicinity of those three players for every one of those shots, he is just as much, if not more, of a connector as Bridges is due to his height and length.

The massive 7’5″ wingspan of Durant is four inches more than that of Bridges. Booker mentioned him as a possible perimeter threat soon after the move.

Due of his size, Durant provides more options for the starting lineup than Bridges did. While Deandre Ayton has the potential to be a major wild card for the rest of the season, the ability to counter the small-ball lineups that elite teams like the Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Clippers use might be just as crucial come playoff time.

Yesterday, Durant blocked two shots. Also, KD’s career block % is nearly double that of Bridges’. As a small-ball 5, Durant can provide some rim protection, but he is no Rudy Gobert (or, maybe, a more applicable parallel for this season, Walker Kessler).

Although though it is rarely mentioned, KD has also always been a good defensive rebounder for a small forward. He has averaged 6.6 defensive rebounds per 75 possessions over the past five years.

Phoenix needs Durant to defend, which has earned less attention than his offense. Very preliminary data suggests he is interested in responding to the invitation.

An Unexpected Third-Place Finish for Phoenix with Kevin Durant

There’s little doubt that Durant’s effect on the opposite end of the court is more predictable.

Over his career, KD is fifth all-time in offensive box plus/minus and fourth all-time in points per game (“BPM is a basketball box score-based stat that evaluates a player’s value to the team when that player is on the floor,” per Basketball Reference). Let’s discuss it for a second, even though it’s clear that he’ll be able to assist there.

Against Charlotte, Durant made six shots from beyond the arc and one from just inside the free throw line. Adding his mid-range prowess to that of Booker’s and Chris Paul’s is unjust. Having so many players that thrive within the paint should not hinder their ability to shoot from deep.

Durant played for the Warriors back in their “lightyears” period, when the team’s philosophy emphasized and prioritized player space. His presence won’t be a hindrance. Instead, his weight at the three-point line will facilitate CP3 and Booker’s pick-and-roll offense.

Those possessions, in which Durant doesn’t touch the ball much (or at all), won’t make him sad, either. KD is not only very versatile, but also one of the most exciting scorers in NBA history.

Because Durant’s dominance does not equate to ball-dominance, this strategy was an instant hit with the Warriors. He can effectively play off ball handlers like Paul and Booker, is a dangerous catch-and-shoot threat, and makes quick cutbacks.

The events of last Tuesday were a great illustration. For the most part, KD played the role of a scorer. Ten of his fifteen field goal attempts were successful and he scored without using more than a few of dribbles. Although it was a somewhat unremarkable night from his perspective, the Suns scored 23 points thanks to him.

And because of his ability to draw the best perimeter defender away from Booker, Durant can help offset Bridges’ hard work in racking up those numbers.

It means the Suns will score in bunches, dominate in shootouts, and challenge the Kings for third place in the Western Conference.

Nowadays, Sacramento is far superior than what many would have you believe. Be cautious what you wish for, because the Los Angeles Lakers seem to be “seeking” them for a first-round clash. It’s hardly insignificant that the Kings lead the Suns by three games.

Yet, the Kings still have to play the Suns twice this season, making their remaining schedule the second toughest in the West. Phoenix’s revamped offense will have had some game experience by the time those matches occur.

And that will be the deciding factor.

An Early Exit is Still Possible

With that out of the way, it would be a mistake to assume the Suns are the clear cut favorite in the West after all this.

With the exception of the first four starters (who are, without a doubt, excellent), this team is filled with unknown quantities. We might be in for some trouble if Cameron Payne, Torrey Craig, or Josh Okogie are thrust into major postseason roles.

That’s a real possibility when your starting five includes a 37-year-old point guard and a 34-year-old forward with a long history of injuries.

But, even if Phoenix maintains reasonable health, it is unlikely to meet a pushover opponent in the first round.

When Zion Williamson returns for the New Orleans Pelicans, they may become a formidable opponent. The Phoenix Suns were eliminated from the playoffs last season, but the Dallas Mavericks have a chance to avenge themselves if Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving can learn to play well together. If the Warriors and Clippers could get their injured players back in shape, they may be unbeatable.

With how close together the center of the Western Conference currently sits, Phoenix could potentially face any of those teams in the first round.

Although acquiring Durant reopened a title window that had been narrowing, it is impossible to know how long it will remain open in the very competitive NBA of 2022–23. Find out more news and updates only here.

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