After years of harping, the notion that championships are often tied only loosely to player success has finally become mainstream.
If you exempt a few dark, gasping corners of the internet, #CountTheRingzz has been reduced to an ironic joke. Kobe Bryant’s five rings are now qualified by the fact that he only won two Finals MVP’s, and of course, that ignominious 6-for-24. LeBron James’ victory against the 73-9 Warriors holds disproportionate value, because of its difficulty and symbolic weight. Rings, like most everything else, have become an arbitrary piece of the puzzle.
So it is that Kevin Durant, who joined those 73-win Warriors — the same team that won a championship the year prior and was a Stephen Curry knee or Draymond Green suspension away from winning it again — faces an inordinate amount of disrespect for a first-time champion. The healthy Warriors would have been championship favorites anyways, so why should Durant get much credit? Forget his 35 point-per-game average or his fantastic defense. Yes, Durant was marvelous in the Finals. No, the Warriors didn’t need him to be. Comfortable dominance and desperation are two very different things.
The allure of watching sports, stripped to its core, consists largely of storytelling and witnessing unique athletic feats. The story, if any, of Durant’s championship victory? Things happening like they were supposed to. Goliath wins.
Fans tend to demand more than that. They want real stakes. They want supernatural athletes to be challenged to the point that their means for survival rests in unlocking a new gear. They want LeBron James, the most athletic basketball player on the planet, forced to cover 40 feet in four seconds, time his take-off perfectly and come away with The Block.
He couldn’t have been pushed to the brink without a level playing field. He couldn’t have delivered one of the best performances in Finals history without commanding full control.
As it turns out, Durant himself currently has the chance to be a high-usage playoff MVP. Curry, sprained his MCL 12 games before the playoffs — the same affliction took away his edge and cost him six playoff games in the Warriors’ failed 2015-16 run. The Warriors built a historic offense by fusing Curry’s spectacular range, his intrepid tendencies with ball and player movement that looked chaotic to the uninformed viewer. Without him, it doesn’t quite fire off all cylinders. In the Warriors’ Curry-based Curry-less system, Durant often looks like a glorified floor-spacer. The ball is whipped back and forth, he is often denied entry, and the Dubs end up taking a semi-contested shot, creating separation only through screens. Against a 65-win Rockets team, that simply won’t do.
Therein lies Durant’s opportunity. For vindication. For transcendence. With Curry hobbled, the Warriors’ success lies in Durant’s ability to remake the Warriors in his own image.
To some extent, he already has.
Warriors coach Steve Kerr doesn’t rely heavily on the pick-and-roll, since it lends itself to players standing around too much. But with Durant at the helm, unlocking the pick and roll — and by way of it, the mid-range — means unlocking the offense. The Warriors shot more mid-range jumpers than ever during Kerr’s reign, and they’re hitting them at a historical rate. Durant, for his part, shot 49.4 percent from mid-range during the regular season and in two games against San Antonio, he’s derived a third of his baskets from there. The Warriors have upped their pick-and-roll frequency in the playoffs, and they’ve taken 27 percent of their shots from mid-range, an 11 percent uptick.
While Durant has taken great pains to adjust his game to the Warriors ethos, his most captivating moments are decidedly alpha: pull-up 3s in transition, brushing off Green’s shoulder and letting it fly. When he comes off a pick, most defenses go to extraordinary lengths to get the ball out of his hands. They’ll trap aggressively and immediately, but Durant can see and pass over all his opponents, allowing the Warriors to play 4-on-3 with Green as the decision-maker the way did when Curry drew the attention.
Whereas Curry’s unnatural range drove his gravitational pull on and off the ball, Durant is the maven of the mid-range. He doesn’t need to dictate every play to make his mark, but unlike Curry, he does need to touch the ball.
When he does, the defense goes into fits. In Game 2 against the Spurs, Durant got switched onto Patty Mills at the same that Klay Thompson, who was on the strongside, began taking off to the weak-side wing. But Durant was so magnetic that Danny Green, one of the best defenders in the NBA, momentarily forgot about Thompson’s existence. Thompson. The best spot-up shooter of all time (don’t @ me).
By the time anyone noticed, it was too late. Durant threw a bullet pass crosscourt and Thompson nailed the triple.
As it stands, the Warriors are evolving, but they need to tip the scales further towards’ Durant’s skillset. There are still far too many fruitless possessions that harken back to his days in Oklahoma, when Durant stand around with his arms akimbo, not touching the ball for an entire possession thanks to a pestering defender denying him the ball.
Around the end of the third quarter in a match-up against the Thunder on April 3, Durant and Russell Westbrook got into a scoring contest, trading baskets on cross-matches in transition.
Durant broke the back and forth first, opting to let the Warriors score off ball movement. Westbrook proceeded to dribble up the floor and nail a trey in Durant’s face. It didn’t even look like he thought about it. Westbrook obsessively goes for the jugular in a way Durant simply does not. He is wired to be particular, discerning. His greatness only intrudes when the situation demands it.
There are moments, though, that hint at something more.
In December, when Curry was out, Durant took his game to another level. He shot the lights out and facilitated more but this was the sticking point: he just decided he was going to block more shots than any forward in the NBA. He just decided to be such a menace that Green, a perpetual Defensive Player of the Year candidate, would look expendable. Durant is at the apex of his prime, the place where the only hurdles he can’t climb are the one that aren’t put in front of him.
The lesson, as ever, could be found in LeBron James going to Miami: sure, you can kill a potentially era-defining rivalry by teaming up with your nemesis, all the while destroying any semblance of parity for a couple seasons… as long as you put on a show that makes it all worth it.
The LeBron era in Miami began disastrously, PR-wise, and ended in begrudging respect not only because the Heat lost in his first year, but thanks to how they won: by building a system that reaped every inch of a top-five player in NBA history possessed, making him a two-way linchpin that played and defended all five positions at a time that such a feat was unimaginable. LeBron’s reign in Miami expanded the possibilities of the game.
Durant could do something similar, but he needs to channel his greatness on a consistent basis. When he nails a transition 3 over the arms of a lanky, helpless defender, he needs to want to come down and do it again. He needs to exploit every mismatch, be it Patty Mills or LaMarcus Aldridge or Chris Paul or Nene or Westbrook. He needs to demand the ball at all costs, yelping and screaming in face of ball denial. He needs to go for the weak-side block so much that going into the paint against the Warriors becomes a perpetual exercise in hearing footsteps. He needs to come off picks, look at his defender and think, ‘I am about end your f*****g life,’ again and again and again. He needs to dictate terms.
Well, maybe he doesn’t need to. But we want him to. With Durant, that’s been the point all along.