Addition By Subtraction: The Warriors Without Durant

Addition By Subtraction: The Warriors Without Durant

Harrison Barnes Over KD Seems Like Insanity…But is it?

Byline: Jon Whited

Prologue

Basketball lovers are constantly on the search for the greatest – in all its forms.  Who’s the next most dominant after Jordan? Will there ever be another statistical giant like Wilt? Who’s the greatest team of all-time? The last question has intrigued me for years since reading Bill Simmons’ Book of Basketball in 2010. In January 2018, I wrote my first article indirectly exploring this topic and came to the conclusion it was that years’ version of the Warriors. For those who haven’t had a chance to read that article, it will help provide context for this article as we explore whether or not the Warriors are better with or without the alien we call Kevin Durant. Please give it a read if you feel so inclined.

Intro

With another NBA Finals featuring the NBA’s most hated and talented team since LeBron’s Miami Heat, the one question everyone is asking: Will Kevin Durant be healthy for the Finals?  But the question I ask is: Does that even matter at all?

Here’s a stat for you…since acquiring Durant Golden State is 34-4 in games without him, which extrapolated to 82 games is 73-9 (go figure), the same record as their record-setting 2015-2016 regular season. They are a combined 154-54 with Durant over that same period. That’s a winning percentage of 89% without Durant and 74% when he suits up. So, when one of the greatest juggernauts this game has ever seen loses a top 10 all-time talent in Kevin Durant, you’re telling me they go from contender-level to historically great? How does that makes sense? It absolutely doesn’t.


Travel back to July 4, 2016, the day Kevin Durant left Russell Westbrook in the rearview mirror and took his talents to Silicon Valley. This is also the day the league changed forever as a generational talent, top-10 all time player, and perhaps the most effortless scorer who has ever walked this Earth joined forces with the greatest regular season team of all time.  Everyone thought this ruined the NBA because who could compete with this “Super Team”? To acquire Kevin Durant, Golden State needed a lot of luck (the largest salary cap jump in league history) and to make one meaningful sacrifice from their 73 win team: not re-signing Harrison Barnes. This was a no brainer. But was it really? Is it possible for the greatest team of all time to get even better? One would think the only way to do that is to add one of the greatest players of all time while sacrificing far less. But the Warriors haven’t been able to eclipse the 73-9 mark from the record-setting 2015-2016 season since adding Durant. Does that mean the current version of the Warriors (with Durant) are not as good as the early version of the Warriors without KD? Let’s find out.

Team Composition

Before we dive into some stats, scheme, and team chemistry/mental makeup, let’s take a look at the teams composed by the great Golden State GM, Bob Myers.

2015 – 2016 Warriors (73-9, Lost in Finals in 7 games)

This version of the Warriors was built around the homegrown Big 3 of Steph Curry, an evolutionary talent and shooter, Klay Thompson, the ultimate 3 and D wing, and Draymond Green, perhaps the greatest role player of all time with one of the highest basketball IQs the game has ever seen. Each of these future hall of famers was drafted by the Warriors well later than he retrospectively should have been. And it felt criminal that Steph, who changed March Madness forever in his incredible run at Davidson, fell to 7th in the 2009 NBA Draft. The Warriors couldn’t have landed these stars without some luck and oversight by their peers. It took a couple of years and ultimately a new coach to unleash these three, but there is not a better complement of three players’ talents in the NBA today or maybe ever. This iteration of the Warriors was Steph-centric (32.6 usage rate). The offense revolved around Steph/Draymond pick and rolls and running Curry off as many screens as possible to create a controlled chaos away from the ball. Klay being Klay didn’t need many touches to be the great second banana that he was and benefitted from the chaos caused by Curry off ball. Klay was always ready to help with the scoring load while defending the best wing/guard on the end. Draymond was the best decision maker on the offensive end, always making the right pass at the right time while morphing into a rim protecting center on defense (at 6’7”), who could switch on to anyone at anytime they needed.

The rest of the rotation was was rounded out by key rotation guys like Andre Iguodala, Harrison Barnes, and Andrew Bogut. Iggy signed with Golden State in the summer of 2013 after being the star for years in Philly and playing for the 2012 US Olympic team. Coach K called Andre one of the team’s best players and compared him to Scottie Pippen, complimenting Iguodala’s versatile defense prawless, playmaking and leadership, which is a fair comparison and more appropriate use of his game than the high usage scorer we saw in Philly. Upon signing with Golden State, he knew he was going to have to sacrifice to fit in with this young trio and there might have not been have been a better player to fill that role (see the 2015 Finals MVP). Harrison Barnes was a young, talented wing who didn’t require a high usage to provide meaningful offense and his defensive versatility allowed the Warriors to switch everything creating one of the league best defenses with an evolutionary offense on the other end. Bogut provided the traditional role of rim protector/screen setter and more than willing accepted and adequately filled the role. The rest of the team was composed of underrated and underpaid role players the likes of Shaun Livingston (great backup point guard), Festus Ezeli (screen setter/rebounder), and Leandro Barbosa (irrational confidence scorer off the bench) that understood Steve Kerr’s grandiose plan and fit in seamlessly with the aforementioned 6. These 3 rounded out the best 9 man rotation in the league (and you don’t need any more than that – look at the Celtics this year).

Durant Warriors (2016 – present, 2 championships in 2 seasons)

When KD shocked most of us in the sporting world by teaming up with the aforementioned Big 3 to form the first Big 4 in recent memory, the question on everyone’s minds was how will they all be happy? There is still just one ball to go around. This is a valid point and we had a similar conversation when CP3 teamed up with James Harden to challenge these Warriors. My thoughts on the Warriors at the time, were Durant will fit in seamlessly with this beautiful offense given how silky smooth and effortless he was as a scorer. We already saw in OKC that Durant didn’t necessarily need to be the most utilized player on his team to be extremely effective and efficient. So how could this be any different now that he is surrounded by a better cast of characters, collectively and individually?

The KD fit appeared to be seamless as expected but during the 2016-2017 season, with one of the greatest regular seasons of all-time (67 wins) validated by easily capturing the NBA title over the Cavs with a dominant and record-setting 16-1 record in the playoffs. KD by all accounts had a great and efficient season, averaging 25 points with a team-high 65% true shooting percentage and 27.6 PER all while still allowing their defense to be even more versatile with his 7 foot frame, freakishly long arms, and unbelievable footwork. With the addition of KD and a second title in 3 years, the Warriors instantly flipped from being the loveable darlings of the NBA to the ultimate villains (and lord knows the NBA needed a villain greater than Lebron’s Big 3).

Obviously, the addition of Durant shook up the composition of the rest of the team. The most obvious departures from the record-setting regular season juggernaut in 2015-2016 were Barnes and Bogut. That is sacrifice you are willing to make 100 times out of 100 to get a generational unicorn the likes of Durant. Iggy remained a key swiss army knife for the 2016-2017 Warriors, willing to do anything and everything asked and excelling no matter what his nightly duties were. Most of the remaining supporting cast changed this year with the most impactful additions from Matt Barnes (great glue guy) and Zaza Pachuila (Bogut 0.5). Shaun Livingston had the same role as backup point guard and Patrick McCaw rounded out the top 9. If you look at their full roster, this might have been one of the deepest teams of all time. They were really 13 deep with the likes of David West hovering at the end of the bench.

Looking at the construction of these two versions of the Warriors, the obvious difference is Durant but the allocation of minutes between the top 5 and top 9 in the rotation almost mirror each other. They were both historically great and almost perfectly composed. During the 2017-2018 season, something was a little different. The Warriors finished with a relatively disappointing 58-24 record finishing 2nd in the West behind the looming Houston Rockets. Curry missed 31 games during this season and would contribute to the worse record. But it also led to questions like are the Warriors bored? Have the suffered from the Disease of More? Are they happy playing together? Were they saving it for the playoffs? These are all great questions but almost impossible to answer. In the playoffs, the KD-Warriors faced their toughest test yet with a grueling 7-game series in the Conference Finals against the Rockets (needing a Chris Paul injury to do so). After toppling the top-seeded Rockets, Golden State brought home a second consecutive title as they dismantled the Lebron Cavs in a convincing sweep.

Flash forward to 2018-2019, the roster is very similarly constructed and all the same questions loomed large during the regular season. This year they finished 4th in a loaded western conference with a 57-25 record. But entering the playoffs, Vegas rightfully so still had the Warriors pegged as the favorites. As we entered the playoffs this year, the questions were: Can they flip the flip “on” switch? Do they have enough left in the tank after prior years’ battles? Most critics had these questions answered after beating the Rockets in 6 games, winning the last game without KD. Now the inquiries shifted to whether the Warriors could win the title without Durant. So far the answer as been absolutely, why not. Which makes no fuckin sense beacuse no other 54-win team in the history of the NBA could lose a top 10 talent and win the title (see Pippen Bulls). So let’s look at the numbers a little bit. Numbers don’t lie right?

Analytics

When comparing and contrasting the two iterations of the Warriors (before and after KD), one would expect statistics to show each of the Big 4 stars making sacrifices to gel with other superstars. Many people also argue the current version excelling in the playoffs and the pre-Durant Warriors have much better spacing, ball movement, and player movement. One would surmise there would be a decrease in assists and increase in isolations with the addition of Durant. These assumptions seem fair. Now let’s see if the numbers agree with our eyeballs and minds. Here’s a look at some relevant stats that should enlighten us.


PER

2015-20162016-20172017-20182018-2019
Curry31.524.628.224.4
Thompson18.617.416.016.6
Green19.316.516.112.9
Durant28.227.626.024.2

Overall, you’ll notice each of the Big 4, as expected, saw a dip in efficiency as they adjusted to each other. Most of these dips were minor with exception of the 2 Steph seasons (2016-2017 and 2018-2019), the 1 KD season (2018-2019) and the 1 Draymond season. This can credited to Steph and Durant making the greatest sacrifices to play alongside a fellow offense assassin and Draymond having an unusually poor regular season which could be attributed to his fitness (lost 20 lbs late in the season) and losing his confidence (28% 3 point shooting on mostly wide open looks).


Usage

2015-20162016-20172017-20182018-2019
Curry32.6%30.1%31.0%30.4%
Thompson26.3%26.1%23.7%25.6%
Green19.5%16.2%17.5%13.1%
Durant30.6%27.8%30.4%29.0%

The one stat one would think would be the most telling. You would expect to see meaningful decreases in the usage rates of the Big 4, but that really only manifested itself this season and can be attributed to Draymond’s poor, out-of-shape season or an outlier.


Touches

2015-20162016-20172017-20182018-2019
Curry85.678.276.976.8
Thompson46.647.847.646.3
Green81.876.578.170.0
Durant64.061.167.969.5

You’ll notice with the addition of Durant, Steph and Draymond saw meaningful decreases in touches to accommodate. Thompson hardly saw an impact as he is the ultimate 3 and D guy that does not need the ball to be effective. The numbers will tell you the offense still ran through Curry/Green but each year Durant became featured more and more as his touches increased. This is the evolution of one all-time great team to another one we see before eyes.


2015-20162016-20172017-20182018-2019
Assists/game28.930.429.329.4
Passes/game323.5317.7322.7320.1

As all the talking heads have been pointing out since Durant’s been out, the Warriors’ ball movement and passing is so much better, right? This shows no material change in team assists/game or passes/game as our eyes have been telling us.


2015-20162016-20172017-20182018-2019
Isolations/game7.06.36.97.1
Isolation %6.3%5.7%6.4%6.4%

Durant came from a isolation-centric environment in OKC and everyone believed with his addition to the Warriors, this number would skyrocket for Golden State. But that has not been the case; there has been almost no change (a drop if anything) in isolation possessions per game or isolation percentage.

After taking a close look at these stats, it’s really hard to make sense of the data. The numbers don’t really jump off the page at as you would expect. Hmm…that didn’t tell us what we expected to see or hear, so let’s take a closer looks the schemes coach Kerr cooked up for the two Warrior juggernauts.

Scheme

2015 – 2016 Warriors (73-9, Lost in Finals in 7 games)

This version of the Warriors, that captured the hearts of basketball fans across the globe, was centered around the greatest shooting backcourt ever assembled with one of the greatest role players and decision makers the game has ever seen. Steph started the 3 point revolution and Klay Thompson was right on his heels as they have gone on to shatter the 3 point record books once engraved with Ray Allen and Reggie Miller. These two, while the 2 greatest shooters this game as ever seen, also complimented each other perfectly. Steph had the handles, likes to have the ball in his hands, and is highly effective in the pick and roll. While Klay didn’t need the ball to get his shots/points and was able to cover up Curry’s weakest area of the game, defense, by regularly guarding the other team’s best guard and give Curry a chance to rest to carry the load on offense (32.6% usage).

Draymond was the ultimate sidekick to these two prolific shooters. He brings so much to the table it’s hard to truly appreciate it. On a nightly basis, Green was the alpha dog and leader of the team who was vital to the team’s chemistry and attitude that year. He also has one of the highest basketball IQs ever and was a deadly partner with Curry in their devastating pick and roll. As teams would be forced to double Curry, he would gladly make the correct play making the pass to Draymond, allowing to Green to pick apart the 4-3 situation presented making precious, crisp passes and beautiful lobs as the defense was helpless.

Steve Kerr proved himself as a basketball savant and revolutionized the NBA forever, pushing the league to positionless basketball, simply by having the brains and balls to unleash the now famed “Death Lineup” during the 2015 playoffs en route to the first title in this dynasty run. This lineup featured the Big 3 plus Harrison Barnes and Andre Iguodala leaving the Warriors with no one over 6’7” and no traditional center. However, this lineup did provide them incredible spacing and movement on offense and the most versatile defense we had seen to this point. In 111 playoff minutes that season, this lineup had a net rating of 17.4, for context the Warriors led the league by a wide margin with 10.0 net rating during the regular season.

This lineup was crucial in capturing the title in 2015, but Kerr was reluctant to utilize this lineup during the 2015-2016 regular season with only 172 minutes played. During that short time, the magnificent five played to an ungodly net rating of 38.6, helping to lead to the greatest regular season of all-time. As everyone expected Kerr unleashed his lineup as his trump card in the playoffs when it mattered most. But to everyone’s surprise, this lineup vastly underperformed with a net rating during the 2016 playoff push of -3.7 as their most utilized lineup with 125 minutes. The only explanation for this is the Hampton 5 choked in these playoffs, just no one realized at the time. If you need a reason this Warriors team didn’t capture the title look no further than this. Or this…

Durant Warriors (2016 – present, 2 championships in 2 seasons)

With the addition of KD, everyone pondered how this new look Warriors would function when they all graced the court together. Everyone rightfully assumed lesser roles for the incumbent Big 3 but just how much and would they ever find the right balance. Over the course of three years, the offense slowly departed from its Steph/Draymond approach to allow for significant and increasing Durant touches in their new offense. The Warriors wanted to make sure KD got his touches in his spots. He likes to operate in the mid-range (a place the previous Warriors minus Livingston almost never occupied) as he is a deadly assassin from there. With this shift, we saw less Steph creating chaos off ball, more Klay spot ups, less Steph/Draymond pick and rolls, and less Draymond being the playmaker he can be. But, hey you got to be willing to sacrifice something for the silky smooth unicorn in Durant. They were able to almost seamlessly find this balance during the 2016-2017 season producing a league-leading offense rating of 114.8 compared to 113.4 from the record-setting season prior while defense rating remained elite at 103.4 in 2016-2017 (2nd in league) compared to 102.8 the prior year.

With the departure of Harrison Barnes, the “Death Lineup” was no longer, but in its wake, it helped conceive the famed “Hampton 5,” which replaced Barnes with Durant. This upgrade gave the Warriors a much greater and more versatile scoring option while adding an otherworldly combination of height, length, and athleticism to their versatile defense. During the regular season, this lineup would terrorize opposing teams to the tune of a 23.3 net rating. While cruising to the 2017 title, their Warriors didn’t need to feature this lineup too much, but it was just as devastating with a net rating of 22.4.

The hall of fame Coach Steve Kerr transformed a somewhat broken system created by Mark Jackson and unleashed absolute hell on the rest of the NBA for the better part of five years now. He created great schemes for both versions of the Warriors that utilized his generation talents in seemingly the best ways possible all while keeping a calming presence that set the tone for this team. Given Kerr’s ability to adjust his gameplan to fit his personnel and having a group of players understand their roles better than maybe any team we have ever seen, the difference in schemes between the Durant and Durant-less Warriors most likely doesn’t play a significant factor. It must be something else then. Let’s take a look at the mental makeup of these teams.

Mindset/Chemistry/Disease of More

After an exciting playoff run in 2014, the Warriors and Steph Curry were the most beloved team in the league; the young gunners of the league that played an artistically beautiful style of basketball. The core of Curry, Thompson, and Green were all still early in the career and yet to accomplish anything more than reaching the 2nd round of the playoffs. Going into the 2014-2015 season, the first year under Kerr’s tutelage and the first title run, they were young, hungry, and played with a swagger like they had been running this league for years. Kerr helped provide some of that swagger by instilling even more confidence in his superstars with his “players-first” coaching mentality. Entering the next season, they were ready to take the league by storm and did so with perhaps the greatest regular season performance we will ever see. If you remember back to that season, the intensity of those regular season games was just on a different level than anything you saw this regular season. These guys were simply just hungry and that record meant everything to this team that season and nothing was going to stop them from accomplishing that.

After the loss to Lebron and Kyrie in the 2016 Finals and the addition of Durant, the Warriors were driven by these two factors this season: 1) get back at the Cavs and 2) prove they can be an evolutionary team with KD. This led to a magnificent 67-win season and a rampage to the NBA title. Going into the next season, it was clear the Warriors, exhausted after 3 straight Finals runs, were coasting in the regular season so they could flip NOS switch in the playoffs when it all mattered most. They were able to find the right balance and pull this off last season and have a great chance to do it again this year. This explains why the Warriors have not been as dominate in the regular season as they were before the arrival of KD but doesn’t explain why, when he is injured, they seem to get better. The only explanation for this that the original Big 3 gets pumped to prove they can still play without Durant like they used to and each one turns it up a notch or maybe the rest of the team fills the void better than we would think. It’s probably somewhere in between, but either way, it doesn’t seem to affect these Warriors as we’ve seen in these playoffs (5 straight wins without Durant).

Bob Myers did an unbelievable job considering team chemistry and how these Warriors would gel when constructing these teams. Just imagine if he had traded Klay Thompson for Kevin Love back in the day. We won’t have never been able to see this grace and beauty. These superstars are possibly the most unselfish collective group of superstars we have ever seen. There are 5 Hall of Famers on this team (yes, Iggy will get into the Hall) and all of them made sacrifices to allow for synergy among them. This has led to one of the most historic runs in NBA history, but no matter how you look at it this organization, from the front office, to the coaching staff, and ultimately the players, understands the “Secret” of basketball and it led them to the pinnacle of success.

Conclusion

After exploring the different factors explaining this phenomenon, we realized the scheme and the numbers weren’t the answer. The answer lied in the minds of the organization. Whether it was understanding the game, having the humility to accept a lesser role, or being driven to take the league by storm, these were the factors that played most into the success of this evolutionary squad. The game of basketball is more than just athleticism and skill and we all know that, but this is credible evidence that the “other stuff” (basketball IQ and will to win) matter more at times and the most in the playoffs. In the playoffs, you want warriors (no pun intended,) who know how to play the game the right way and we don’t have look any further for those than these players.

However, back to the original question: Are the Warriors better with or without KD? There is no definitive answer. What defines success? The greatest regular season of all-time? A championship? Both? No matter what, they are historically great and evolutionary but the biggest difference between the Warriors with and without KD is the impact Draymond has on the game both his mentality and on court contributions. This has manifested itself the past two weeks giving the whole team its swagger from 2015-2016 back. Whether or not Durant comes back, the Warriors will be the favorites no matter who comes out of the East and rightfully so. That’s the point; if you aggregate enough talent and basketball intellect together, they will figure it out and I have no doubt Golden State will in the coming weeks no matter what Durant’s future holds or who their opponent is.

Unfortunately, like all good things, they must come to an end, and this team is no exception. With an inevitable breakup of this Big 4 this summer, I beg you to please not take these Warriors (with or without KD) for granted because we will never see basketball magic like this again.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s