Golden State have reached their fifth NBA finals in a row but KD has missed time through injury. His absence has brought joy back to the team
The first thing you need to know is a cold hard fact: the Warriors are a better team with Kevin Durant on the floor. The discourse surrounding Golden States fifth-straight trip the NBA finals might have you think otherwise. The Warriors wrapped up the series sweep on Monday with a 119-117 overtime win in Portland. They did so without Durant, currently the best player in the world.
This series wasnt always easy. The Blazers held leads of 17 points or more during three games of the series. It didnt matter. It rarely does against these Warriors. Once they get rolling, really rolling, and the threes are falling, Curry is scoring, and (pardon the rhyme) Draymond starts soaring, theres nothing anyone can do. Leads disintegrate in the blink of an eye.
One thing is undeniable, however: the Warriors are more fun without Durant. Its about aesthetics versus raw output. How comfortable the team looks without him is almost alarming. When Durant sits during games, it can take time for the team to find the old rhythm. Things get a little clunky. But given some runway, the old, pleasing, egalitarian style flows back. Which is what made the Warriors so infectious in the first place.
Players cut harder. They zoom to the basket with more force. The ball skips across the court. Curry and Klay Thompson play with a different energy. They know theyre needed. Thompson gets to contribute properly, not just spot up in the corner or curl off screens.
Durants arrival at Golden State in 2016 took a 73-win juggernaut and turned it into a basketball supernova. Luck, Draymond Greens antics, and dopey league rules (veteran players the ones moaning about the unfairness of Durants arrival, by the way opted for a spike in the salary cap, rather than the smoothing proposal offered by the league, which would have seen the cap rise more steadily and not allowed a superstar to join forces with three others) conspired to allow the best regular-season team in league history to add the second biggest star of this era for cash.
For two years Durant has been dominant. Hes been the key cog on back-to-back championship teams, the two-time Finals MVP. Just this year, everything was going through him. The Warriors riverdance often made way to Steve Kerr begging his seven-footer to bail him out. Durant delivered he was averaging 34 points with five rebounds and five assists in this years playoffs before he sustained a calf injury. It felt like he had gone to another level. Whispers started: Where would this team be without Durant? As it turns out, theyd be fine. The Warriors cruised to the NBA finals without him, finishing off the Rockets in six games and sweeping the Blazers.
Time apart from Durant has reminded people just how special Curry is. He has become strangely underrated in recent years. Hes the nice guy. The goofball. But hes also the guy who makes the Warriors sing. His unselfishness is contagious. Pinpoint him on any Warriors possession, and youll see two or three defenders scurrying after him. Everybody gets easier shots just because hes on the floor, even if hes having an off shooting night. Hes closer to the best player in the NBA than he is to the fifth the Warriors are now 31-1 in the last 32 games theyve played with Curry but without Durant.
Durant heading to New York has been a constant storyline. His looming decision has bugged the star and his teammates all year. Leaving would now be the best outcome for all. The Warriors will be permanently fun again. Any of the bitterness that has built up over the past three seasons will dissipate. Fans will get a more balanced league.
Durant will get a chance to win a title on his own, break the Knicks 46-year curse and become a basketball immortal. Those who place a giant asterisk next to his time with the Warriors will have no comeback. And that is the most likely outcome. Any hope of Durant sticking around has all but evaporated thanks to this playoff run.
Durant hears all the noise. Modern stars do, whether they admit it or not. In the social media age, its pinged directly into their inbox. Basketball players are not regular famous people. They spend a lot of time on the road in hotel rooms. They cannot go outside if they want to stay anonymous: not only are they celebrities, but theyre also unusually tall. And so they stay inside. They sit in their rooms. They order room service. They play cards. They talk with their inner circle. They stew. In that environment, resentment builds.
It seems to particularly affect Durant. Rarely have we seen a superstar who is so in his feelings. He claps back at random people on Instagram. He created a slew of burner Twitter accounts to defend himself against criticism for leaving OKC and seeking the easy path in Golden State. Remember: this is the best player in the NBA, the reigning two-time Finals MVP. And hes getting upset at Mike from accounting.
All of these things can be true at once:
Durant has usurped LeBron James as the best player in the NBA.
The Warriors won the last two championships because of Durant.
Moving to Golden State made Durants ability to win championships significantly easier.
Moving employers to make your life easier and career more successful is a perfectly reasonable decision.
The Warriors are more fun without Durant.
The Warriors dont need Durant.
Many people focus on the last two points. So, seemingly, does Durant. Winning cures all, we say. People forgave LeBron for The Decision once he won in Miami. They saw how hard the struggle was. But winning for Durant in Golden State hasnt brought the adoration he was seeking. He thought winning would fix everything, but winning was precisely the reason people were mad in the first place. They knew it was going to be easy. Proving them right didnt garner support, it entrenched them in their opposition.
Durant has gained respect throughout his time with Golden State. Whichever team he winds up with next season will instantly vault to Serious Contender status. But this years Warriors run will forever linger. And for a star so keen for our acceptance, thats going to sting.
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