Bill Russell is considered to be one of the best, if not the best, centers to ever play in the NBA. Standing at 6-foot-10, 220 pounds, whatever Russell lacked in size he made up for in desire, toughness and positioning
Oklahoma City's Kevin Durant, measuring 6-foot-9 and 215 pounds, played on the wing his whole life, but at the behest of new Thunder coach Scott Brooks, he has abandoned the shooting guard position. In his second season, 40 years after Russell won his 11th ring, there's another slight guy manning the middle.
"I think Kevin is so talented he can play every position ... other than the one," Brooks said. "He doesn't pass enough to be a one."
In Durant's first season, former Thunder head coach P.J. Carlesimo decided to play Durant at shooting guard instead of at small forward, the position Durant played in his lone season at the University of Texas.
Carlesimo said playing the two was where Durant was "best suited." It was hard to argue with him. The lanky Durant, often likened to all-time scoring great George Gervin, averaged 20.3 points per game and won Rookie of the Year honors.
When Brooks took over after Oklahoma City started the season 1-12, one of his first orders of business was to improve his team defensively. He started with his best player, Durant, moving him back to the three -- and sometimes the four and the five -- to engage him on the defensive end.
"He's very gifted offensively, but he is improving defensively," Brooks said. "We all see it. He's rebounding better, he's contesting shots, he's staying in front of the ball and those are [points of] emphasis I'll have with him game to game. I challenge him that way. I know he's going to score points for us, but we need him to really focus on being a lockdown defender. He has length and he can really do a great job of contesting shots. He has improved in that area."
Whether the shift to forward did the trick, or whether Durant's self described "nervousness" to improve in his second season was the reason, the 20-year-old's numbers are up across the board. He's scoring 24.7 point per game (up from 20.3) on 46.8 percent shooting (up from 43.0), 42.2 percent from three (up from 28.8) and he's averaging 6.6 rebounds per game (up from 4.4).
"I don't think I'll ever go back to the two again," Durant said.
"I think Scotty is letting us experiment some. He moves me to the four and even the five sometimes ... It's been tough trying to move stronger guys out [of the paint], obviously, but I think if I just use my length it makes up for a lot. I got to continue to do that and also continue to add muscle."
Another advantage to Durant playing down low is that when he grabs a defensive rebound, he has the ball-handling ability to dribble the ball up the court to set up the Thunder's offense. On Friday, Durant scored a career-high 46 points to go with a career-high 15 rebounds in a loss to the Clippers. Los Angeles was missing Marcus Camby, Chris Kaman and Zach Randolph because of injury, so, sure enough, Durant saw a lot of time playing the four alongside Nick Collison and logged some minutes at center when Collison went to the bench.
Durant's numbers have created some All-Star buzz. He's trying to downplay it.
"I just want to get better as a team, just pile up win after win every night. Hopefully we can do that. The All-Star situation, I'll let that take care of itself," he said. "God has a plan for me, I think, and if the All-Star Game's not this year, hopefully it's years to come. I'm just excited about what this team has in store."