Nearly two years ago, Kevin Durant took his talents to the Bay Area, leaving the Oklahoma City Thunder, his former team becoming downtrodden and in search of an identity. Meanwhile, the Golden State Warriors were licking their chops at the thought of unleashing their newfound weapon on the rest of the NBA.
After one championship in which the Warriors nearly swept the entire 2017 playoffs, going 16-1, the entire league took notice.
Durant changed the NBA landscape, forcing teams to play catch up to them and brought a sense of urgency to superstars wanting to win a championship. Not only are players moving from one team to another to get a good paycheck, now more than ever, they also switch teams to join other stars in the hopes of earning that coveted ring.
Changes Around the League
Since then, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony moved on from the Indiana Pacers and New York Knicks, respectively, to join forces in OKC to replicate the Golden State formula for success. Chris Paul left the L.A. Clippers to join a semi-super team built to destroy the Warriors’ budding dynasty.
In the East, the Boston Celtics brought in Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward to start their own super team to add to Al Horford and their young core consisting of Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. Rather than add new superstars to their already formidable team, Toronto Raptors head coach Dwane Casey installed a new offense patterned somewhat after the Warriors’ style.
But as much as things have changed for each of these teams, the results have shown that not much has really changed no matter what they have done.
In this year’s playoffs, the Thunder bowed out of the first-round of the playoffs; Chris Paul suffered an injury and left the Rockets in disarray in Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals; Irving and Hayward were sidelined before the playoffs, leaving the Celtics unable to beat the Cleveland Cavaliers on their home floor in Game 7; and finally, the Raptors fired Casey after suffering another sweep against the Cavs.
Teams around the league have yet to figure out how this super team actually works. Bringing together a couple of All-Stars doesn’t guarantee that it results in a championship in the same manner it worked seamlessly with Golden State. The players that they have complement one another unlike what happened with the Thunder, for example.
Russell Westbrook had to figure out how to spread the offense around between him, George and Anthony. Management thought that randomly securing the services of these All-Stars was enough. The playoffs showed that though they had some success in the regular season, they hadn’t perfected the balance necessary to win consistently.
Why Durant Works
The Warriors had a system in place that worked very well with Durant’s talents. Plus, they also had a coach in Steve Kerr who could make it all work. They move the ball around and find the open man. With the number of shooters on their team, that made them very dangerous.
But there are times when moving the ball and creating opportunities for others bogs down. That’s where Durant comes in.
“Obviously Kevin is the ultimate luxury, because a play can break down and you just throw him the ball, and he can get you a bucket as well as anybody on earth,” Kerr told reporters after the Warriors’ 119-106 win over the Rockets in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals. “Kevin, this is why anybody would want him on their team, but you think about a couple years ago when we were in the finals and we couldn’t quite get over the hump. Kevin’s the guy who puts you over the hump. I don’t know what you do to guard him. He can get any shot he wants.”
Does this mean that the Warriors are invincible?
Of course not, but they’re the closest thing that the league has to an unstoppable force. No one, so far, has found the recipe for creating an immovable object to counter the Warriors. The Rockets came very close, but the unfortunate injury to Paul kept us from seeing whether isolation basketball at the highest level can offset the Warriors’ egalitarian offense.
What Could Have Been
In the summer of 2016, Durant could have re-signed with OKC for another shot at Golden State. He could have joined the San Antonio Spurs, who needed another star player to create their own Big Three to challenge the Warriors. He could have tried going to the L.A. Clippers, who needed to get over the hump with Paul and Blake Griffin always losing to Kerr’s boys.
Instead, Durant chose to go with the sure thing. He wanted to play with a team that shared the basketball freely, something that didn’t happen too often during his time with the Thunder. He knew that the coveted championship ring would be his if he joined the team that held the best regular season record in league history.
That was his choice, of course, and no one could keep him from making it. But what he didn’t realize was that he was creating an imbalance of power that other NBA teams are seeking to correct up to now.
What the future holds for the NBA
The 2018 NBA Finals looks a lot like the past three installments because the Warriors and Cavaliers are meeting once again in the championship round. The Cavs will look to see if LeBron James and his all-world talents are enough to derail the Golden State’s bid for a third championship in four years.
Oddsmakers believe that the Cavaliers have an impossible chance of winning against the Warriors. If Durant and company take care of business and they come home with the title, they won’t escape the dynasty talk whether from the fans or from the media.
It will also serve notice around the league once again that they will need a superstar conglomerate in order to win in this league.
Durant signing with the Warriors posed a challenge to the rest of the league, one that resulted in failed experiments and those that came close to success. Expect more teams this summer trying to lure the best free agents in the market, and All-Star players joining fellow All-Stars, in the race to knock the Warriors from their pedestal.
Whether they succeed or not, it’s clear that the NBA has a parity issue. Because if a player as good as Durant can join a 73-9 win team and get away with it legally, some teams with deep pockets are going to try to creatively horde good and great players. This will leave teams in small markets at a disadvantage, making it difficult for them to compete in an era where stars are clustered in cities that can pay the luxury tax repeatedly. Even the repeater tax may not be enough to break up the Warriors if each of the players takes pay cuts from here on just to keep them at the threshold of a championship each year.
No matter what happens in the Finals, Durant has changed the NBA. The rest of the league has taken notice and they are in closed-door meetings at the moment looking for ways to catch up with a blockbuster signing of their own.
And that’s just the beginning.