When Kevin Durant went down in Game 5 of the Rockets-Warriors series, hopes shot up across the country. Might this finally be the year Golden State goes down, left with “only” Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green? Sir Charles Barkely certainly thought so. Yet here we are a few weeks later, and the Warriors haven’t even lost a game, much less a series, without Durant in the lineup, leading to many thinkpieces about Durant’s importance to this team. It boils down to this: the Warriors are essentially impossible to beat with Durant when the lights are brightest, but they’re a better basketball team without Durant.
Those seem like conflicting opinions, but both can be, and are, true. Durant is essentially the Warriors’ cheat code they pull out when things aren’t going their way or they’re just bored of playing and want it to all end. They cannot be beaten when they have the best pure scorer in the world to turn to as a backup plan, which is why no one has managed to do so in the last three years. He can score on anyone, at any time, in any way. Anything can happen in sports, but the Warriors with Durant are as close to unbeatable as possible.
But they’re a better team when Durant isn’t on the floor. The Warriors were such a groundbreaking success back in 2015 in large part because of their motion offense. An underrated aspect of Curry and Thompson’s game is their ability to get going just off catch-and-shoot opportunities and buckets within the flow of the offense. Most of the truly elite scorers in this league become most dangerous when they heat up in isolation basketball. Think Kyrie Irving, LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard. Those guys go from scary to downright frightening when they can face up and score on whatever poor soul is in front of them. That’s the case with Durant. He doesn’t get hot in the same way Curry can, purely off pin-down screens and cuts to the basket. When the ball is flying around the court, everyone on the Warriors is constantly moving, whether they’re setting the screens or flying around them.
It isn’t quite the same when Durant is in. He’s the best one-on-one player in the world, so of course they’re going to run a far share of isolation plays for him. The flip side is that it disrupts that flow Golden State has become known for, which leads to a series of side effects. Not everyone can get their game going when it’s Durant iso time, and everyone standing around for a good chunk of an offensive possession helps kill whatever vibe they had going. Plus, while it’s impossible to measure, there is a certain impact on everyone’s morale when it feels like one guy is doing everything instead of every player on the floor touching the ball or setting screens as a part of the offense.
This discussion should never be used to discount the abilities of Durant. It’s more of a reflection of how the Warriors and Kerr have constructed their offensive system around movement over isolation basketball at nearly every turn. It’s truly something special when the system as a whole is greater than one of the two best players in the world, and that’s what the Warriors have managed to accomplish. It’s the same system that allowed them to set an NBA record with 73 regular season wins. Curry makes up most of that system, of course, but he buys in like everyone else in a way Durant doesn’t. Durant won’t let them lose, but they can and will win without him.