In 2016, when the Golden State Warriors broke the NBA record for the greatest regular season – amassing an unbelievable 73 wins out of 82 games – they gained an aura of invincibility around them. There was simply no chance anyone could beat them.
And as two-time MVP Stephen Curry lead his team to the NBA Finals, gaining a 3-1 lead against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, it certainly looked like the Warriors were destined to complete the perfect season and sit on top of the throne.
That is until the Cavaliers executed a historic, unforeseen comeback, riding on the herculean performances of LeBron and Kyrie Irving, and stole the championship from the Warriors. Just like that, the illusion was shattered. No longer were they the unbeatable gladiators of the league with smothering defence and sniper-like shooting, they were now responsible for the biggest breakdown in Finals history, and suddenly they seemed a lot more manageable.
However, the scales tipped once again when the former MVP, Kevin Durant, left the Oklahoma City Thunder and his long-time friend and teammate in Russel Westbrook and signed with Golden State. This sparked huge controversy, and was widely seen as a coward move by Durant in an attempt to simply win championships the easiest way possible rather than competing for them. But it didn’t matter how spurned the fans, the Thunder and, most of all, Westbrook felt. Durant was with the Warriors. The great team became a super team; the heroes became villains; and a demon was born.
Already having the incredible sharpshooting talents of Stephen Curry (who many believe to be the greatest shooter to ever play the game) and Klay Thompson, the addition of Durant was almost overkill. Not only can he shoot just as well as them, he’s also 7ft tall with incredible speed and ball handling capabilities, meaning that he can drive his way to the basket just as easily if defenders only focus on stopping his shot.
Durant also eases the defensive responsibility of the Warriors’ versatile forward and famed trash-talker, Draymond Green. His long arms make shot blocking easy, and playing him at the Centre position this year lead him to have a career high season in blocks.
Arguably the most impressive thing, however, is how seamlessly Durant fits into the team. The Warriors’ system is all about spacing the floor and using off-ball movement to cause a defensive breakdown and get someone an open shot. Despite this meaning that Durant’s usual scoring outpour was reduced slightly, his very presence on team meant that defenders had yet another threat to focus on at any given time, allowing his teammates to be less pressured when shooting or driving.
In fact, it may well be the truth that in another system, having too many superstars on the Warriors would have led to their downfall. And it’s only here that you start to appreciate how great their basketball is. NBA legend Kobe Bryant has described the Warriors system as “The Golden Democracy”. Instead of focusing the offence around the player with the ball, it’s focused on the 4 players who don’t have the ball. These off-ball players synchronise making cuts and setting screens, forcing the defence to communicate with each other at the highest level. But when communication breaks down, so does the defence, leading to a mismatch or an open man. This kind of movement, with pass after pass after pass, defines the team system of the Warriors. And the willingness and capability of Durant and Curry to give or take shots as needed is exactly why they fit so well and why they’re both MVPs.
So how is any team expected to beat them? In all honesty, any team’s first move should likely be a lengthy prayer session.
However, beyond that, the Warriors do have one exploitable area – their inside game. Having to give up the defensive rim-protector in Andrew Bogut in order to sign Kevin Durant meant they had to settle for the less athletic Zaza Pachulia to play as their starting Centre. Beyond injuring both opposition players and teammates, Pachulia isn’t particularly skilled at either offence nor defence. Although Durant has played Centre this season, as he’s certainly tall enough to do so, he isn’t big enough to do so. There’s a reason his nickname is “Slim Reaper”. This means that a strong big man with good post-up moves should be able to deal with Pachulia and score with relative ease. Unfortunately, the main problem is that these kinds of big men are a dying breed in this era, with everyone choosing to step outside and shoot instead. However, the recent New Orleans Pelicans’ roster does now hold perhaps the two best big men in the league with Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins. Could they be the Warriors kryptonite? Only time will tell.
In the meanwhile, Kevin Durant can expect to remain happy in Golden State after winning the 2017 Finals and helping the Warriors redeem themselves. They will surely be a championship contender for the foreseeable future, and he’s made it clear that he feels it’s the right place to be. Although he had to sacrifice friendship and adoration from Oklahoma, it’s as the saying goes: “May the bridges I burn light the way”.