SALT LAKE CITY — In the strange math of team sports, four All-Stars minus one All-Star does not always equal a loss, and that’s what makes the Golden State Warriors’ tear through the NBA playoffs so intriguing.
Is less sometimes more?
When Kevin Durant — the two-time NBA Finals MVP — went down with a calf injury in the second round, it was met with dire predictions. This was like U2 without Bono, or so the thinking went. The New York Times' response: “With Durant Hurt, Warriors Dynasty Could Suddenly Be Reeling.” Reuters: “Warriors Title Defense Gets Tricky After Durant Injury.” Undefeated.com: “Are the Warriors in trouble?”
Not exactly. They’re unbeaten since Durant left the court 5½ games ago, finishing off the Rockets in six games then sweeping the Trail Blazers. They’re headed to the NBA Finals for the fifth consecutive year.
Taken at face value, it makes no sense. Before Durant was injured on May 8, he was the league’s best postseason player, averaging 34.2 points, 5.2 rebounds and 4.9 assists per game. He was responsible for about one-third of the team’s points. And yet with Durant out — replaced by a no-name combination of bench players — the Warriors have continued to win.
Along the way, they have produced such a dazzling display of ball movement and shooting that some afficionados of the game dare to wonder: Are the Warriors actually better without Durant? Is it possible that reliance on the likes of Durant stifles the free-flow game that was the hallmark of the pre-Durant Warriors?
OK, it’s a small sample size, but consider this: Since Durant joined the team in 2016, the Warriors are 34-4 in games in which Stephen Curry played and Durant did not — a pace that would break the team’s NBA record for victories in a single season (73). Per CBS Sports, when Durant has played without Curry, the Warriors are 28-18 — a 49-win pace.
This is not a new phenomenon. Packing a roster with all-stars doesn’t always add up to good chemistry on the court. In 2003, the Lakers added Karl Malone and Gary Payton to a roster that included Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal. They were routed in the NBA Finals by the Pistons. In 2013, the Lakers paired up Steve Nash and Dwight Howard with Bryant and Pau Gasol and lost in the first round of the playoffs.
On the other hand, the so-called Super Teams have dominated the league in recent years. These are teams that were able to stockpile all-stars because the NBA doesn’t have a hard cap a la the NFL, most of them via some back-room maneuvering by LeBron James. It’s no guarantee of a championship (which is why James is only 3-6 in championship games), but 10 of the last 16 slots in the NBA Finals have been filled by Super Teams, and they’ve won five of the last eight championships.
Meanwhile, the San Antonio Spurs grew their team organically and won five championships the last 20 years with chemistry. Football’s New England Patriots have built a dynasty with a hodgepodge of unsung role players.
It’s largely been forgotten that the Warriors built a pretty good team through development and the draft before Durant fell into their laps. They had appeared in two straight NBA Finals and won one of them; they also won an NBA regular-season record 73 games the year before Durant arrived. Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson, along with a cast of very good role players, created one of the best teams in NBA history.
Then Durant signed with the team and the Warriors, now designated a Super Team, won two more championships.1 comment on this story
With Durant injured, the Warriors returned to their old form, launching a debate about what it all means. CBS Sports' headline: “Durant is Merely a Luxury.” The Mercury News: “No, the Warriors are not Better Without Durant, You Just Want Them to Be.” This could be an ongoing discussion next season if Durant, who enters free agency in the off-season, signs elsewhere.
In November, Green and Durant got into a shouting match at the end of a game. According to several reports, Green shouted to Durant, “We don’t need you! We won without you! Leave.”
So far, Green has been right.