When the 2015-16 season began, the Golden State Warriors were defending champions, but they did not yet seem like a juggernaut. There were still those who questioned the bona fides of a “jump shooting team,” and there were grumblings that they only won the Finals due to the absence of Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love.
That quickly changed of course as Golden State started the season 24-0, racking up a 48-4 record by the All-Star break, looking pretty much unbeatable while playing as lovely a brand of basketball as I have ever seen. I have a near infinite amount of nostalgia for that team. During that season, I was living in Akron finishing up my master’s degree remotely and while I was certainly busy, living the strange life of a full-time graduate student I also had all the time in the world and the Warriors became appointment viewing for me. Every few nights, I fired up League Pass eager to see what they would pull off that evening.
Stephen Curry was, of course, the highlight, playing some of the best basketball in NBA history, averaging over 30 points per game while joining the 50/40/90 club on his way to winning the first unanimous MVP ever. It felt like every game contained an implicit promise to viewers — that something transcendent, something unprecedented would surely be on display and that if you agreed to just tune in, you could be lucky enough to partake in it. There was a sense of effervescence that informed the team as well. With their motion-heavy offense and seemingly instinctive shared knowledge of where everyone was on the floor at all times, they had pillaged the playbook of the 2014 Spurs and replicated the beautiful brand of basketball that won San Antonio a title a few years prior, doing it just as effectively, if not moreso. Of course, the season did not end as planned. Curry and Andrew Bogut were injured, Draymond Green got suspended, and the Cavaliers took advantage to defeat them in perhaps the most shocking Finals finish ever.
When Durant joined the Warriors the following month, they immediately seemed invincible. There were questions of fit and chemistry that needed to be answered, but when you have that much talent, such issues are often more academic than actual. Many believed that Russell Westbrook had held Durant back in some nebulous way and that, freed from his domineering style, Durant would flourish as never before, benefitting from the freewheeling aesthetic that was the Warriors’ signature. Yet it never quite worked out that way. At least aesthetically, Durant has influenced the Warriors more than they have influenced him. Perhaps Westbrook wasn’t really holding Durant back as much as he thought; perhaps Durant just prefers to play isolation-heavy basketball and that is that. We’re coming up on the end of Durant’s third season on the Warriors and it appears that the team still struggles to find a consistent equilibrium with him on the floor, as if every game, every possession is a perpetual negotiation, a never-ending power struggle as each tries to simultaneously avoid stepping on the other’s toes while also trying to assert that their own way of doing things is what works best.
The discrete elements that made the 2015 and 2016 versions of the Warriors are still present today, but they don’t often coalesce in the same way anymore, though they have in the last few games showing the best of themselves in the Conference Finals match-up against Portland. However, with Durant present, the thrill appears gone. There is still Steph’s sense of joy, Klay’s unflappable equanimity, Andre Iguodala’s veteran savvy, and Draymond’s energy that is the linchpin of everything else, but it appears undercut, at least a little bit, by Durant’s sense of self-doubt, his desperation to prove himself and his unhappiness about not being more acclaimed than he already is. Part of this is sure to be the heightened expectations that his arrival placed upon them. Durant’s very presence is a millstone of inevitability that was not there before, making any slippage, any potential failure seems more catastrophic than it would have otherwise.
Two weeks ago, Durant went down with a calf strain in Game 5 of the Conference Semifinals against the Rockets and has yet to return. The Warriors are undefeated in his absence and now many wonder if the Warriors will be forced to try to win a championship without him, and also if they even could. The answer to the former question is yet to be determined with Durant set to be evaluated again in the coming days. The second question has already been answered though, four years ago when the Warriors, led by a core of Curry, Thompson, Green, and Iguodala, defeated the Cavaliers for the championship. There’s no reason to think they couldn’t do it again, although this year’s Bucks does appear to be a much more formidable foe than that season’s Cavaliers, who were missing Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love.
Kevin Durant undoubtedly raises the Warriors’ ceiling, but it also feels like without him, they’re more likely to reach it more often, even if it is a rung or two lower. There is less to negotiate without him. The roles are more established and the relationships run deeper and the style of play that served the team so well in the past is not disrupted by figuring out how to seamlessly incorporate an all-time great scorer. Now, without him for the time being, there is a freedom that makes them more enjoyable to watch. It’s not that Durant is a bore to watch, but that his presence takes away from what made the earlier incarnations of the Warriors such an undeniable delight. With him, they’re merely undeniable.
Durant’s presence and now his absence raises oft-unasked questions about quality versus aesthetics, questions that inform the way we talk about basketball even though they’re rarely brought to the surface. Curry is not celebrated as much as he is, merely because he’s a great player, but because he plays a previously unprecedented style of basketball that is thrilling to watch, making commonplace what others could never aspire to. This divide is also why James Harden may be underrated by some who find his brand of isolation-heavy basketball displeasing and are hesitant to praise him on the level one of his talents deserve. This informs the way we talk about Durant as well. He is unbelievably skilled, arguably the best all-around scorer in NBA history, but he plays in a way that is easier to respect than love. There’s a steadiness to his game that is admirable, though it often comes at the expense of dynamism. Durant is the tide, coming in and out at predictable intervals, all while eroding an opposition’s chance of victory while Curry’s scoring outbursts are harder to foresee, though always on the horizon, wreaking devastation on an opponent’s psyche while inspiring awe in the eyes of viewers.
Apart from the stylistic gap between Durant and Curry, Durant also seems desperate for the approval of fans, eager to feel a love commensurate with his outsized abilities. But, perhaps ironically, that very desire to be loved makes many fans more hesitant to do so. Those feelings of not being appreciated enough have to be especially relevant considering that, in the East Bay, Durant will never be loved in the same way that Curry is. Curry is the homegrown savior who rescued a franchise from years of irrelevance, transforming them into the signature team of the 2010s. While Warriors fans are obviously thankful for the role Durant has played in making the team two-time defending champions, there is not the same adoration and unconditional love that is present for Curry. This is especially true in light of the assumptions about this being Durant’s final season as a Warrior. He appears to many as a useful mercenary, but being useful is not the same thing as being adored.
Without Durant, the Warriors are playing like a team with something to prove. They want to show that they are not reliant on him and that they could have won the 2017 and 2018 titles without him, that their collective failure in 2016 does not define them. While I sincerely doubt any of Durant’s Warriors teammates are pleased with his current absence, or happy with the prospect of him leaving this summer, their on-court play shows a different story. They are unburdened and have managed to recapture the spirit of their teams from 2015 and 2016, teams that were a sincere joy to watch. In the last 32 games that the Warriors have played with Curry, but without Durant, they have won 31 of them. It seems silly to make too much of that stat, though it seems equally silly to not reflect upon what it means for at least a little while. The Warriors have won five consecutive games without Durant in the lineup and have secured a trip to the Finals for the fifth consecutive season, becoming the first team since the Bill Russell-led Celtics to achieve that feat. I’m not sure if the Warriors need Durant to defeat the Bucks or the Raptors for their fourth championship in five seasons, though his presence certainly seems to help their chances, even if their record without him says otherwise. While Durant’s presence certainly adds a level of talent to the Warriors that cannot be replaced elsewhere, something else is lost — a delight and sense of freedom that was near constant for two years but has only arisen intermittently in the three seasons since.