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3 Hot Takes from Kevin Durant’s Phoenix Suns Debut

Kevin Durant

Kevin DurantJesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Just under a month after the Phoenix Suns traded for Kevin Durant, he debuted for his new team in a 105-91 road victory over the lowly, rebuilding and LaMelo Ball-less Charlotte Hornets.

Given the opponent and tiny sample size, there may not be a ton to take away from the action, but the game did offer some hints of what may be on the way.

And we’re here to expand those into some full-fledged hot takes.

First, KD will have as much of an impact on defense as he will on offense, where we probably know (or at least can guess) what he’ll bring.

Phoenix already had plenty of weapons, and before Devin Booker’s first injury absence, the Suns were second in the league in points per 100 possessions. The trade, which sent Mikal Bridges to the Brooklyn Nets, probably cost them more on the other end. That means Durant will have to step up and fill that role, and he’s capable of doing so.

Second, Durant’s two-way impact and the manageable gap between Phoenix and third place in the West means the Suns have a chance to finish the season there. And in the spirit of hot takes, we’ll make the case that that will actually happen.

And finally, despite the title-caliber ceiling this team now has, it’s still susceptible to a first-round exit, even if it does ascend to third place.


KD Will Have Just as Much Impact on Defense as Offense

Kevin Durant

Kevin DurantJesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Durant’s plus-13 was the high among Suns starters on Wednesday, and he only needed 26 minutes to get to that mark.

Even coming off an extended absence with a knee injury, it was clear that his fluidity and range on defense had a lot to do with that plus-minus.

Terry Rozier, Kelly Oubre Jr. and Gordon Hayward all shot worse than 50 percent from the field against Phoenix. And while Durant obviously didn’t directly defend those three for all those shots, his length makes him as much or more of a connector than Bridges.

Durant’s wingspan is a whopping 7’5″, four inches longer than Bridges‘. And that makes him a potential menace on the perimeter, something Booker talked about shortly after the trade.

Duane Rankin @DuaneRankin

“I’d say he’s one of the best defenders in the game also. Tough to score on. I’ve played 1-on-1 versus him. He likes to play in that pinch post and elbow area and he has a 7-3 wing span.”

Devin Booker on Kevin Durant’s defense. #Suns pic.twitter.com/GFFoPaphyD

That size also means Durant opens up some lineup possibilities that Bridges didn’t. Deandre Ayton could be one of the game’s bigger X-factors from now to the end of the season, but being able to match the small-ball lineups that teams like the Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Clippers roll out in the playoffs might be just as important.

Durant had two blocks on Tuesday. And over the course of Bridges’ career, KD’s block percentage is almost double Bridges’ mark. He’s not Rudy Gobert (or, perhaps, a more appropriate reference for this season, Walker Kessler), but Durant can at least give you a semblance of rim protection as a small-ball 5.

You never hear much about it, but KD has always been a decent defensive rebounder for a small forward, too. Over the last five years, he’s averaged 6.6 defensive rebounds per 75 possessions.

His offense has understandably gotten more attention throughout his career, but Phoenix needs Durant to defend. And the very early returns suggest he wants to answer that call.


Phoenix Getting to Third Place

Kevin Durant and Devin Booker

Kevin Durant and Devin BookerKent Smith/NBAE via Getty Images

Yes, Durant’s impact on the other end of the floor is probably easier to predict.

KD is fourth in NBA history in career points per game and fifth in career offensive box plus/minus (“BPM is a basketball box score-based metric that estimates a basketball player’s contribution to the team when that player is on the court,” according to Basketball Reference). He’s obviously going to help there, but let’s talk about it for a minute anyway.

Durant hit six twos outside the paint against Charlotte and one from right inside the free-throw line. Adding his mid-range prowess to that of Booker’s and Chris Paul’s is unfair. And having that many guys who like to work inside the three-point line probably won’t cramp things up, either.

Durant is a veteran of the lightyears-era Warriors, where spacing was both preached and practiced. He won’t get in the way. On the contrary, his gravity at the three-point line will make the pick-and-roll games of CP3 and Booker even easier.

Steve Jones Jr. @stevejones20

The spacing of Durant is really going to open things up. It’s a handoff for Devin Booker, Durant is on the left wing. Booker comes off, defense in a drop, empty corner and there is *no* nail help off KD. pic.twitter.com/rXB5MbzPd1

Possessions like that, when Durant doesn’t have his hands on the ball much (or at all), won’t give him the blues, either. Despite being one of the most dynamic scorers in basketball history, KD is also one of the most adaptable stars we’ve ever seen.

It worked instantly in Golden State because Durant’s dominance isn’t synonymous with ball-dominance. He knows how to play off ball-handlers like Paul and Booker, makes timely cuts and is a lethal catch-and-shoot option.

Tuesday was a perfect example. KD was mostly a finisher. His buckets rarely required more than a dribble or two, and he went 10-of-15 from the field. For him, that’s just sort of a ho-hum night, but it got the Suns 23 points.

Durant can back into totals Bridges had to work for, and he’ll often pull the opposition’s top perimeter defender from Booker.

That means Phoenix should score in waves, win plenty of shootouts and push the Sacramento Kings for third place in the West.

Now, Sacramento is better than a lot of people are willing to admit. The Los Angeles Lakers “targeting” them for a first-round matchup feels like an obvious “be careful what you wish for” scenario. The Kings’ three-game lead over the Suns is meaningful, too.

But Sacramento has the second-hardest remaining strength schedule in the West, and it faces the Suns two more times this season. By the time those matchups happen, Phoenix’s new-look offense will have a little seasoning under its belt.

And that’ll be enough to close the gap.


A First-Round Exit Is Still Possible

Kevin Durant

Kevin DurantJesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Now, having said all that, the notion that the Suns are now the obvious favorite in the West is an overreaction.

After an admittedly stellar top four players, this roster is largely unproven. If Cameron Payne, Torrey Craig or Josh Okogie are forced into significant playoff roles, things could get dicey quickly.

And with a 37-year-old point guard and 34-year-old forward who both have robust injury histories in the starting five, that’s a real possibility.

But even if Phoenix can stay relatively healthy, it doesn’t figure to face a doormat in the first round.

If the New Orleans Pelicans get Zion Williamson back, they could suddenly be dangerous. If Luka Dončić and Kyrie Irving figure out how to play with each other, the Dallas Mavericks could resurrect the playoff demons that knocked the Suns out last year. Healthy versions of the Warriors and Clippers could win the championship.

With how tightly packed the middle of the West is right now, Phoenix could end up facing any of those teams in the first round.

Trading for Durant kicked open a title window that seemed to be closing, but the parity-packed NBA of 2022-23 means there’s no way to guarantee it will stay open for long.

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