Kevin Durant, Warriors Set to Face Unprecedented Pressure After Joining Forces

Michael PinaFeatured ColumnistJuly 4, 2016

OAKLAND, CA - MAY 30:  Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors speaks with Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder after their 96-88 win in Game Seven of the Western Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at ORACLE Arena on May 30, 2016 in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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The 2016-17 Golden State Warriors may go down as the greatest basketball team ever assembled.

Kevin Durant's decision to join the same juggernaut that eliminated his Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference Finals, which he announced Monday in an essay on The Players' Tribune, will forever alter basketball history, one way or another.

On paper, so much about this squad is already groundbreaking. It won an NBA-record 73 games last season and was five points shy of completing perhaps the greatest campaign in professional sports history.

The Warriors responded by adding one of the world's three best players to a roster that already has three top-10 talents, including the reigning two-time MVP. Durant, Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson are all in their primes, ready to bludgeon the league with atmospheric spacing and '88 Mike Tyson-level punching power.

But no matter how loaded this Golden State squad looks on July 4, nothing is guaranteed. The Warriors are the presumptive favorite to win it all next season, but they'll attempt to do so with more pressure than any organization has ever faced. 

Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

To carve out enough cap space to sign Durant to a two-year max deal, per ESPN.com's Marc Stein, the Warriors must make some fundamental changes to their supporting cast.

Starting small forward Harrison Barnes is gone, presumably to the Dallas Mavericks, according to Stein. Starting center Andrew Bogut is also on his way to Dallas via a trade, per The Vertical's Adrian Wojnarowski. Additionally, backup center Festus Ezeli will likely sign elsewhere, as the Warriors have renounced their rights to the big man, according to Stein

So, this team clearly has trillion-watt star power, but there is still depth to think about. Andre Iguodala (32 years old) and second-year wing Kevon Looney are on board. Shaun Livingston is as well now that the Warriors have picked up his option, per Marc J. Spears of ESPN's The Undefeated.

Golden State will also use the room exception ($2.9 million) to sign Zaza Pachulia, according to The Vertical's Shams CharaniaIf you're a Warriors fan, that's a value signing that helps remedy concerns with depth and height following the departures of Bogut and Ezeli. If you're a detractor, which the Twittersphere proved there are now plenty of, you have even more reason to criticize if Golden State can't put it together immediately in 2016-17.

But even if the bench proves to be an Achilles' heel at times, that's far from the end of the world. When you have the 2014 MVP alongside the current back-to-back Maurice Podoloff Trophy winner, it's more than enough to win it all.

The catch is, unlike other mega-Goliaths built in modern times, Golden State may only have one season to find and maintain the very chemistry it forfeited for the right to incorporate Durant into a system that was already mostly flawless. Time is not on the Warriors' side. 

Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

Durant's contract is a two-year deal with a second-year player option. When he (presumably) opts out and becomes an unrestricted free agent next summer, the Warriors must maintain enough cap space to re-sign him. Curry will also be an unrestricted free agent, though Golden State can exceed the cap to re-ink him by virtue of owning his Bird rights. The Dubs can also offer him an additional year on his contract and more money than any other team.

Money spent (and to eventually be spent) aside, expectations are astronomical. The Warriors won more regular-season games than any group in history last year, withstood a knee injury to Curry in the first round of the playoffs and likely would've won it all had Bogut not injured his knee and/or Green been suspended for Game 5 against Cleveland

They could've brought back the exact same group and been viewed as favorites to win it all next year with Barnes and Bogut in the fold. Instead, they'll likely take a minor step back in the regular season (73 wins isn't happening again for a very long time) for the opportunity to pose unanswerable issues for teams in the playoffs. 

But if the Warriors fail to win it all—be it due to an unfortunate injury, bad luck or unforeseeable struggles—they will be criticized on all levels. The media, social media and fans across the league will question whether it was worth it to break up a core that was already a dynasty in the making. They'll remind Durant that he left a contender to win a title when he already had the best sidekick in basketball beside him. 

Quite frankly, the Warriors will be the bad guys of the NBA, but even worse, they won't have a title to show for it.

There's also the improbable outcome where Durant and/or Curry considers that this new superteam isn't as glamorous as once assumed. Once an underdog darling beloved across the country, the Warriors have transformed into an immodest villain. That narrative may not impact Durant and Curry as it did LeBron James when he signed with the Miami Heat in 2010, but that Heat team faced less short-term pressure because of the long-term contracts that the Big Three of James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade signed.

Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

Should, for whatever reason, a sour taste form in Durant's mouth—major sacrifice tends to do that—it's possible he seeks another opportunity in 2017. The most recent precedent of a superstar skipping town after one miserable season is Dwight Howard with the Los Angeles Lakers.

The difference between these two situations is clear: The Warriors aren't physically deteriorating, and Durant already knows how it feels to coexist beside another top-five player. Westbrook is an inextinguishable forest fire who obligated his teammates to surrender shots and touches for his (and oftentimes the team's) greater good.

Will that help guide a smoother assimilation? Perhaps, but Golden State's major players will still be forced to relinquish more shots and touches than they'd like. How will Thompson react to every post-up and isolation being cut from his diet? How will Green respond when the ball isn't in his hands nearly as often as it has been over the past couple of seasons? 

Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

The Warriors and Durant are both hungry. They could all taste the title before disaster struck and each blew commanding 3-1 series leads. But multiple lengthy playoff runs take a toll on the body, and an entire regular season of battling their opponent's very best takes a toll on the mind. 

Golden State has one year to figure everything out, but it's already under the microscope. If this experiment doesn't work right out of the gate, the strain that comes with failing to kick-start an assumed dynasty will be painfully apparent.

That, or the Warriors will romp through the league for the next five years and go down as a transcendent force of nature.

Either way, next season is suddenly a huge deal.