The Golden State Warriors officially wrapped up their dominant 2016-17 season on Monday night with a 129-120 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers to secure the NBA title. While there were moments of doubt scattered throughout the season, this title has seemed almost destined since Kevin Durant announced his next chapter on July 4th in the Player's Tribune.
The Warriors did not blow out the Cavaliers in Game 5; Cleveland held the lead until about halfway through the second quarter, and remained in striking distance until late in the fourth quarter. However, the Warriors fully unleashed their two most deadly weapons--the "Death" lineup and the Curry-Durant pick and roll--for the first time all year in the fifth game of the NBA Finals. With another offseason to add new wrinkles to their impossibly talented offense, the Warriors will be the heavy title favorites for at least the next two seasons until Klay Thompson's contract expires--and possibly for even longer than that.
The Warriors went 16-1 in the postseason and claimed the greatest playoff winning percentage of all time, topping the 15-1 mark of the 2001 Los Angeles Lakers. They finished the playoffs with an eye-popping 13.6 Net Rating, and coupled that with the second-best Offensive Rating AND the second-best Defensive Rating of all 16 playoff teams. Golden State dominated these playoffs in historic fashion, and in the process made a strong claim for the title of the greatest team in NBA history.
Kevin Durant Climbs the Mountaintop
Kevin Durant signed up for years of criticism the moment that he announced his decision to sign with the Golden State Warriors. However, he did all that he could to stem the tide of that criticism with a Finals performance for the ages.
Durant averaged 35.2 points, 8.4 rebounds, and 5.4 assists per game in the Finals, and was almost incomprehensibly efficient on offense. His shooting splits of 56/47/93 and his 69.8% True Shooting mark would be unheard of for a Kyle Kover-type role player, much less for the leading scorer in the Finals. Durant finished the series by making 14 of his 20 shots in Game 5, and finally committed to a deadly pick and roll pairing with fellow MVP Steph Curry:
All three of Cleveland's Big 3 swarm around this play but still cannot prevent Durant from sinking a long-range jumper; while two of those three are not exactly known for their defensive prowess, it is nonetheless telling that Cleveland's entire defense shifts their focus to Durant on this play. David West has a wide-open lane to the basket for two points, but KD doesn't even bother to look in his direction as he launches from deep.
There is no way that any defense can contain a Curry-Durant pick and roll, and it is scary that the Warriors did not need to unleash that play until the clinching game of the NBA Finals. The only team that might have a chance at defending that play would be the San Antonio Spurs with Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green switching on every screen, but both Durant and Curry are so preternaturally gifted at shooting off the dribble that the brief time period that Green and Leonard would need to recover could be enough time for one of them to pull up for a shot. Cleveland had no hope of controlling this play with Kyrie Irving involved, and it shows on this play as Kevin Love is forced to run up and at least try to bother Durant before he can nail a triple.
Kevin Durant was not going to escape any criticism after his decision to take his talents to the Bay Area. However, history will look back on Durant's decision far more kindly after his dominant Finals performance. Anything short of his spectacular effort would have led to repeated criticism about being carried by his team. As it stands, many can critique his decision but few can reasonably critique either his effort or his performance on the biggest stage.
Is Steph Curry the real MVP?
Kevin Durant was unanimously awarded the Finals MVP, and it was richly deserved after his incredible output in the five games against the Cavaliers. However, Steph Curry overcame some demons of his own after banishing the demons of last year's Finals loss with a remarkable series of his own. Curry nearly averaged a triple-double with 26.8 points, 9.4 assists, and 8.0 rebounds per game against the Cavaliers.
While Kevin Durant may have taken quite a bit of the spotlight away from Curry this year, Steph is still unquestionably the engine that keeps the Golden State offense running. The Warriors had a Net Rating of 19.1 during the playoffs with Curry on the court--better than anyone on the team besides JaVale McGee. However, the Warriors were outscored with Curry on the bench--they had a Net Rating of -3.2 with Curry on the bench. Draymond Green was the only other Warrior with a negative Net Rating during their time on the bench. The next closest Warrior? Klay Thompson--with a Net Rating of +8.9. Kevin Durant's Net Rating on the court was 16.0, which fell to 9.0 when he rode the pine.
Stephen Curry might not be a traditional pass-first point guard, but the Warriors' offense is not the same freewheeling machine without Curry's never-before-seen shooting touch and gravity on the offensive end. Teams have to be in Curry's grill the moment that he crosses half-court, and that creates the open space that allows Durant and the rest of his teammates to find openings for easy baskets. Kevin Durant may have had the best performance of anyone not named LeBron James in these Finals, but the Warriors would not be THE WARRIORS without their ankle-breaking, sweet shooting point guard.
ESPN's Ramona Shelburne reported during the playoffs that Kevin Durant would be willing to take a $4 million pay cut from his potential $35 million max to allow the Warriors to maintain their Bird Rights for Shaun Livingston and Andre Iguodala, enabling the Warriors to retain both players. Durant's decision on that front is huge not just because it signals that he will not even look to test the free agent market, but also because it allows the Warriors to keep their six most important players for at least the next two seasons.
The issue that Durant's choice cannot overcome is that the Warriors could lose all three of their rotation centers this offseason. Zaza Pachulia, David West, and JaVale McGee will all be free agents on July 1st. All three were important to the Warriors' success at different times during the playoffs; while West would probably be more than happy to return for a minimum contract if he does not retire, both Pachulia and McGee could make more money elsewhere than they made this season.
Still, the rest of the league could be forgiven for looking at Golden State's roster concerns as akin to shuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic. The Warriors might not be able to put together a center corps that works as well as West, Pachulia and McGee did this season--but their best lineups don't use a traditional center anyway. Durant's presumptive agreement to take a slight pay cut over his max will allow the Warriors to return Iguodala and Livingston, who were both more effectively individually than Cleveland's entire bench combined. The Golden State Warriors are a joy to watch, and they will be a dynasty for many years to come. After 35 years of quiet misery, fans in the Bay Area finally have a team worth celebrating.