Kevin Durant Won
When Kevin Durant suffered an MCL sprain on the last day of February, it only phased his teammates for a little while. The Warriors lost 5 of their first 7 games without the 6’11” wingman, but they were able to right the ship and reel off 13 straight wins. During that Durant-less winning streak, I heard a lot of scorching hot takes that sounded something like, “the Warriors didn’t need Kevin Durant. They just needed the Thunder to not have Kevin Durant.”
After a five-game gentleman’s sweep of the Cleveland Cavaliers where Kevin Durant led his team in scoring, defended the other teams best player, and made every big shot he took, it is clear that notion is false. The Warriors absolutely needed Kevin Durant to beat a team that had won the draft lottery three times in 4 years (four times in 11 years) and sported the league’s best and seventh best players. But the Warriors’ need for Kevin Durant won’t earn anyone’s sympathy, nor will it stop NBA fans from blaming the Warriors for the league’s parity problem.
Times have changed
Durant’s instantly infamous choice to move from Oklahoma City to Golden State has pissed off a lot of people. Among the pissed, are former stars of the NBA. Scottie Pippen, Paul Pierce, Charles Barkley, and Reggie Miller are just a few who’ve panned the transaction. That shouldn’t surprise anyone because back when these guys played, rosters were built differently. In the 90s thru the early 2000s, superstar players didn’t move from team to team during their primes. They stayed put, while the leagues secondary superstars—Dennis Rodman, Tom Chambers, and an old Clyde Drexler to name a few—tested free agency or requested trades in hopes of being part of a championship team. But during this time, seeds were planted that would grow to be the new norm. Players like Shaq and Gary Payton exercised an independence that not many players seemed to be aware they had. But the league gained a new consciousness in the summer of 2010 when Lebron James made “The Decision” to go to Miami, shifting the power of team building from the front office to the hardwood.
At that point in his career, James had fully established himself as a basketball superstar. He’d won the league MVP twice and led subpar rosters to consecutive 60-win season, but his career was still as incomplete as his hairline. While the line between superstar and legend is thin in the NBA, the only way across it is with a championship ring on your finger. Fair or not, championships are what separate the basketball players we revere from the ones we overlook. They separate Dr. J from Dominique, Isaiah from Nash, Hakeem from Ewing, and Nowitzki from Malone. Lebron realized that and did something about it; others noticed too. It shouldn’t have come as a huge shock that the next superstar, a championship short of legendary status, would do the same thing. Yet, Durant’s move didn’t just shock the 29 other NBA franchises and their fans, it outraged them.
If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. If you can’t join ‘em, imitate ‘em
Now, websites and social media timelines are constantly bombarded with complaints that the NBA is ruined and calls for Golden State’s dominance to be regulated. NBA executives and especially players shouldn’t waste their time wishing the Warriors could be deconstructed. They should be looking for ways to construct their own version of the Warriors.
Let’s remember, the masterful blend of shooting, playmaking, and defense that originally enticed Kevin Durant was formed well within the confines of league rules. Golden State didn’t force Minnesota to draft two point guards before Steph Curry in 2009. They didn’t force Sacramento to draft Jimmer Fredette a pick before Klay Thompson was taken in 2011. And they didn’t force the entire league to let Draymond Green fall all the way to the 35th pick of the 2012 draft. Those teams made those mistakes on their own dumb volition. Legislating the Warriors would be legislating the rest of the league’s stupidity. Yes the acquisition of Durant is what widened the talent gap to where it is now, but it was because of smart business decisions—signing Steph Curry to an $11 million a year deal when his ankles were hurt and refusing to trade Klay Thompson for Kevin Love when everyone in the world except for Jerry West said they should—gave them the cap room to sign a max player. That’s something any team can do.
So since the league’s front offices have failed to compete, it’s up to star players to do what I imagine they were doing last night: talk to other great players about teaming up. Star players will most likely respond to the Warriors dominance in one of two ways, both beneficial to the league. They’ll either stay put and make as much money as possible (good for small market teams), or they’ll take a little less with hopes of winning a career defining championship. To catch the Warriors could take a year or two for any team, other than whoever has Lebron James, but the super team arms race can being as soon as now.
A few things that come to mind
Lets start with the closest contender, Cleveland. Sure, David Griffin, Lebron James, and Rich Paul handcuffed themselves by overpaying J.R. Smith and Tristan Thompson, but they have moves they can make. They might matchup poorly with Kevin Durant and the lineup of death, but Thompson and Love are both valuable assets in this league. Trading one or the other would clear up significant cap space. And I’m sure struggling teams like Indiana and Chicago would be willing to deal Paul George and Jimmy Butler, respectively, for the right price. A more athletic and versatile version of the Cavaliers could counter some of the obvious matchup problems seen in this year’s finals.
Boston has the No. 1 pick of this year’s draft, and they will likely have the No. 1 pick of next year’s draft too. Combine that fortune with the bevy of cap space Danny Ainge has brilliantly allotted for this offseason, and Boston could be a likely landing spot for free agent Gordon Hayward. Could this team beat Golden State in a 7 game series? Hell no. But what about in two years from now? Three years? We could be talking about a starting lineup of Isaiah Thomas, Markelle Fultz, Hayward, Michael Porter, and Al Horford with Avery Bradley and Marcus Smart coming off the bench. I’ll just leave that there.
Chris Paul is rumored to be interested in joining Kawhi Leonard and the San Antonio Spurs. He’d be leaving a lot of money on the table, but a championship for Paul, one of the all-time great point guards, would be priceless. Dumping Pau Gasol’s miserably over-priced contract on another team and nudging Manu Ginobili toward retirement would give San Antonio the room to make this happen.
Carmelo Anthony has been on the trading block since the second Phil Jackson arrived in the Big Apple. He has a no trade clause that gives him the power to determine where he ends up. He could resurrect his badly damaged legacy with a championship run in Los Angeles, Oklahoma City, or even Cleveland.
Blake Griffin and Jrue Holiday will be testing free agency this offseason. If Sam Presti can find trade offers for Enes Kanter and Kyle Singler, Oklahoma City could land some much needed complimentary scoring options for Russell Westbrook.
We are in a Golden Age for the NBA
Some will say that this wouldn’t fix the NBA’s parity problem. The talent gap between the best and worst teams would only widen, and these newly formed super teams still wouldn’t be better than Golden State. However, the NBA has always only been a five to six team league. Teams seeded in the 5-8 slots almost never make it past the second round of the playoffs, and television ratings indicate that Americans are more intrigued by dynasties than they lead on. While Golden State would still open the season as a favorite, their odds probably wouldn’t be an insane -200 in a universe where super teams reign supreme. What’s more, is that anyone who has been a fan of a middle-tear NBA team knows how hopeless of a place basketball purgatory can be. In this league, if you’re going to be bad, you might as well be terrible and get high draft picks.
To catch Durant and Warriors won’t be easy. Front office execs will have to be shrewd, and players will have to practice something Golden State so obviously mastered years ago: selflessness.