The Golden State Warriors struggled to integrate Kevin Durant into their offense to start the season. They were blown out by the Spurs on opening night and appeared to be confused on both ends of the floor.
Then, they reminded everyone that they are the Golden State Warriors. Golden State ripped off a stretch of 16 wins in 17 games, and those concerns about how the team would fit together receded into the background.
For most of the season, Kevin Durant was considered to be the third-leading candidate in the MVP race. Steph Curry was in the midst of a relatively down year after his nuclear annihilation of the offensive record books last season. He prioritized integrating Durant into their offense over taking over games himself.
When Durant left Golden State's March 1st game against the Wizards with a knee injury, some shadows of doubt began to creep in regarding Golden State's playoff chances. Durant told Bill Simmons on a recent podcast that even he thought his season was over shortly after his initial injury. The Warriors lost that night's game and then four of their next six. The team appeared to be in bad shape without their superstar.
Steph Curry sat out the last game of that bad stretch, and since then has been reminiscent of the world beater he was last season. In his last fifteen games of the year, Curry averaged 27.1 points and 7.9 assists per game on 49.6% shooting from the floor and 48.1% from beyond the arc on 10.4 attempts per game. The stats underscore his renewed confidence in his game-breaking abilities; he sought out his own shot more than he had with Durant on the floor and the Warriors won 13 straight games after that 2-4 stretch.
Durant returned with three games left in the season and started out somewhat tentative in terms of re-inserting himself into the offense. He put up 16 points, 10 rebounds, and six assists in each of his first two games. He then roared back to life against the Lakers and put up 29 points on 16 shots in 27 minutes of playing time.
Working Durant back into their rotation is a problem that everyone in the NBA wishes they could have, with the possible exceptions of Russell Westbrook and Dion Waiters. Still, that is an issue that should not be overlooked. While the Warriors are a lethal offense without Durant, they are even more unstoppable if Steve Kerr and his staff can get him shots without detracting from Curry's offense.
It might be a difficult problem, but the Warriors have shown that unstoppable offensive capability at times this season. If they can sustain that world-beating scoring ability for longer stretches in the postseason, they can start planning their championship parade. If not, they will probably be fine. However, if the offense with Durant never clicks, Golden State might be in for a long and painful playoff run followed by a longer and more painful offseason.
The (Almost) Real MVP
The first game against the Spurs was certainly not pretty for Durant and the Warriors. Golden State won 16 of their next 17 games, a stretch marred only by their annual inexplicably bad loss to the Lakers. Durant scored fewer than 20 points just twice during that stretch.
Kevin Durant was a terror on both ends of the floor for the Warriors. He finished the season averaging 25.1 points per game with a True Shooting Percentage of 65.1%. Only Charles Barkley (3x), Adrian Dantley (2x), Kevin McHale, Amare' Stoudemire and Steph Curry last year have matched those number in the 3-point era. Defending the Warriors forces opponents to make impossible choices, and Durant has taken full advantage of that:
Three defenders are staring down Steph Curry during this play, and his pick-and-pop with Draymond Green forces the two closest defenders to stick with their man. Defenses should not be giving wide open shots from beyond the arc to former MVP's with range. However, their alternatives are to give either the reigning two-time MVP or an All-NBA player and preternaturally gifted passer room to operate. Durant was an efficient scorer before he put on a Warriors uniform, but his stellar teammates gave him more room to operate than he had ever enjoyed in Oklahoma City.
In addition to his historically efficient offensive game, Durant put together arguably the best defensive season of his career. His Defensive RPM this year is 1.35--higher than any other season on record per ESPN. He also posted his third-best season by Defensive Win Shares and his best Defensive Box Plus-Minus per Basketball-Reference. In terms of more traditional statistics, he also notched a career high in blocks with 1.6 per game--good for ninth in the league overall. He helped Draymond Green and the rest of the Warriors make up for the absence of Andrew Bogut by defending the rim with more ferocity than ever before. He also fit right into the Warriors' switching schemes on defense and showed that he can defend anyone in the league besides the beefiest of big men:
When the Warriors lost Durant in that Wizards game, their season appeared to be in jeopardy. Their rough stretch in their first six games following his injury seemed to show that, even as they battled through a tough stretch of road games during that time.
Steph Curry controversially sat out Golden State's March 11th contest against the San Antonio Spurs. That game re-ignited the flames of the rest debate that the league has been engaged with on and off since Gregg Popovich's famous $250,000 fine for resting players in a nationally televised game against the Miami Heat.
What has not been discussed, however, is that the Spurs game represented the turning point in Steph Curry's season. In the five games before that contest against San Antonio, which were also his first five games without Durant in the lineup, Curry shot 41.2% from the floor and a miserable 28.6% from deep on 11.2 attempts per game.
In his next five games after that day of rest, Curry shot 46.8% from deep on just under 10 attempts per game. He continued that hot streak as the Warriors pulverized opponents even without Durant in the lineup. Curry even managed to get revenge on the Wizards for the loss and the Durant injury:
During that 13-game win streak following the loss to the Spurs, the Warriors had an offensive rating of 115.5 and a Defensive Rating of 97.9--both better than their already ridiculous season-long marks of 113.2 on offense and 101.1 on defense per NBA.com.
While Curry cannot take credit for the improved defense (since that credit belongs to Draymond Green and the age-defying Andre Iguodala), Curry's revitalized offensive game carried the Warriors through their stretch without Kevin Durant. He may have ceded touches to Durant early in the season to get him involved in the offense, but come playoff time the two will need to work in tandem more than they have up to this point in the season.
Room For Improvement, Somehow
Kevin Durant looked tentative in his first two games back from injury. However, he showed some signs of just how dangerous the Warriors can be in the playoffs.
Durant is one of the most efficient isolation scorers in the league. He averages 1.05 points per possession in isolation, which ranks in the 89th percentile league-wide per Synergy Sports. His ability to generate points for himself will be a useful tool against playoff defenses.
However, he is even more effective as an off-ball player. The Warriors have yet to take full advantage of that skill set. Durant has used a far smaller percentage of his overall possessions on finishes from off-ball cuts. In spite of that fact, he is absurdly effective when he does score on those plays--Durant averages a whopping 1.5 points per possession on cuts to the basket. Defenders have to get close to Durant when he is behind the 3-point line, and the offensive gravity of his teammates often leaves room for Durant to make a beeline for the basket before the defense can rotate over to stop him:
Another way in which the Warriors could make Durant more devastating on offense is by running pick plays with Durant and Curry. Durant has only been the roll man on 33 possessions this season, and just eight pick-and-pop possessions per Synergy Sports. Durant is averaging 1.375 points per possession on those pick-and-pop plays this season. When he runs those plays with Steph Curry, one of the two is almost guaranteed to find an opening, simply because defenses have to stop at least one of them from scoring. When either Curry or Durant has an opening, bad things tend to happen for their opponents:
Defending the Golden State Warriors is an exercise in impossible choices. The Curry-Durant pick-and-roll is arguably the most impossible choice a defense could be faced with in 2017. If the Warriors are able to swap some of Durant's isolation possession for off-ball cuts and pick plays with Steph Curry, their historically prolific offense becomes that much more difficult to hold in check.
The Golden State Warriors will be the heavy title favorite regardless of how seamlessly Kevin Durant is reincorporated into their offense. If they can find a way to add in more plays that revolve around Curry and Durant working together, rather than having the two trade isolation possessions, the Warriors would go from the odds-on title favorites to the clearest title favorites since Michael Jordan's second three-peat with the Bulls. If the play from the Jazz game above is any indication, Durant returned at just the right time for the Warriors to add some new wrinkles to their already historically potent offense.