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Burden Is on Kevin Durant to Make Marriage with Warriors Reach Its Potential

Ric Bucher@@RicBucherNBA Senior WriterJuly 5, 2016

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - MAY 28:  Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder reacts during the fourth quarter against the Golden State Warriors in game six of the Western Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at Chesapeake Energy Arena on May 28, 2016 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. 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 Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Now that the Golden State Warriors have lured Kevin Durant away from the Oklahoma City Thunder, the next piece of business is to figure out exactly what he makes them.

"Strength in Numbers," last year's thematic description, no longer applies, or at least not as it did. "Powered by Stars" now is more like it, or, perhaps, "Strength in Offensive Numbers."

Adding Durant, a four-time scoring champion, to the league's most potent offense has the other 29 teams already staring at blank whiteboards and pondering defensive schemes to disrupt three of the league's most lethal shooters—Durant, Steph Curry and Klay Thompson. But let's be clear: It's not as if KD is icing on the pre-existing fabulous cake.

The Warriors have accentuated a strength—scoring—to arguably an unprecedented level. It does, though, come with a price. Durant is not joining a Warriors team that just went 73-9 and fell one made three-pointer or one defensive stand short of back-to-back championships. That team has been disassembled and parts strewn elsewhere to make room for him.

For anyone viewing them as the same squad, only with KD replacing Harrison Barnes, who had more field-goal attempts (71) than points scored (65) in last month's NBA Finals, think again.

How many times last season did you hear about the Warriors' extraordinary chemistry? Or that their second unit was better than some teams' starting five?

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How many times did you watch teams hang with Curry and Klay, only to fall behind once it became a battle of the benches? How many times did you hear, and then witness, that they could win playing fast or slow, big or small? Maybe next season's platitudes include the first one, but the latter ones will be almost impossible to replicate.

"Teams will hope their chemistry is a weakness, but the huge thing is their bench," one opposing Pacific Division veteran forward said. "That's their biggest weakness. Their depth was tops in the league."

Their bench won't be as thin as it was three years ago, when the Los Angeles Clippers knocked them out of the first round, but it will be closer to that than the last two years, for sure.

Back then, they didn't have starting center Andrew Bogut (cracked rib), and their bench consisted of Barnes (shooting nearly as badly as he did in the Finals), Marreese Speights, Jordan Crawford, Steve Blake, Hilton Armstrong and Jermaine O'Neal.

OAKLAND, CA - JUNE 13:  J.R. Smith #5 of the Cleveland Cavaliers goes up for a shot against Andrew Bogut #12 of the Golden State Warriors in the second half in Game 5 of the 2016 NBA Finals at ORACLE Arena on June 13, 2016 in Oakland, California. NOTE TO
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

There is a funny thing about Bogut's exodus to Dallas for a second-round pick.

In much the same way anonymous sources spread unflattering innuendo about former coach Mark Jackson to make his ouster palatable despite unprecedented success, team sources told CSN Bay Area's Monte Poole that Bogut had fallen out of favor for being injured too often, a reluctant scorer and strangely disengaged at the most crucial times. (Bogut displayed all the same qualities under Jackson, of course, but at that time only his dissatisfaction with Jackson received attention.)

All that aside, Bogut remains one of the league's best passing centers, screen-setters and, when healthy, help defenders. The Warriors lost their last two games against the Cavs playing predominantly small ball. KD's presence isn't going to change that.

Joining Bogut in Dallas on a four-year max deal is Barnes, whose work ethic, willingness to adapt his role and well-disguised vibrant personality was a vital part of the team's rapport. He couldn't hit an open shot in the Finals, and he struggled defending James, but he had plenty of nights where his defense, timely scoring and rebounding were indispensable.

The Warriors anticipate Durant's signing will cost them backup center Festus Ezeli as well. They drafted Vanderbilt center Damian Jones and signed free-agent big man Zaza Pachulia. But Jones isn't expected to be ready until midseason because of surgery on a torn pectoral muscle. And while Pachulia's physical toughness could be valuable for a team the Cavaliers pushed around under the rim, his 13-year career average in blocked shots is 0.3.

He is not a rim protector.

That means the Warriors will be more dependent on forward/center Draymond Green's defense, both on the ball and as a shot-blocker, than ever before. It is not by accident that Green made a point of welcoming Durant by noting what he could provide defensively.

"The way we play defense, he can play defense that way," Green told Sports Illustrated's Alex Kennedy. "I think one thing that he really adds to us is that he's a guy who can get a bucket at any time, in any way. ... But the thing that I'm most excited about is the defensive end—the length that he adds to our defense. I just keep thinking of how incredible that's going to be."

OAKLAND, CA - MAY 30:  Draymond Green #23 of the Golden State Warriors shakes hands with Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder after Game Seven of the Western Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs on May 30, 2016 at ORACLE Arena in Oaklan
Noah Graham/Getty Images

It could be. Durant, a lithe and agile 6'11" with nearly a 7'5" wingspan, is not nearly the shot-blocker or general defensive presence he should be. In 37.8 minutes per game, he averages one blocked shot.

Green, in 25.4 minutes per game for his career, has the same average. Obviously, Durant has played a different role than Green, but assuredly, the Thunder did not discourage him from impacting the game in a multitude of ways any more than the Warriors did Green.

Yet Green had 13 triple doubles last season. KD had one. He is a sensational scorer, first and foremost, but he has the requisite skills to be more than that.

Nor has he been exceptional as an on-ball defender, particularly against LeBron James and other physical power forwards. If Green has to take those assignments more often with Bogut and Ezeli gone, then Durant has to be a significantly better rim protector than he has been. Otherwise, the field day the Cavaliers had in the paint at times could be foreshadowing.

"KD's mindset has always been, 'I'm going to outscore my guy,'" a team executive who has worked with him in the past said. "That's his idea of defense. He usually does it, too, but it's not the ideal approach."

Opposing teams are also sure to apply what worked so successfully for both the Thunder and Cavs during the playoffs against the Warriors, which was to attack Curry whenever possible. With Bogut injured for nearly the entire last three games of the Finals and Ezeli wholly ineffective (one blocked shot in more than 60 minutes played versus the Cavs), Curry was all too often defending on a one-man island.

"You still have to attack Curry and try to make Durant work," one opposing assistant coach in charge of his team's defense said. "You have to be real physical with a team like that if you can be, on both ends of the floor."

If there's reason for the Warriors to believe Durant is open to a different approach, it's his letter for The Players' Tribune announcing his decision. In it, he wrote that his personal "primary mandate" was that the decision be "based on the potential for my growth as a player."

OAKLAND, CA - MAY 26: Kevin Durant #35 and Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder during Game Five of the Western Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs on May 26, 2016 at ORACLE Arena in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressl
Noah Graham/Getty Images

That growth will have to be on offense as well, although last season with the Thunder should make that development less of a challenge. OKC head coach Billy Donovan allowed Russell Westbrook to be the primary facilitator and had Durant playing off him more than the previous regime.

Green's playmaking skills, particularly from the top of the key, along with Curry's and backup point guard Shaun Livingston's floor vision, means Durant will have to improve "moving without the ball," the opposing Pacific Division forward said.

Whether Durant changes or not, the Warriors already have.

While the remaining core players are collectively ecstatic about KD's decision, this is a team that never has taken well to parts of its formula being dismissed, whether it was Jackson or an end-of-the-bench towel-waver, Kent Bazemore. When the latter and MarShon Brooks were dealt to the Lakers for Blake, Curry said loudly as he passed general manager Bob Myers discussing the trade with reporters, "It's just a business!"

There is a cold ruthlessness to the Warriors' makeover. Owner Joe Lacob, true to his Silicon Valley venture-capitalist roots, promised changes mere days after the Warriors lost to the Cavs and well before they knew they were getting Durant.

Winning 73 games, recovering from a 3-1 deficit to the Thunder in the Western Conference Finals, and being one minute away from a second title has not only been treated as an abject failure, but consider who is being cast out: Bogut, Barnes and Ezeli, all of whom made significant contributions at other times but struggled in the Finals.

Carving up companies that underperform is standard operating procedure in some corners of the business world, but in sports, it has been the franchises that resist snap decisions and overreactions to disappointment that have had sustained success.

Will this KD-aided version of the Warriors be better? Possibly. Will it be different? Absolutely. How different? The entire league, with a decent mix of both trepidation and hope, looks forward to finding out.

Ric Bucher covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @RicBucher.