The working narrative for these Golden State Warriors is that they have rendered the outcome of the NBA Finals a foregone conclusion for the past half-decade. They won in 2015, followed with the greatest regular season in league history, and then were a Draymond Green nut punch away from rolling to consecutive titles.
That team added Kevin Durant to a roster that featured two-time reigning MVP Stephen Curry, Next-Best Shooter Alive Klay Thompson, Defensive Player of the Year Draymond Green and back-to-back Sixth Man of the Year runner-up Andre Iguodala. They ruined the NBA, destroying LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers in consecutive years, and then signed DeMarcus Cousins to the midlevel exception.
The blown 3-1 lead to the Cavs is considered the anomaly on a run that otherwise may have seen four straight rings for the first time since the NBA had nine teams.
Now, with Durant nursing a calf strain, they’re on the precipice of being rolled in the Finals by the Toronto Raptors, forcing us to reconsider the KD-less Warriors. Maybe they needed him after all. Maybe, just maybe, 2015 was the exception — not 2016.
It was barely two weeks ago that we were thinking Golden State didn’t even need Durant to win the 2019 title, and now it almost goes without saying: The Warriors did not just need Kevin Durant; the dynasty probably would not exist without him.
At the very least, nothing was ever a foregone conclusion without Durant, and Kawhi Leonard is also forcing us to reimagine whether it ever was with him. Now that Durant may leave in free agency at series end, we also must wonder whether the core that won 73 games after a convincing title will ever be so formidable again.
Before they were favorites, the 2014-15 Warriors were a breath of fresh basketball air, a champion that entered the season with the seventh-longest odds of standing at the end. They trailed the Grit ‘N’ Grind Memphis Grizzlies in the Western Conference semifinals before Tony Allen, Memphis’ Splash Brother Stopper, suffered an injury. They avoided the Lob City Los Angeles Clippers in the conference finals, thanks to their 3-1 collapse to the Houston Rockets. And they trailed the Finals to a Cavs team that entered without Kevin Love and lost Kyrie Irving to injury in Game 1.
Those Warriors were an aberration, the team that proved wrong Charles Barkley’s theory that jump shooters cannot carry a contender. Doc Rivers said then that Golden State was lucky to have avoided the Clips and San Antonio Spurs en route to the 2015 title, which seemed ridiculous then and seems less so with perspective.
The record-setting 2015-16 regular season legitimized those Warriors, until the playoffs posed the same questions. Golden State required a legendary Thompson hot streak to sustain a 3-1 comeback against Durant’s Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference finals, and then blew the 3-1 lead to LeBron’s Cavaliers.
The Warriors have excused that lost title by pointing to Green’s Game 5 suspension or Curry’s balky knee as reason for the collapse. Except, that assumes LeBron would not have done to them in Game 5 what he did in Games 6 and 7 and what Leonard is doing this year — providing further proof that the best two-way force in a series is generally a more reliable winning quotient than a team-wide heat check.
That’s what Durant has been for the Warriors the past two seasons, when even injuries to Leonard and Chris Paul in the 2017 and 2018 Western Conference finals made Golden State’s KD Era seem a little more lopsided than it probably has been.
If Golden State is to beat Toronto, it will almost certainly require a heroic return from Durant in Games 5-7. As it stands now, the KD-less Warriors are 8-9 in the Finals, with their lone title coming against a team without two of its best three players. (Which is one more reason why anyone complaining that injuries are costing Golden State a ring is as laughable now as it was when Rivers said it about the Clips then.)
This is not to say the Warriors would not have challenged for championships sans Durant in 2017 and 2018. Signing KD cost them their “Strength in Numbers,” and the likely alternative was matching a massive offer sheet to Harrison Barnes and keeping Andrew Bogut. Who knows whether they would have retained Festus Ezeli or who else may have jumped on board, but that group still won 73 games together.
They may still have stormed through the West in 2017, especially if Leonard still went down in Game 1 of the conference finals, but that may have been the most talented Cleveland roster, and it is hard to imagine the Warriors steamrolling the Cavs without the 35 points per game on 56/47/93 splits that Durant gave them.
It is far harder to imagine them beating the Rockets last season, with or without Chris Paul for the final two games of the series. How differently would we look back on the Warriors if they won a single title in the last four years, rather than two more with Durant? This is important in how we appreciate KD’s contributions to their success and how we view their next chapter if he leaves (not to mention how we frame LeBron’s shortcomings against them). Is Golden State still the favorite in the West if the Clippers add Leonard or the Los Angeles Lakers add Anthony Davis?
In the end, rethinking a Warriors dynasty without Durant is an exercise in futility. They won in 2015 without him. They won in 2017 and 2018 with him. And while they may, for all intents and purposes, finish 1-2 in the Finals sans Durant, they have three shiny rings and the most dominant window of winning in a half-century to throw back at anyone like me who feels like presenting this “What if?” scenario.
They also have a chance to storm back from a 3-1 deficit against Toronto and rewrite a storybook ending to the post-collapse against Cleveland years, with or without a fully functional Durant. Count them out of this series at your own peril, and that is a testament to how good they have been the past five years. It’s just that none of it was ever a foregone conclusion, and that makes it all the more special.
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