In the Golden State Warriors offensive system, the nucleus is joy. They emphasize passing, movement, cutting, while in the process looking for the extra pass. In the pre-Kevin Durant years, 15-0 runs at the Oracle Arena were like witnessing an avalanche.
But when Durant went down near the end of the third quarter in Game 5 against Houston, the narrative that dominated the headlines was could the Warriors survive without Durant?
The fourth quarter of Game 5 and Game 6 against Houston, and Game 1 against Portland Trailblazers was presented to us as a newsflash: The Golden State Warriors will be fine without Durant. In fact, the Warriors system is greater when it features just Steph Curry and Klay Thompson.
It was as if they said, “remember how we changed the league?”
Game 2 against the Trailblazers was more of the same. The Splash Brothers took 44 shots and combined for 61 points. Draymond Green put up a 2016-era statline: 16 points, 10 rebounds seven assists and five blocks. Without Durant, transparency returns to their offensive system.
The Warriors over the last three and a half games have essentially turned the narrative from a negative to a positive: is Durant valuable to the team? Or is he just a luxury: nice extra car to have, but not necessarily needed? When Durant plays, the Warriors system exists in extended or shortened phases. If Durant plays within the system, plays called for Durant in iso are fewer. But when he gets going, the Warriors are forced to watch in awe while Durant puts on a clinic.
While Durant’s scoring abilities aren’t matched with anyone in the league currently, it forces the Warriors to become predictable, leading to more ball watching from the rest. For a Warriors offense that’s built on movement and flow, this can be a gift and a curse. Doesn’t help that it’s causing arguably the greatest shooting backcourt to become idle.
However, the blessing in Durant’s injury is that it has forced the Warriors to retreat to the abrasive style that made them feared across the league. Curry is coming down the court on transition threes. Thompson is playing freely: he’s shooting as if he has to, not because he has to pull his share. Draymond Green is still playing point forward, but with the clarity and intent of giving the ball to his elite shooters.
With the Warriors system, the team’s focus is on freeing Curry and Thompson so they can get open shots. When Durant is in, he can play within the system, but he’s also too good to not be fed the ball.
But the last few contests have made one thing clear: Durant is on the team is great. The Warriors system as a whole featuring the Splash Brothers is greater.
When done right, Durant on the floor makes them more imposing, thrashing opponents with Curry and Thompson while Durant impedes an unguardable matchup. However, he can also restrict their flow, too.
While their system is great, does this mean the Warriors are better without Kevin Durant? No, but they are considerably different.
This doesn’t downplay Durant’s importance to the team. Without Durant, they wouldn’t be the overwhelming favorite to win their third consecutive NBA title. But they also would still survive as they have done and survive prosperously.
The last three full games the Warriors have played has highlighted the significance of how powerful their system is. With Durant, they are a great team. Without Durant, they are even greater. Curry/Thompson-led Oracle runs can steal the hearts from teams. The ball moves with intent: no accommodations are set, just playing the beautiful game.
When Durant returns, Warriors head coach Steve Kerr has to figure out how to keep this momentum going. Game 6 against the Rockets changed the perception of the Warriors and Curry. Games 1 and 2 against the Trailblazers further emphasizes how foolish we were. At this point, a Durant-dominated game probably will leave the Warriors regressing again. However, using him within the system, with isos here and there won’t hurt at all. In fact, it should do damage as it has before-but now more than ever it has to be done right.
But it isn’t Kerr, Curry or anyone’s fault that Durant is that great, and the Warriors are a great team with him. But it is our fault that we forgot that the Warriors system is greater when the Splash Brothers are the centerpieces.