On the day after the Heat won their 27th game in a row, Kevin Durant sat in a leather terminal chair next to a practice court and pointed toward the 90-degree angle at the upper-right corner of the key that represents the elbow. "See that spot," Durant said. "I used to shoot 38, 39 percent from there off the catch coming around pin-down screens." He paused for emphasis. "I'm up to 45, 46 percent now." Durant wore the satisfied expression of an MIT undergrad solving a partial differential equation. You could find dozens of basic or advanced statistics that attest to Durant's brilliance this season—starting with the obvious, that he became only the seventh player ever to exceed 50% shooting from the field, 40% from three-point range and 90% from the free throw line—but his preferred metric is far simpler. He wants what Miami has, and he's going to seize it one meticulously selected elbow jumper at a time.
The NBA's analytical revolution has been confined mainly to front offices. Numbers are dispensed to coaches, but rarely do they trickle down to players. Not many are interested, and of those who are, few can apply what they've learned mid-possession. Even the most stat-conscious general manager wouldn't want a point guard elevating for an open jumper on the left wing and thinking, Oh no, I only shoot 38% here. But Durant has hired his own analytics expert. He tailors workouts to remedy numerical imbalances. He harps on efficiency more than a Prius dealer. To Durant, basketball is an orchard, and every shot an apple. "Let's say you've got 40 apples on your tree," Durant explains. "I could eat about 30 of them, but I've begun limiting myself to 15 or 16. Let's take the wide-open three and the post-up at the nail. Those are good apples. Let's throw out the pull-up three in transition and the step-back fadeaway. Those are rotten apples. The three at the top of the circle—that's an in-between apple. We only want the very best on the tree."
The Thunder did not win 27 straight games. They did not compile the best record. Durant will not capture the MVP award. All he and his teammates did was amass a season that defies comparison as well as arithmetic. They scored more points per game than last season even though they traded James Harden, who finished the season fifth in the NBA in scoring, five days before the opener. They led the league in free throws even though Harden gets to the line more than anybody. They posted the top point differential since the 2007--08 Celtics, improving in virtually every relevant category, including winning percentage. Their uptick makes no sense unless Durant was afforded more shots in Harden's absence, but the opposite occurred. He attempted the fewest field goals per 36 minutes of his career. He didn't even take the most shots on his team, trailing point guard Russell Westbrook, and he seemed almost proud that his 28.1 points per game weren't enough to earn the scoring title for the fourth consecutive year. "He knows he can score," says Thunder coach Scott Brooks. "He's trying to score smarter."
Durant is lifting Oklahoma City as never before, with pocket passes instead of pull-ups, crossovers instead of fadeaways. He remains the most prolific marksman alive, unfurling his impossibly long arms to heights no perimeter defender can reach, but he has become more than a gunner. He set career marks in efficiency rating, assists and every newfangled form of shooting percentage. "Now he's helping the whole team," says 76ers point guard Royal Ivey, who spent the past two seasons with the Thunder. "Now he's a complete player." The Thunder are better because Durant is better. Of course, the Heat will be favored to repeat as champions, and deservedly so. But Oklahoma City has been undercutting conventional wisdom for six months.
NBA history is littered with stars who languish in another's shadow, notably Karl Malone, Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing and Reggie Miller through the Michael Jordan reign. Oklahoma City lost to Miami in the Finals last June, and Durant will surely be runner-up to LeBron James in the MVP balloting again. Durant is only 24 and is as respectful of James as a rival can be, but he's nobody's bridesmaid. "I've been second my whole life," Durant says. "I was the second-best player in high school. I was the second pick in the draft. I've been second in the MVP voting three times. I came in second in the Finals. I'm tired of being second. I'm not going to settle for that. I'm done with it."
Justin Zormelo doesn't have a formal title. He is part personal trainer and part shot doctor, part video analyst and part advance scout. "He's a stat geek," Durant says, expanding the job description. Zormelo sits in section 104 of Oklahoma City's Chesapeake Energy Arena, with an iPad that tells him in real time what percentage Durant is shooting from the left corner and how many points per possession he is generating on post-ups. After games, he takes the iPad to Durant's house or hotel room and they watch clips of every play. Zormelo loads the footage onto Durant's computer in case he wants to see it again. "If I miss a lot of corner threes, that's what I work on the next morning before practice," Durant says. "If I'm not effective from the elbow in the post, I work on that." Zormelo keeps a journal of their sessions and has already filled two notebooks this season. Last year Zormelo noticed that Durant was more accurate from the left side of the court than the right, and they addressed the inconsistency. "Now he's actually weaker on the left," Zormelo says, "but we'll get that straightened out by the playoffs."
Zormelo, 29, was a student manager at Georgetown when Durant was a freshman at Texas, and they met during a predraft workout at Maryland that included Hoyas star Brandon Bowman. Durant embarked on his pro career and so did Zormelo, landing an internship with the Heat and a film-room job with the Bulls before launching a company called Best Ball Analytics in 2010 that has counted nearly 30 NBA players as clients. Zormelo kept in touch with Durant, occasionally e-mailing him cutups of shots. They bonded because Zormelo idolizes Larry Bird and Durant does, too.
Durant left a potential championship on the table in 2011, when Oklahoma City fell to Dallas in the Western Conference finals. About two weeks after the series, Durant scheduled his first workout with Zormelo in Washington, D.C. "I didn't sleep the night before," Zormelo remembers. "I was up until 4 a.m. asking myself, What am I going to tell the best scorer in the league that he doesn't already know?" They met at Yates Field House, where Georgetown practices, and Zormelo told Durant, "You're really good. But I think you can be the best player ever." Durant looked up. "Not the best scorer," Zormelo clarified. "The best player." It was a crucial distinction, considering Durant had just led the league in scoring for the second year in a row yet posted his lowest shooting percentage, three-point percentage and assist average since he was a rookie. He was only 22, so there was no public rebuke, but he could not stand to give away another title.
"He was getting double- and triple-teamed, and in order to win a championship, he needed to make better decisions with the ball," says former Thunder point guard Kevin Ollie, now the head coach at Connecticut. "He needed to find other things he could do besides force up shots. That was the incentive to change his pattern." Over several weeks Zormelo and Durant formulated a written plan focusing on ballhandling, passing and shot selection. They were transforming a sniper into a playmaker. Growing up, Durant dribbled down the street outside his grandmother's house in Capitol Heights, Md. He played point guard as a freshman at National Christian Academy in Fort Washington. He watched And1 DVDs to study the art of the crossover. "Where I'm from, you got to have the ball," Durant says. "That's how we do it. We streetball." But he sprouted five inches as a sophomore, from 6'3" to 6' 8," and suddenly he was a forward. Though his stroke didn't suffer, his handle did. "I still had the moves," Durant insists, "but I dribbled way too high."
He could compensate in high school, and even during his one season at Texas, but the NBA was changing to a league where the transcendent are freed from traditional positions and boundaries. When Portland was deciding between Durant and Ohio State center Greg Oden before the 2007 draft, Texas coach Rick Barnes copped a line that Bobby Knight used when the Blazers were debating between Jordan and center Sam Bowie in 1984. "He can be the best guard or he can be the best center," Barnes told G.M.'s. "It doesn't matter. Whatever you need, he'll do." The Trail Blazers selected Oden and Durant was taken second by Seattle, where coach P.J. Carlesimo started him at shooting guard. "Kevin could be all things," Carlesimo says, but back then he was too gangly to hold his spot or protect his dribble. Brooks replaced Carlesimo shortly after the franchise relocated to Oklahoma City the following season and wisely returned him to forward.