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Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving can and will exploit areas left unchecked, like the mid-range

Offensively, there really isn’t anything Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving can’t do. That includes exploiting certain areas of the court that opponents’ defensive schemes leave vulnerable. 

Boston Celtics v Golden State Warriors Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

Erik Spoelstra, the second longest-tenured coach in the league, a two-time NBA Champion (three if you count his ring as an assistant in 2006), is, undoubtedly, one of the more respected figures in the game of basketball.

Last off-season, he touched base on some of the “biggest trends” in the game today. He discussed how modern offenses operate, and how they emphasize looks beyond the arc, at the rim, and at the free-throw line...

So, if that is how teams are scheming offensively, and more importantly what defenses are trying to negate...what’s left open? Mid-range jumpers and post-ups.

That’s where multi-faceted scorers like Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant enter the fray. That’s where they take advantage of opposing defenses and their relevant-to-era but also moderately dogmatic and stubborn schemes. As noted a couple of weeks ago, just after the Nets got home from Orlando...

Now I want to be clear: I’m not advocating for Brooklyn to play a more traditional style of basketball—the type of play I grew up with during the early-to-mid 00s. However, just as Spoelstra alluded to earlier, there are offensive avenues that Durant and Irving can exploit with opposing teams’ primary focus on limiting more analytically-friendly shots.

Let’s take a brief walk down memory lane and revisit the 2016 NBA Playoffs. The year the prodigal son of Cleveland, LeBron James, delivered on his promise and brought the city their first championship since Lyndon B. Johnson was in office. (That’s a long, long time ago.) His partner-in-crime, Irving, wasn’t too shabby either. As the pressure seemingly mounted, so did his play. You already know of “The Shot,” so let’s take a holistic look at his shot profile that postseason.

Irving got to the rack with great familiarity, taking 107 field goal attempts in the “restricted” area during the Cavs’ run. He also took 116 three-point attempts (again, no surprise) but here’s the outlier: he took 149 “mid-range” shots, by far his favorite place on the court to operate that postseason. It was open for him and he made teams pay for their benevolence, to the tune of 47.7 percent shooting in those instances (Per NBA Stats).

Here, in a nice two-man game with LeBron James, Irving takes the handoff from James, springs off the pick-and-roll, and pulls the trigger from 16-feet out—recognizing James Johnson in drop coverage. If that shot is there coming off a screen, he won’t hesitate.

Sometimes, it simply doesn’t matter who is guarding Irving if he has it going that particular night. Matched up against Klay Thomspon, a player universally known for his defensive acumen, Irving creates just enough separation with his step-back and cans the contested jump shot in Thompson’s grill. It’s this level of shot creation, especially in crunch time, that highlights Irving’s brilliance on the hardwood.

Durant played in a more motion spread offense—given the team’s ball-handlers and capable shooters—devised by Steve Kerr in Golden State. Though he was also given a steady diet of isolation/post-ups which he used to torture opposing defenses with.

In his final season in Golden State, Durant averaged 1.04 points per possession on 2.5 post-ups per game—ranking him in the 77th percentile league-wide. In his final season in Boston, Irving ranked in the 91st percentile in post-ups. I’d like to also quickly mention that the Brooklyn Nets ranked dead last in the NBA in post-ups per game this past season (0.5). Yeah, it’s going to be a different offense moving forward.

With Durant’s unparalleled skill set at his size, there is only so much you can do against that turnaround shot. Richard Jefferson, you did all you could; we all respect you for it...

In this next clip, after the initial brush screen which allows Durant to get the switch he wants onto J.R.’s a wrap. He gets positioning down low, Draymond Green acknowledges the mismatch and throws him an entry pass that only KD can get. From there, Durant takes care of business.

Below is KD’s shot profile over the years, courtesy of Shane Young of Forbes. Tell me what stands out in particular.

In 48 playoff games with the Warriors, Durant shot 54.2 percent from the mid-range. Ridiculous.

And it’s just Kevin and Ky who can be counted on to embrace that mid-range. Listen to what Caris LeVert said after watching “The Last Dance,” the Michael Jordan documentary...

“During the quarantine, The Last Dance came out and everyone was looking at Michael Jordan. And I’m looking at his game and I’m like he’s shooting all mid-range,” LeVert said. “It’s crazy how much the NBA has changed. It’s like he’s making all his money in the midrange. I’m like I don’t have to do it all the way like that, but if I can get a couple of baskets from the mid-range, that’ll pump up my game so much more.”

Offensive diversity matters; arguably the most important trait a team can have in the postseason is malleability, the ability to form and reform. And as far as one end of the basketball floor is concerned, that’s what the Nets have. We don’t exactly know what Steve Nash’s offense is going to look like, but he definitely has the personnel to succeed.

“The skill is profound in our roster,” Nash said at his press conference. “And we want to put them in a position where they can express themselves and in a way where they can be very difficult to cover, make teams make a lot of decisions and potentially a lot of mistakes and make them difficult to guard.”

He also emphasized the importance of possessing a robust defensive identity, getting back in transition, and being “strong” in the halfcourt. Having an electric offense is only half the fight. If the Nets want to host a parade in Brooklyn in the immediate future, they’ll have to be a cohesive defensive unit.

“Stylistically, it’s to be determined. Obviously one of the most important things is to start on the defensive end, be strong in defensive transition and in the half-court,”

But as far as offensive versatility goes, there aren’t many players across the association as dynamic as Durant and Irving. They can score wherever, whenever, and however. And if this postseason has taught as anything, there is value in shot creators that can go out and give you a bucket in the direst of straits—*pssst* including from mid-range.

Because, as Kevin Durant, himself, puts it...sometimes it’s just the open shot...