Do Golden State Warriors Need Kevin Durant in NBA Finals?

Will Gottlieb@@wontgottliebFeatured Columnist IMay 24, 2019

OAKLAND, CA - APRIL 7: Klay Thompson #11 of the Golden State Warriors high-fives Draymond Green #23 of the Golden State Warriors while Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors high-fives Kevin Durant #35 of the Golden State Warriors against the LA Clippers on April 7, 2019 at ORACLE Arena 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 Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2019 NBAE (Photo by Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images)
Noah Graham/Getty Images

The original Warriors trio has it rolling. They're looking like their 73-win selves.

In the Western Conference semifinals, they shut down the Houston Rockets in the final quarter of Game 5 and finished off the series in Game 6. They waltzed to a sweep of the Portland Trail Blazers in the Western Conference Finals.

They did all of that without Kevin Durant. And even though Durant may return at some point during the NBA Finals, this next round will be a different story.

When Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Stephen Curry are on the floor without Durant in these playoffs, the Warriors' net rating is plus-6.0 in 162 minutes. With all four together, the team's net rating is plus-4.9 in 277 minutes.

While these numbers aren't necessarily predictive of future success, it plays into the shortsighted narrative that the Warriors don't need Durant, who was looking like the best player alive while averaging 34.2 points, 5.2 rebounds and 4.9 assists and shooting 51.3/41.6/90.1 in the playoffs less than a month ago. Funny how things change.

Is this an indictment of Durant? Of course not. The Warriors are supremely talented even without him.

Does that affect whether they'll need him in the Finals, regardless of who they play? It may seem that way, but they'll need all the help they can get.

The Warriors won before Durant arrived in the Bay Area, but his defensive versatility, scoring ability and the depth he adds to this team should not be overlooked.

OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA - MAY 08: Kevin Durant #35 of the Golden State Warriors makes a three-point shot against the Houston Rockets during Game Five of the Western Conference Semifinals of the 2019 NBA Playoffs at ORACLE Arena on May 08, 2019 in Oakland, Cal
Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

During the regular season, with Durant on the court alongside the original Big Three, the Warriors' net rating was plus-16.6 in 1,091 minutes compared to plus-5.9 in 141 minutes without him. Across 82 regular-season games and 16-plus playoff games over each of the past three seasons, Curry, Green, Thompson and Andre Iguodala would have had a much higher workload if not for Durant.

With Durant in the fold, Curry sat out 15 fourth quarters this season, 18 in 2017-18 and 25 in 2016-17. That equates to 58 quarters, or 14.5 games off over the past three seasons.

Though Curry got to rest for 19 fourth quarters during the 73-win campaign in 2015-16, it's unrealistic to expect the Warriors sans Durant to continue to run teams off the floor day-after-day, year-after-year. Curry has been able to average 39.4 minutes over his last 10 games because Durant's presence, especially in the regular season, helped him stay fresh.

For a star with an injury-riddled past, those minutes matter. And they will continue to matter in the Finals.

Without Durant, the Warriors move more and faster, which can make them tougher to guard. Curry's stop-and-go sprinting around the court like a middle schooler will turn into three points if you stop to catch your breath.

Before Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals, Blazers guard Seth Curry told B/R: "They move around a lot quicker, they know they have to be sharper as a team when they don't have Kevin on the floor. A lot of times when he's on the floor, they run one action. Steph gets the matchup he wants, Klay gets the open shot, whatever. If not, they end up throwing it to KD and he goes to work. Without KD on the floor, they have to work harder without the ball. Steph will come off three, four screens, Klay comes off more screens, so you gotta be locked in, all five guys for longer periods of the shot clock." 

That style of play is amazing. There has never been anything quite like it.

"Steph does a lot of giving the ball up and not playing shooting guard, but running off screens and pindowns," Blazers swingman Rodney Hood said. "He's back to vintage Steph coming off pick-and-roll and knocking down shots."

The numbers suggest the Warriors are more successful without Durant, but those are shorter bursts (perhaps motivated by the feeling that they won't be able to win as easily). Aesthetics aside, that extra motion may makes things more challenging for the defense, but it's also harder for the Warriors to sustain. Having Durant requires some accommodations, but that makes life easier.

Ben Margot/Associated Press

With or without Durant, the Warriors are a top-heavy team. Without Durant and DeMarcus Cousins, Alfonzo McKinnie and Jordan Bell are suddenly starting when Iguodala, 35, misses a game.

It's worked so far, but the longer the Warriors go like this, the greater the risk.

While the Raptors and Bucks have used their depth to carry them and give their stars rest, the Warriors' stars have had to carry that burden themselves. As the injuries continue to pile up, Curry, Thompson and Green will have to defend fresher legs as they combat their own exhaustion. The Finals won't be a four-game sweep.

Kawhi Leonard or Giannis Antetokounmpo loom, and while the Warriors have a few gifted defensive options to throw at either, having more bodies and more length would be ideal. Iguodala and Thompson will concede size and strength, while it's better to have Green quarterbacking the defense from behind, jumping passing lanes and directing traffic rather than defending Leonard or Antetokounmpo on an island.

Whoever Kerr goes to as the primary defender, both the Raptors and Bucks have had success against one another defending as a team, walling off the paint and forcing jumpers and kick-outs. Having Durant's 7'5" wingspan in the mix would give the Warriors a leg up on defense.

The Warriors' small-ball lineup works because they have the versatile wings to allow Green to play up a position at center. Without Durant, they do not. That takes them out of their game, putting them in a position where they have to play bigger. How will the Warriors defend Marc Gasol or Brook Lopez at the three-point line and still have a body in the paint to protect the rim?

Forget everything else. Half-court offense bogs down in the playoffs, and it's better to have two elite scorers to try to get a bucket rather than only one.

"Well, with [Durant] on the court, there's just another great offensive player, and so when you put him out there with Steph and Klay, it's really challenging from a defensive standpoint," Blazers head coach Terry Stotts told reporters before Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals. "And his versatility in his offense. When you take him out of it, I think they do play a different style. Certainly Curry gets more involved. I think Klay gets more involved because they need to. And so the focus or emphasis on those two guys probably becomes a little bit more."

With Durant, there's single coverage all around. Curry and Durant can pick their spots and isolate when they want. Curry can continue to roam around the court firing threes while Durant isolates from the mid-post. The two complement each other brilliantly, and the offensive arsenal is limitless.

This isn't NBA2K. Curry, Thompson and Draymond have had to make sacrifices to accommodate Durant and vice versa. Maybe the offense should flow more through Curry-Green pick-and-rolls even when Durant returns or find a new balance of distribution to help them achieve a higher level of basketball godliness. But just because you may think they look better doesn't mean they haven't needed Durant, and his eventual return will make things easier. 

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