This past summer Kevin Durant shocked the basketball world announcing he would leave Oklahoma City and sign with the team that had knocked him out of the playoffs. This prompted a torrent of opinions about what this said about Kevin Durant as a ball player and what it meant for the league in general. Most seemed to agree that while this wasn’t a bad decision for basketball, it did call into question how much Kevin Durant is a true champion. Its been awhile and we've had a chance to see how some of this is going to shake out, so it seems like a perfect opportunity for some Old News.
Last season the Golden State Warriors put on possibly the best show the NBA has ever seen. The Showtime Laker fans probably have something to say about that, but its hard to deny that the drama of the 73-9 season was insane. It wasn't just the record, it was the fact that it was coming on a completely unprecedented barrage of three pointers in situations where no one else would even have attempted the shot. Curry was the first unanimous MVP in a league where Lebron, Durant, Paul and Leonard were all in their primes and quite simply its because in 2015-2016 SC Top 10 probably should've just stood for Stephen Curry.
After the regular season, it was questionable if the Warriors would lose more than a couple games in the playoffs. Then the Oklahoma City Thunder happened. After getting absolutely blown out of the house in game 1 against the Spurs, the Thunder responded with 4 of the most complete games you will see a team put together in the playoffs. To do so against the Spurs who had won 67 games that season with a point differential that was somehow better than Golden State's was unprecedented. The Thunder turned up their defensive pressure to levels rarely seen and just completely shut down the Spurs offensive flow. A team with an offensive rating of 110.3 failed to equal that once in the final 5 games of it's season.
In the first half of game 1 against the Warriors, it looked like Steph was just going to keep doing what he had been doing all year. For his standards, Curry largely struggled to get going until game 7. Some may blame his injury, but I think the level of pressure applied to him by the Thunder was the key. Going up 3-1, the Thunder had a pretty epic collapse, falling into old habits, and with Klay getting unimaginably hot and Durant missed his two shots in the last 2 minutes of game 7, and Golden State was able to return to the finals once more.
Golden State jumped out to a huge lead on the Cavaliers in the finals. Had it not been for Green's suspension, Golden State probably would be two time champions right now. History had something else in mind, as Lebron lead a legacy defining comeback and the Warriors were left to ponder the challenge of winning championships when so much of what separates your team relies on knocking down long range shots.
Kevin Durant is an extraordinary basketball player who has never truly gotten even close to the respect he's earned. When he came out of college he was overshadowed by Oden, at 6'11" and famously unable to bench press the default weight, how was Durant's body ever going to survive the rigors of the NBA. Oden has managed to play a total of 105 games in his career. Durant's fragile frame has so far allowed him to average 27/7/4/1/1 on 49/38/88 shooting. There have literally only been 6 seasons in the history of the game where a player has put up at least 27 points on those percentages. So three pointers are recent history, what about seasons of at least 27 points and 7 rebounds per game shooting at least 48/88? Well that list contains 5 seasons and 2 names, Bird and Durant.
Kevin Durant is arguably the most complete offensive player in the NBA with his ability to score off the bounce, off the ball, from distance, mid-range, in the post and athletically in the paint. It's hard to think of a style of shot he hasn't mastered, and with the highest active PPG on the 3rd highest PER and 3rd highest True Shooting % among active players, he's basically unstoppable. He's never a slouch on defense, and while is career numbers are solid but not staggering, when he puts his mind to it he's on a level only matched by Leonard. Quite simply, he joined the team of the first ever unanimous MVP and is now unquestionably their best player.
The Road Less Travelled
Durant this summer faced a seemingly obvious choice, he could stick with the team who had drafted him along with a litany of other talent. His team was arguably the best team in the league last year, and had just tightened up at the wrong moment. He was certainly just as responsible for the collapse as anyone else on the court. The team had just made a major trade to bring in another athletic wing and free up minutes for the beast of Steven Adams. The team was ready to double down on Donovan's strategy and who could say it wouldn't work?
That said, the team hadn't been to the finals since 2011-12. Durant is solidly in his prime and what he achieves in these years is going to define his career. The Warriors have already knocked his team out two years in a row, and with the youth movement the league isn't exactly standing still. Lebron had his trio in Cleveland, Steph his in Golden State. Golden State had their chance to have arguably the best of all the lineups, drafting Durant, Westbrook, Harden and Ibaka. Had they stuck with that lineup and worried about how they were going to pay for it, its hard to see how they wouldn't be the best team in the league today.
Durant's choice was uniquely interesting this summer as never before in history has the top player had an opportunity to join the league's best roster. Due recent television deals redefining the worth of the NBA combined with league-wide decisions to avoid salary-cap smoothing, Durant was becoming a free agent the same year as a historically unprecedented jump in the cap.
People like to say that the other best players in history have never joined the players knocking them out of the playoffs, they figured out how to beat them. Here's the thing, they never had the chance. Who knows how these guys would've reacted to free agency, let alone teams having the cap flexibility to sign 4 of the top 10 best players in the league. We're supposed to want our players to value winning over all else. If a team that went 171-38 with a ring and a finals appearance in the past two years was offering a competitive salary, where else would you go to be more likely to win?
It's also just the most interesting fit. I'd say there were three reasonable bids to nab Durant considering his options, stick with OKC, go the Golden State or join the Spurs. He'd already been with OKC, and while they definitely needed his skills, Westbrook never really took advantage of Durant's skill set. With the Spurs, he's joining a great team, but he's not really adding anything they didn't have before. He's just another 3 point shooter, another long defender, another post option. With Golden State he is providing something the team did not have last season, a reliable way to score that doesn't involve a pick and roll or a three point shot.
The State of Golden State
The 2015-2016 Golden State Warriors are one of the most unbelievable sports teams of all time. Following a title run which was considered fluky, and reliant on some hot shooting and a bunch of notable absences from the King's court. Golden State started the season 24-0 winning by an average of almost 15 points per game despite not even having their head coach. Golden State was the first team to use ball movement to successfully abuse the three point line, and it felt like cheat codes. The sports simulation most known for its realism had no idea how to articulate what was happening on the court.
The effect that regular season has had on the NBA cannot be underestimated. At the time Golden State was scoring 40 points per game from behind the three point line, and the next closest was Houston at 30. Flash forward a little over a year later and almost half the league is scoring at least 30 points per game from behind the 3 point line. If we look at this chart 5 years from now, its likely going to have only gotten more extreme, and in 10 or 15 years Curry's shots will probably only seem unique simply because they are coming from such a short ball player.
The prevailing wisdom in the NBA for ages had been that you couldn't win on offensive efficiency, and the more reliant you were on ball movement and shooting ability, the less likely you were going to win a title. The Warriors didn't really have any options in post on offense, but a steady diet of pick and rolls between Curry, Klay and Green seemed to be enough to score at will. After shocking the league winning so young, and then putting on the show they did with everyone judging lead to everyone assuming this was the way of the future, and to just stop worrying and love the bomb.
In the playoffs, the Warriors actually did finally lose because they went cold at the wrong time and the other team hit some key shots. Severely depleted without Green in game 5, they never found their rhythm again. That series, and Lebron in particular deserves its whole own write up, and I'll do it some other time, but fundamentally, Lebron absolutely dominated the Finals to victory without leaving the paint or being capable of scoring at will. Stunning stuff.
Durant provides a physicality on offense that Golden State never had last season. Golden State lost some things in the acquisition of Durant, but mostly they lost that team chemistry. The team was vastly outperforming itself last season. Not that the players aren't that great, they are, but that the ways the needed to win required so much effort, and relied so heavily on their insane confidence never being broken.
This season the Golden State Warriors likely won’t win as many games, but will probably have better statistical numbers across the board anyway. Part of the reason is that Durant makes everything they do so much more reliable. Golden State is able to replace Green with Durant in the pick and rolls with Curry and Klay and the results are just unfair.
In their game against Cleveland so far, it was immediately obvious the physical presence that Durant brought to their team. Though they ended up losing the game, they're still a team discovering itself while Cleveland is basically running it back. As Golden State learns how to embrace Kevin Durant's post game, I firmly believe they will have much more success against the Cavs. It'll certainly be extremely exciting to see how and when Lebron and Durant choose to defend each other in the impending finals.
And lets be real, Durant's decision has assured him and us that we will get to see that match up this summer. There is simply no one in the East who is going to keep Lebron from getting to his 7th consecutive finals, and with Durant in the fold the West is just as locked up. It's not like the league is boring to watch in the mean time, there are plenty of individual performers doing record setting things for us to enjoy for the 82 game slog. In the end, isn't it nicer when a couple teams are clearly the best in the end, and we see how they duke it out on the biggest stage? Aren't those the seasons for which we dream?
Isn't it more disappointing that Westbrook would go and sign a long term deal with a team when its unclear he will be surrounded by the talent he deserves? Wouldn't it have been more fun to see him jump to the Celtics and be the star that team needs? Or join with Butler or Harden and be the most physically demanding back court of all time? Or, maybe the best case scenario, join up with Anthony Davis so the two most statistically dominant players in the modern era could join together.
This is a league where Minnesota has already stacked up Towns, Wiggins, Lavine and Dunn. Milwaukee has Giannis, Parker and some nice question marks in Brogdon and Maker. Philadelphia also seems to have an embarrassment of riches if Ben Simmons is as good as anticipated. This is a league where you're going to need a collection of several legit stars if you plan on winning, and along with Chicago no one knows how quickly championship windows can close better than Oklahoma City. Kevin Durant gave himself and the Golden State Warriors the best chance to win some titles moving forward and he should be praised not slighted for giving us all the opportunity to see what happens next.