Beyond the cries of a select few who fear change, there was consensus. Depth, continuity and shot-distribution be damned: The Warriors were better with Kevin Durant.
At full strength, this was difficult to argue, though not impossible. With a back-to-back MVP who just completed the greatest offensive season in league history leading a hierarchical and perilous offense, would the addition of a four-time scoring champion be somewhat redundant? If so, would the value of said addition really outweigh the significant loss of rim protection and bench shooting?
In order to fit Durant into a max salary slot, the Warriors had to trade Andrew Bogut, forego matching offers for restricted free agents Harrison Barnes and Festus Ezeli and allow Leandro Barbosa, Brandon Rush and Marreese Speights to walk (though the latter move was by choice).
It seems crazy to debate whether adding a top-20 player in NBA history improves a roster, but such was life for a team that had averaged 70 wins over two seasons. That they won one title and nearly another feels like a footnote; they were far more dominant than even most back-to-back champions throughout league history.
However, that “nearly another” was the most important element of the Durant addition. The Warriors may have lost three straight games in the NBA Finals, but where they really lost the title was in Houston two months earlier, when Stephen Curry slipped on a Donatas Motiejunas-sweat puddle and sprained his MCL.
Certainly, it was a freak play. Such is the case with most injuries, and conflating “freak” with “less likely to happen again” is a common fallacy. Guys slip on sweat, land on feet and jam their hands in collisions. By adding Durant, the Warriors were hedging against that. Were Curry to be as hobbled as he was last year, they would still be title favorites. Were he to take the time he needed to recover more fully, they would be better equipped to survive in his absence. Were something similar to happen to Klay Thompson or Draymond Green, they could handle it. It is better to be lucky than good, but it is better still to be good enough to remain good when unlucky.
Durant, for all of his exploits, was an insurance policy. That isn’t an insult in the slightest; his uniquely-versatile game made him the ideal replacement for every incumbent Warriors star. He could dominate in isolation like Curry, stretch the floor and defend the wing like Thompson, or rebound, block shots and make plays from the 4 like Green.
Of course, the relationship was more symbiotic than that. Adding Durant meant that Curry, Thompson and Green also became insurance. When you have four superstars, any one of them can go down, and you still have three superstars. You are still last year’s Warriors.
Sure enough, it is Durant who has gone down. Another freak play involving brutish seven-footer has led to another sprained MCL for a Warriors’ superstar. This time, it happened to the guy who was brought in to hedge against this happening. But that doesn’t mean Durant going down defeats the purpose of signing him. In a roundabout way, it is the purpose.
The Warriors are worse without him. That’s undeniable. Durant has fit into their system better than anyone expected, becoming an all-world defender and scoring with unfair efficiency. In a regular season full of games that haven’t mattered, Durant has generally been the Warriors’ best player in games that have.
Until the playoffs roll around, Warriors games still won’t matter. If Durant is back by then or soon after, the team will still be overwhelming favorites. The exact degree to which this is true will be based on how close to 100 percent Durant is, but even a 75-percent version makes them better than last year’s team, who were heavily favored themselves.
In fact, last year’s Warriors were considered so superior to the league that, had Harrison Barnes gone down for the season, no one would have blinked. “Oh, Barnes is out? That’s inconvenient, but they still have Curry, Thompson, Green, Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston, Bogut, Barbosa, Ezeli and Speights.”
People are not viewing it that way this year. Though media members have come down on both sides of this, the common refrain seems to be that Golden State needs Durant to win the title. This begs the question: What makes this year’s team, minus Durant, different than last year’s team, minus Barnes?
The statistics are muddled. With Durant on the bench, the Warriors’ net rating is 6.6. With Barnes sitting last season, that number was 12.7. When a sprained ankle caused Barnes to miss 16 games between late December and early January, the team went 14-2. There are myriad more ways to parse these numbers, but it is clear that the Warriors suffer more without Durant than they did without Barnes.
What is not clear is the reason for that, though there are three general possibilities:
- A: The Warriors’ new players (Zaza Pachulia, JaVale McGee, David West, Patrick McCaw) are worse than the guys they are replacing (Bogut, Ezeli, Speights, Barbosa).
- B: The Warrior’s returning players (Curry, Thompson, Green, Iguodala, Livingston, Ian Clark) are worse than they were last year.
- C: The addition of Durant has caused, or at least helped facilitate, option A or option B to become true.
Option A holds little water. Pachulia and McGee have the two best net ratings on the team (18.9 and 18.3), whereas Ezeli (14.3) and Bogut (14.2) ranked fifth and sixth last year. Pachulia is nowhere near the rim protector nor lob threat Bogut was, but he’s a better defender in space, a better rebounder (especially on offense), a better floor runner, a better midrange and free-throw shooter and a comparable passer. McGee isn’t the rebounder nor post defender Ezeli was, but is the superior floor runner, screener, roll man, lob-catcher and finisher, and passer.
David West is miles better than Mo Speights in both net rating (11.2 to 1.7) and in every observable facet of basketball other than three-point shooting. McCaw has been worse than Barbosa, but Clark has been the Brazilian Blur’s real replacement, and has outdone him in net rating (4.3 to 3.1) and efficiency (57.9 to 54.5 in true-shooting percentage). The preseason feeling that Golden State sacrificed depth to sign Durant was not flawed, but has simply been proven wrong.
Option B gets us somewhere. Curry has been significantly worse as a shooter, as has Green. Thompson is a carbon copy of his 2015-16 self, while Iguodala and Livingston have performed better (Clark has too, but we are counting him as a newcomer rather than an incumbent).
But something is curious about this: Why would Curry (28) and Green (26) get worse, while Iguodala (33) and Livingston (31) improve? It might be random. It might be the confidence hit that Curry and Green took in the finals. It might be regression to the mean for two guys coming off career seasons, though Curry and Green are both shooting the ball worse than they have in years, and neither has regressed athletically.
It might also be Option C, the Durant effect. While his integration has been as seamless as possible, there are still seams. There’s the widely speculated-on “guilt” factor (Curry and Green feeling bad for shooting because of Durant’s presence), and Thompson’s lack of statistical decline plays into this perfectly (“I’m not sacrificing shit“). There’s also basic familiarity, as it takes time to learn the tendencies of new teammates. This would explain why the Warriors have a better net rating and worse record than last year: While Durant improves the team overall, he hurts, for now, what was a well-oiled crunch time machine.
Whatever the reason, the takeaway is this: The Warriors’ depth is not worse than last year, and their core players are, more or less, the same guys. Even if the slight decline Curry and Green have experienced lingers into the playoffs, they will still be better this postseason than they were last, so long as they are healthy and unsuspended.
If the 2015-16 Warriors would have been clear favorites without Harrison Barnes, the 2016-17 Warriors should be the same without Kevin Durant. In a strange way, that’s why they brought him here.