The Bucks are trampling through the East and the Warriors are cruising through the West; what’s new this season? On the Bucks’ side, nothing really. But for the Warriors, there is an unfamiliar hole in the starting lineup, one created by the strained right calf of superstar (and Playoff killer) Kevin Durant. Durant suffered the injury in the third quarter of Game 5 in Houston - a game the Warriors went on to win, and a series they would clinch in the next game. Now, as the Warriors have an early 2-0 series lead over the Portland Trail Blazers in the Western Conference Finals, the question becomes: when will Durant return, and do the Warriors need him to?
Before I go too deep into this blog, I want to say that I certainly believe KD is one of the best players in the game, and he would add value to any team. If there were any doubts, his performance through these Playoffs so far has answered any concerns. However, as many know, talent and value are two very different indicators that are not always directly related.
Durant’s impending free agency has been looming over the Warriors and the league this entire season, and for good reason; with his size and agility, he is one of the most effortless scorers in the game and provides well above average defense. Now, this free agency is not guaranteed - Durant does have the potential to opt-in to the second year of his 2 yr/$61.5 million contract he signed with Golden State a year ago, but all signs point to him opting out and testing the market (even if it is to eventually return to the Warriors on a new deal). Should Durant opt-in, he would make just over $30 million next year. However, on the open market he would be eligible for a supermax contract, which would easily pay him over $40 million annually. Some of the teams mentioned as likely destinations for Durant include the Warriors (duh), both teams in New York and Los Angeles, and the Washington Wizards (his hometown team). While none of these other teams compare to Golden State’s level of success and talent, they all (with the exception of the Wizards) have exorbitant amounts of cap space that they would love to throw at KD, and would offer him the chance to be the unequivocal star of the team unlike with the Warriors (though of course playing with LeBron would be a marked difference).
My thoughts on this whole Durant situation (which I’ve had for awhile but feel now is the best time to share them) seem to differ from all other Warriors fans. While the overwhelming majority can't wait to see KD stay in the Bay, I say ‘good riddance.’ What? Is he out of his mind? This is blasphemy! Yeah yeah, I’ve heard it all, but my stance remains the same: the Warriors are better without Durant and should let him walk in free agency this summer.
Now I’ve just made a pretty bold claim, one that surely would leave most scratching their heads or racing to formulate an argument that would completely discredit my opinion. So, in response, here are some factors that point to a Durant divorce as the best option for the Warriors.
First off, the obvious statistic that many NBA fans have probably heard by now: since KD signed with the Warriors in 2016, Golden State is 29-1 in games where Stephen Curry plays but Durant does not (the exact situation we are seeing unfold in the Playoffs right now, where the Warriors remain undefeated sans-Durant). Now I’m no mathematician, but 29-1 seems darn good to me, even for the Warriors. But why is that? Well, for starters, Durant does not fit into the traditional Warriors mold, and he never has. On their way to winning the NBA Championship in 2015 (and before Durant joined the team), the Warriors were heralded for their flowing style of play, one that featured player and ball movement at all times to find the open shot. They also were one of the first teams to dominant opponents by playing at an extremely fast pace, always pushing the ball up the court and whipping it around on offense to keep the defense scurrying. So, when Durant chose to sign with them following a disappointing Finals loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2016, it seemed an odd fit; the team known for its ball movement and unselfishness had just signed a player who made a living (and won an MVP) off of isolation plays, slowing the game down and taking tough shots. And, surprise surprise, Durant was not an immediate fit with the Warriors. Even to this day, they have struggled to integrate his style into their once majestic offense, as their pace has slowed down and we rarely see possessions where the ball is zipping around the court anymore. Sure, Durant has provided over 27 points and six assists per game, but at the cost of other Warriors. While Curry has still performed at a near-MVP level, Klay Thompson has struggled to find his footing as he did when the Splash Brothers were carrying the Dubs. Off nights have become a much more common occurrence, as Thompson is not getting the regular looks he did before Durant arrived and now has to contend with two MVP-type players for his share of the offense. In the games since Durant left with his injury, Thompson has exploded and looks more and more like his old self, as he has become the second option and is receiving big minutes as the only starter on the floor (a time when he can really hunt his shot and use his teammates to get open). Furthermore, the term “Warriors basketball” has forced its way back into the NBA lexicon, at least for now. Their trademark ball movement is back, and they leave us breathless at times by finding the open man after a a beautiful sequence. They’re also killing teams on the fastbreak now, something they didn't do quite as often with Durant but is making a huge impact in their close games. These are the facets that made Golden State the dynasty that it is, and with Durant those facets get toned down, stashed away in favor of simply using starpower to win a game.
But Durant’s misfitting with the Warriors is not the only reason I want him gone. It’s also the price tag that comes attached to him, and the rippling effect it has on the rest of the Warriors’ roster. Because guess what? Durant is not the only high-profile free agent-to be on the Warriors. Thompson is also headed for the open market, where he is sure to garner at least a max contract. With the Warriors already into the luxury tax, they can realistically only afford to pay either Durant or Thompson. While 99 percent of the population sees this as an easy decision, one where the Warriors quickly pounce on Durant and forget about Thompson, I contend that viewpoint and say that Thompson is actually much more valuable to Golden State than Durant, and therefore the one they should pay. I mean heck, people seem to forget the Warriors won a championship without Durant! Even right now, the Splash Bros (with the always-helpful presence of Draymond Green of course) are dominating the Playoffs without KD, and are on their way to another Finals appearance. With Thompson and Curry, you get the same awe-inspiring style of play that catapulted the Dubs to the top of the NBA, all while maintaining an elite level of talent. With Durant and Curry, you form an uneasy dynamic where both guys could be the number one option, and where isolation plays start to take over. But it’s not just the style that points to Thompson as a better fit, it’s also the money: while Durant is going to make his $40 million next year, Klay has repeatedly stated he wants to stay with Golden State for good and is willing to take a paycut to ensure that happens. By only signing Thompson, the Warriors will free up a huge amount of cash they previously were going to commit to Durant, and they can use those savings to rebuild a bench that is nearing the end of its usefulness. This has been well-documented in the Playoffs, where before the Durant injury Golden State’s bench hardly ever saw the court. Even know, when they play it’s a mosh of old and new, but whatever it is it’s not a Championship-caliber bench, something that the Warriors will admittedly need if Durant departs (similar to the outstanding bench their Championship team had in 2015). By restocking the bench, they can easily withstand the loss of Durant and use their money to bring in culture-positive guys who will return the Warriors to their glory days of ball movement and fun.
So yeah, if KD wants to make the max and waste his career in New York, go ahead. The Warriors will be chillin back in the Bay with another trophy.