The Golden State Warriors made short work of the Portland Trail Blazers, are in the middle of a much-needed 9-day hiatus before the start of the NBA Finals against the Toronto Raptors on Thursday night — and all everyone can talk about is whether the Warriors are better without Kevin Durant.
Remember, it wasn’t too long ago that for the first time in what seemed like an eternity, the entirety of the NBA world was heaping praises on the much-maligned superstar. Once deemed as a player who “took the easy way out” by joining a 73-9 team, Durant was afterwards seen as the safety valve of the Warriors, who were unexpectedly struggling against the 8-seed Los Angeles Clippers, which coincided with the sudden struggles of the Warriors’ central superstar, Stephen Curry.
Curry is, without a shadow of a doubt, the unifying entity of the franchise, the fulcrum who acts as the sun around which other planets in the Warriors’ solar system revolve around. It is his gravity that allows the system to function; without him, everything else has no purpose, no direction, and no order. No one disputes Curry’s importance to the team, and to do so would reek of a lack of understanding of just how much this franchise needs his presence.
But as the series against the Clippers showed, the Warriors did not acquire Durant just because they wanted to show off to the rest of the league that they could do whatever they wanted. He was someone the Warriors could count on when the rest of the team was at a collective rut on offense — and a player such as Durant serves as a walking get-out-of-jail-free card, an anthropomorphized GameShark cheat code who can be used against a seemingly insurmountable foe that cannot be beaten using conventional tactics.
From “Best Player in the World” to “Do the Warriors really need him?”
After famously declaring the words “I’m Kevin Durant, you know who I am” to the world after a 31-point collapse against the Clippers in Game 2, Durant responded to his multitude of detractors and critics — both from outside Dub Nation and within — with a series of otherworldly performances to put the Clippers away, averaging 41.5 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 6.0 assists on a shooting split of .573/.405/.951, culminating in a 50-point explosion in Game 6 to put the Clippers away for good.
While he couldn’t replicate his exceptional efficiency during his 4 and a half game stint against the Houston Rockets in the Western Conference semifinals, Durant still put up the best numbers amid another stretch of games where Curry couldn’t find a rhythm on offense. Before Durant went down with a calf injury in Game 5, he averaged 33.2 points, 5.0 rebounds, and 4.4 assists on a shooting split of .458/.438/.846 against the Rockets.
The original trio of Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green would take over the rest of the series against Houston by winning Game 5 and dispatching them in Game 6, after which they brought out the brooms and swept Portland in the Western Conference finals.
For the quarter and a half of Game 5 against the Rockets and the subsequent 5 games that followed, the narratives skewed wildly against Durant, whose presence and necessity for the Warriors in their quest to win another title was highly questioned by the usual hot takes of the sports media who ravenously hunger for the attention and patronage of the casual sports fan.
In a season ripe with drama and speculation about Durant’s future with the Warriors, this latest turn of events provided even more ammunition for those who paraded this question around for everyone to ponder over: Did the Warriors really ever need Durant to be on their team this whole time?
A player can be the ultimate luxury, yet at the same time be the ultimate necessity. Durant’s acquisition back in 2016 elicited many questions of “Why?”, which were subsequently answered with “Why not?” — Durant was there for the taking, had shown interest in joining the Warriors, and despite his sensitivity for being affected by narratives was willing to join a superteam despite the optics of it all. The Warriors would have to be stupid to not have gone after Durant — or to swat away his interest in joining — for the sole purpose of acquiescing to the overarching narrative of winning “the right way.”
Also, never forget the situation which preceded the biggest and most impactful free agency signing of the decade: The Warriors’ record-breaking 73-9 regular season had just been rendered meaningless by blowing a 3-1 lead to LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers. If you think the Warriors lost that championship by crook more than by hook, it doesn’t matter — the history books will forever cement that moment as one of the most epic collapses by a professional sports team of all time.
Signing Durant was the figurative middle finger that served as the clapback to the NBA world’s collective laughter being directed toward the Warriors, who were the butt of many jokes and insults. The fandom at large proved that they could dish it out with impunity, but when the Warriors responded with a huge salvo of their own, the rest of the NBA then went on to display their inability to take what they dish out.
And so far, when the rest of the league has proven that it has yet to find a solution to the puzzle of this Warriors superteam — complete with two MVPs, five All-Stars, and a beautiful 3-way merger of talent, skill, and system — they responded the only way they knew how: With ridiculous takes, overhyped narratives, and unnecessary analyses of team dynamics.
KD is too good to be on a team that doesn’t need him. If Warriors win the title without him, he’s got to leave and challenge himself. https://t.co/QsailNdjkA— Chris Broussard (@Chris_Broussard) May 27, 2019
This latest assault from mainstream sports media — which has ramped up as of late due to the Warriors’ dispatching of the Rockets and the Blazers despite the absence of Durant — planted the very seeds of doubt and uncertainty within many fans: Are the Warriors really better without Kevin Durant?
No, the Warriors are not better without Kevin Durant
In no world are the Warriors better without Durant, and no amount of numbers, statistics, or analytics can refute that.
Without the presence of their all-world 7-foot scoring machine, the Warriors revert back to their pre-Durant days of free-flowing motion offense, with Curry returning to his vintage roles of being a facilitator and off-ball threat with constant movement. Green has more opportunities to handle the ball, which translates to more opportunities for aggression and playmaking. This has never been as evident as it was against Portland, where Curry and Green ran roughshod all over the Blazers — Curry with his shot-making wizardry, and Green with his wrecking ball style of versatile two-way play.
But contrary to what some are espousing, the Warriors needed to go back to this free-flowing style of offense not because of some imaginary shackle that Durant’s presence was putting on them, but because it was necessary to go back to the system they knew how to play during the days Durant wasn’t a part of the team. The added element of Durant’s preternatural scoring prowess allowed the Warriors to accommodate him and to go to him whenever their offense bogged down; his absence took away that option, and the Warriors simply had no other recourse.
There was the additional confounding factor of the Warriors’ Western Conference finals opponent. The Blazers deserve a ton of credit for being one of the final four teams in the NBA, but they simply do not match up well with the Warriors. Their heavy reliance on their duo of star guards plays right into the Warriors’ hands on both ends of the floor; trapping them and getting the ball out of their hands, as well taking advantage of their mediocre defensive capabilities, are what the Warriors’ small-ball squad happily feast upon.
The question of the Warriors’ watchability then takes center stage; the Warriors are certainly not better without Durant, but are they more fun to watch? This is where it starts to get tricky.
It depends on what you mean by “fun”
Running it back to an offense more reminiscent of the Warriors’ rise to elite status evoked a sense of nostalgia among fans. While this version of the Warriors without Durant does have the original Big 3 that started the Warriors’ ascension to championship status, it is far from being the same Strength in Numbers version that garnered the 2015 championship and won 73 games during the 2016 regular season. The core and the heart of those teams are still there, but the supporting organs are different.
Admittedly, this version of the Warriors without Durant is fun to watch in several ways. Seeing Curry move off the ball largely unhindered, relocating to spots and giving the Portland defense all it could handle was basketball nirvana, the figurative melt-in-your-mouth dessert for Warriors and hardcore basketball fans alike. Seeing Green return to his identity as a basketball savant on both ends of the floor was also a pleasant sight — it brought out his full potential amid a season where his ceiling was thought to be considerably lowered.
On the other hand, fun is a relative concept — what’s fun for a certain person can be blasé for another. Or it can be interpreted in degrees; a particular concept can be in and of itself fun, but another alternative can provide greater levels of pleasure or glee, which makes that option more palatable or preferable. For others — this author included — seeing the Splash Brothers and Green run it back to the old days is indeed a pleasing sight to watch, but ultimately, winning trumps everything in the fun scale. Durant’s presence provides the Warriors with the best chance of winning, especially against their upcoming NBA Finals opponents and their newfound superstar, Kawhi Leonard.
The presence of Durant forces Leonard to guard him on the floor at all times, leaving Curry and Thompson with more room to operate, either with the ball in their hands or without on several weak side actions. On the other hand, the absence of Durant allows the Raptors to place Leonard on either Green or Andre Iguodala, which in turn allows Leonard to act more liberally as a roamer or virtual free safety, ready to rotate and act as a help-side defender against the Warriors’ more threatening offensive options. This makes Durant’s availability the potential gamechanger, the extra mile that could spell the difference between a 5 or 6-game victory for the Warriors and a 7-game classic that could very well go either way.
Can this team without Durant still win it all against the Raptors ? Of course, they can — they deserve the benefit of the doubt. But most likely, it will be more difficult. Leonard — who has taken the mantle of the best playoff performer after Durant’s injury — is a legitimate threat on both ends of the floor. Durant’s presence allows the Warriors to account for Leonard’s; Durant’s length and ability to cover a significant amount of ground is a perfect foil to Leonard’s individual scoring prowess, while Durant’s prodigious and nigh unstoppable offensive repertoire is something that not even the best perimeter defender in the world can stop.
Games 1 and 2 of this upcoming series will be a highly-scrutinized litmus test. Should the Warriors fail to take at least one of those games — a scenario that is well within the realm of possibility — then make no mistake: The Warriors will most certainly need Kevin Durant. The fun and games would cease to exist, and as fast as the narratives of Durant being the best player in the world turned into that of the Warriors not needing him to win, so too will that narrative quickly change into one emphasizing the necessity of his presence in order to maintain the lifeline of their dynastic run.