Tuesday, July 19, 2016
Why the Warriors Might Not Win in 2017
The announcement on July 4 that Kevin Durant would be joining the Warriors was stunning, and still has some in disbelief. But above all, it's an acquisition that gives an already top-heavy league a prohibitive favorite.
Where Durant staying in Oklahoma City would have kept the West a three- or possibly four-team team race, Golden State now has four of the league's best 10-15 players. That's an unprecedented collection of top-level talent in the post-merger NBA, as if a team that won 73 games last season needed it.
Durant's signing also likely drops the Thunder, who should have taken down the Warriors in last season's epic Western Conference Finals, into the 40- to 52-win West muck where as many as seven or eight teams could reside next April.
Now, it seems like we're all just wondering what teams will lose in the conference finals next spring before an inevitable Warriors/Cavaliers trilogy Finals in June.
There are many obvious reasons for that assumption. Cleveland can probably only be challenged by Boston and/or Toronto with a serious injury to LeBron James or Kyrie Irving. Golden State now has four All-NBA players, three stars that can shoot from anywhere on the floor, three amazing playmakers and a handful of solid-to-excellent defenders. The Warriors' top lineup presents a completely ridiculous defensive challenge for all 29 other teams.
But we're so far away from being able to crown the Warriors almost a full year in advance. If I'm being honest, I don't even think it's a lock that Golden State will win the West in 2017.
(Of course, you are reading the words of someone who was so sure that the Cavs would lose the Finals down 3-1 last month that he went on to write about who they should get rid of in the offseason. So take this with the necessary sodium.)
First and most obviously, the Warriors haven't played a single minute on the court together. We would assume that elite basketball players will eventually figure the whole chemistry dynamic out, especially on a team like the Warriors that shares the ball so effectively, but we don't know that for sure.
We do know for sure that there's only 80-90 shots in an average NBA game, and 240 minutes to divvy up among an 8-10 man rotation. Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green combined for nearly 50 shots per game last season, while Durant has averaged around 18 attempts per game for his whole career. Someone's going to have to cut back in some way, and even on that team, you can see one of the top players not being too fond of a decreased role.
I'm also a bit skeptical of how Durant's game, which in Oklahoma City often allowed him to go against a defender in isolation while not having to guard a top player on the other end of the floor, will adapt to Golden State. It's an understatement to say that stopping the ball isn't exactly the Warriors' calling card on offense. On defense, Durant will be asked to guard top players more than before with how interchangeable the Warriors play positionally aside from Curry.
How will the lineups work? Will Steve Kerr try to put a Steph Curry/Klay Thompson/Kevin Durant/Draymond Green lineup on the floor as much as possible? Will minutes be staggered so that two of the Big Four can be on the floor at all times, even as the Warriors have sacrificed some depth to sign Durant with cap space? Will Durant be an easy fit into the vaunted "death lineup?" Kerr was out-coached by Tyronn Lue during the last three games of the Finals, and not adapting and changing lineups and matchups was one of the biggest reasons why.
As we've seen before in the NBA, "super teams" and teams with multiple superstars can take a while to fully come together. Kobe and Shaq didn't win a championship until their fourth season together. The Heat early in this decade didn't really put everything together until their second full season together when LeBron took over the Eastern Conference Finals against the Celtics. And of course, Russell Westbrook and Durant infamously never climbed the final team hurdle, despite a combined 11 first- or second-team All-NBA nods.
Then there's the issue of their competition. San Antonio won 67 games last season, which was the second-most by a non-title team in NBA history until the Warriors lost to the Cavs. We still, somehow, haven't seen a Spurs-Warriors playoff series since the Splash Brothers nucleus was in its infancy in 2013.
The Spurs' biggest issue against the top teams last year was that they didn't have enough offense beyond Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge with aging players. Pau Gasol, while a few years removed from his peak, will help San Antonio with that. The Spurs were also run off the floor and dominated on the glass by Oklahoma City in the second round last season.
With Golden State losing Andrew Bogut, Marreese Speights, and Festus Ezeli from last year's frontline, the Warriors are more vulnerable on the glass than they were before, even after signing Zaza Pachulia on a discount coming off his best rebounding season yet in Dallas. There won't be a team, even the Warriors, that can counter San Antonio so efficiently, like Oklahoma City did.
Cleveland could be especially well-positioned to repeat, especially if the aforementioned concerns about Golden State's rebounding and defense with Durant and a different bench rotation come to fruition.
A team like the Clippers is an outside shot that would need to stay healthy and get better-than-expected contributions from frontcourt rookies and low-salary bench pickups to contend. The other teams in the West (and the rest of the East outside of Cleveland) are a stretch to challenge for the crown, but one of Utah, Portland, Memphis, Houston, Dallas or Oklahoma City could possibly get first round homecourt if things fall their way.
No matter how you slice it, Golden State will be the favorite to win the title this season. Their top four players have stunning amount of talent and proven NBA stardom. But it's still not a given that the Warriors have the complete team to be champions again.