The Mobley/Durant Paradox

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Updated: April 13, 2022
durant size

It is hard to imagine that a generational talent and top-15-player all-time could somehow be underrated in any of the facets of his repertoire. But due to his battered body and slim frame, Kevin Durant’s presence in the paint is something that he keeps contained for the moments that matter most. Ironically, due to his height at 7-foot, KD rarely is classified as a small-ball 5, and yet due to his lack of width, he is never seen as a center. Some of this was self-inflicted, with labeling himself as a 6’9” small forward coming out of the draft hoping not to get piled in with the rest of the traditional 7-footers. When observing Durant’s overall defensive presence throughout the regular season, it leaves the viewer with much to be desired—especially when considering he is unanimously seen as a top-tier wing all time.

However, when he flips the switch, as we saw in the first play-in game of the season in Brooklyn against Cleveland, his length as a rim protector causes a serious problem for incoming traffic by driving guards and wings. Too often players are designated by offensive skill set and their defensive positioning gravitates towards a player’s size. Although Durant had the height coming into the league, he also had the reputation of being weak as his pre-draft workouts infamously mocked his non-existent upper body strength. He entered the league in an era that stands quite recent in years, yet styles of play and ideologies on how to utilize size, now stand worlds apart. That fact cannot be driven home harder than by the draft order in his class, and how somehow Durant was selected 2nd behind a traditional 7-footer.

Imagine an alternate universe, where the Slim Reaper was drafted in 2021—in an age and era where he would never sell himself 3 inches short. At 7-foot with handle and a wetter lethal from all corners of the court, his skill set would be defined not by assumed limitations but instead would be experimented with to see their true ceiling on both ends of the floor. The primary reason Durant labeled himself as a 6’9” small forward was to solidify the style of scorer he desired to become in the NBA. And history has shown in his well-decorated career that he is an elite wing not a big on the offensive end. However, once this truth was established it bled over to the defensive end of the floor. He became a wing defender. And since he has always been above average at this position on defense, little discussion manifested around this designation.

However, if he had come into the league in this current 2021 class, what would have been his ceiling as a 4/5? Only recently has the attribute of bigs being able to guard out at the perimeter become such a premium in the era of mismatches and switch all-defensive schemes.

With Evan Mobley, we see the exact opposite situation with the Durant experience. Mobley, despite being the clear-cut best big in the draft went 3rd, behind a point guard and a 2-guard. Despite him being a clear 7-footer who looks like he was designed in a lab for rim protection, Mobley was drafted by the Cleveland Cavilers who recently acquired Jarrett Allen. In nearly any other situation not only in this year but across generations, Mobley would have been drafted as a team’s starting 5. Because of Jarrett Allen’s age at 24 and him being one of the league’s already established best shot blockers, the Cavs decided to experiment with a twin tower setup.

However, unlike most of the twin tower lineups that have come before this, it has been Mobley’s ability to cover 1-5 and his above-average defense not only at the rim but out on the perimeter that has been the most pleasant shock across the league as a 19-year-old rookie. His situation forced him into a position that allowed the beginnings of a future defensive player of the year to blossom.

Now just like Mobley is not the scorer Durant was coming out of Texas, KD was and not the rim protector Evan is in this most impressive rookie season. However, if Durant would’ve entered the league in the post-death-lineup era, would he not have been groomed to be a roving Giannis-like rim protector? In this scenario, he would still be paired with bigs for the majority of regular-season minutes, but there is a world where he could’ve been developed into the greatest small-ball-5 in the history of the league.

In the modern era of positionless basketball, every decision of excess in size or an advantage in speed and space comes at an advantage and a cost. It’s true, if an Embiid or Jokic bangs on the slight shoulders and skinny legs of KD for four quarters there wouldn’t be much left of him. But in the modern era, 4th quarters are not dictated by the offensive presence in the post but by guard and wing scorers, often in isolation. The deficiency of Durant’s size inside on the block is heavily outweighed by how badly he can abuse any traditional big on the perimeter.

Although this fairytale is one of many that could be created by moving a player from era to era it is not entirely a mythical what-if situation, as we saw flashes of it this season and in the last two seasons with Durant in Oakland. The current tandem of the slim-twin-towers of Nick Clackson and Kevin Durant creates a surplus of rim protection despite neither of them being adequate defenders against traditional giants on the block. The one thing that is missing though, the thing Kevin had in spades in Golden State, is other plus wing-defenders. Currently, Durant is the Nets’ best wing defender. It is why the fate of Brooklyn lies in the hands of Ben Simmons and his elite defense of presence. The Nets without a doubt always have a puncher’s chance in every 7-game series they step into. It simply speaks to the greatness of the Slim Reaper. However, this Boston squad is not the Cleveland Cavaliers and Jason Tatum’s size and skill set are leaps and bounds above anyone on the Cavs’ roster. Durant’s role on the defensive end in crunch time as a 4/5 will only fully be realized in these playoffs if it is paired with Simmons covering their opponent’s best player beyond the arc. 

 

 

 

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