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“They’re definitely not a better team, but they’re harder to guard” - examining the juxtaposition of the Warriors without Durant

Continuing to win without Durant has lots of people scratching their heads. It shouldn’t.

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NBA: Playoffs-Portland Trail Blazers at Golden State Warriors
Strength in Splash Brothers

It’s no coincidence that when Steve Kerr took over for Mark Jackson and revised the Golden State Warriors offensive scheme, they immediately got better. From the bottom of the league in assists to the perennial leader in the category, this brand of Warriors basketball is what has launched the team into the upper echelons of the NBA. Strength in Numbers isn’t a slogan solely about bench players, it encapsulates the egalitarian approach that is at the center of the mercurial rise.

But check out this quote from the other Curry brother, as reported by Sam Amick of The Athletic:

“I think they are harder to guard (without Durant),” Seth said. “They move around faster when he’s not out there. They’re definitely not a better team, but they’re harder to guard. Obviously, they play a different style of basketball when Steph and Klay (Thompson) are the focal points offensively, and we haven’t played that team in a while.

What does Kevin Durant bring?

Seriously?

Not that it needs saying, but it does bear repeating: Kevin Durant is a tremendous basketball player, and one that makes an already impressive Warriors roster feel downright unfair. It’s the genesis of how Durant came to be called a snake. Adding him to this team took a lot of the guess work out of the Finals. A couple of dominant championships and a wrecked Cleveland Cavaliers roster later, Durant has solidified his place as the best player in the NBA.

While we had to hear about what a pesky defender Patrick Beverley was in the first round, Durant laid 35 points (leading the playoffs) at a godly .719 TS%, while chipping in 5 assists and five rebounds per game. Without his dominance, it’s tough to see the Warriors getting past those opening rounds... right?

Seth Curry is clear (and correct) in pointing out that the team isn’t better, but they certainly look and feel a bit less predictable, and no less inevitable without Durant. It’s weird.

The Patrick Ewing Kevin Durant Theory

Bill Simmons coined the phrase back in 2001 as a launch pad to discuss how the New York Knicks somehow played better without their star player. To take it one step further, it may come down to the predictability. If a defense knows what to expect, they can base their defensive response off their vision of what’s about to come next.

Complexity itself is a force multiplier then, when it comes to basketball. As Andrew Bogut wrote earlier this week, you aren’t just defending Curry anymore, you are defending Curry within a dazzling array of off-ball movement. And it’s tough:

He essentially blew that series open in eight minutes. All their schemes and the things they were doing to try to stop him, he threw right out the window.

These are dangerously small sample sizes, but Amick looked up some salient stats that may help explain why the Warriors don’t seem to be much worse off while winning without one of the best players to ever play in the NBA.

The Warriors’ 10 playoff games with Durant: 300.3 passes per game, according to NBA.com (6-4 record).

The two full playoff games without Durant: 332 (2-0 record).

A 10% increase in passing is significant. Some of this is necessity. Durant is an extremely willing passer, but among the most efficient and dominant scorers the game has ever seen. And just to be extra clear, all of the Warriors’ best 5-man units this season heavily feature Durant, as per NBA.com.

But something happens when the offense is forced to live without the slim crutch. Without Durant the Warriors are exceedingly interested in working to get the best look; with Durant, you can pretty much cede that effort and just hand the ball to a guy who can score at ungodly efficiency.

Coach Steve Kerr has spoke at length about how ball movement enlivens bench players.

From another interview, Kerr went a bit deeper, talking about the playmaking, specifically in regards to our roster construction:

Now you got the floor spaced and you just have three-point shooters everywhere. But we have playmakers everywhere — Draymond Green, Shaun Livingston, Andre Iguodala. I want those guys making plays. I want them with the ball in their hands.

”I learned this with Phil Jackson and the triangle. When everyone is involved, touching the ball and cutting and screening, there’s a magic that happens, there’s something special where guys feel empowered, their defense gets better because they’re involved. And so I think, what’s important for me as a coach is to play the style we do.”

Warriors are winning, no matter what

After looking through all this, I think a fair amount of this discussion is that opponents are somewhat fed up with getting their butts kicked. Durant comes, and the NBA can’t stop talking about how unfair it is. Durant leaves and the team is still better than yours? “Oh, they’re harder to guard without KD.”

I think rather than assigning a better/worse binary value judgement, Seth Curry is correct. It’s probably harder for defenders to keep track of everything with the ball whizzing around 10% more often, but the Warriors are definitely not better without Durant.

But this is a classic juxtaposition. Seeing these two versions of the Warriors allows for us to compare and contrast the two, to show similarities or differences - but the Warriors are unequivocally better at full strength. Seth Curry may think it’s harder to cover, but the Warriors have rolled over his teams no matter what.

As Ivan Bettger said in our writers chat:

People are talking a lot about the KD-less offense at this moment, but what is this moment? First it was midway through a series, where suddenly the defense had a major adjustment to make, and failed to do it. Then it was at the beginning of the next series, before the defense has had a chance to make their first adjustment.

In a seven game series, I want the guy that you can’t adjust to.