When Durant’s lower right leg gave way during Game 5, the initial cheers of Toronto Raptors fans represented more than one faction’s mindlessness. It was a ruthless illustration of the desperation that the rest of the NBA often felt when the Warriors were whole and focused. Their greatness was appreciated; their dominance wasn’t. While no decent person wanted to see Durant go down and lose a season of his career, there is celebration now that he has decided to go away. With Durant joining the Brooklyn Nets, the Unfair Era (can just three seasons be considered an era?) of the Warriors is over.
I will miss them. Most of you probably won’t, but I will.
I’m not one to get carried away with broad historical superlatives because it’s so difficult to compare teams from different periods. So I won’t call the Super Warriors the greatest team ever — just one of the greatest. Their lack of longevity with Durant will lead many to dismiss them from this conversation, and that’s fine. But it’s not outlandish to look at the manner in which they won two titles and made three straight Finals appearances and consider them unrivaled in skill and versatility: exquisite ball movement, deft shooting, cover-the-Earth defense, the absence of drama between superstars Stephen Curry and Durant, how perfectly Klay Thompson and Green fit as complementary all-stars, the way role players could take command in the system.
When Durant arrived in 2016, there were obvious questions about sacrificing. Thompson, who is hilariously in his own world most of the time, didn’t get it. Sacrifice? He was just going to play his game, and Durant was just going to play his game, and the Warriors were just going to play their game. And in June, they were going to party. In his mind, the fit was that simple. In reality, it was far more complicated. But Curry and Durant tailored their games just enough, and Green is the rare all-star who doesn’t care about scoring. As a result, there always seemed to be room for all to express themselves.
The most telling stat of the Unfair Era? During that first season, Thompson actually set career highs in field goal attempts and points per game despite Durant’s arrival. Sacrifice? What sacrifice? Sometimes, the Warriors made it look too easy.
They don’t get enough credit because they were so talented. Coach Steve Kerr doesn’t get enough credit for managing the egos and creating a system that allowed freedom for Curry and Durant to apply their individual brilliance. The Warriors are, and will continue to be, built around Curry’s seemingly unlimited range and the fear it inspires in opposing defenses. But Durant added the element of extraordinary one-on-one ability for someone of his height. Because they’re so skilled, both superstars could operate as offensive facilitators, catch-and-shoot snipers or freelancing shot-makers, and they could do it within the same game. And they could do it with ideal efficiency, regardless of whether they were the focal point. Combine their talents with Thompson’s defense and Splash Brother exploits and Green’s fiery all-around play, and you have a group meant to play with each other. And that’s before adding the significant contributions of veterans such as Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston.
Golden State had so much nuance and substance. Much of that was underappreciated because Durant joined the core of a championship team. He came to a group that had captured its first title in 2015 and won a record 73 games in the next regular season. It took Durant’s initial calf injury and absence during the first four games of the Finals to realize how much depth the Warriors actually gave up to add a fourth all-star. Before Durant, they were built similarly to the Raptors, meaning they had the star power and the 10-man rotation. To become a so-called superteam, much of the bench had to go, and at center, they also went from the stability of Andrew Bogut to a center-by-committee setup.
When they were healthy, the holes didn’t matter. Heck, even when one player was hurt, it didn’t really matter until the 2019 Finals. But in the end, you should have realized that, as special as the Warriors were, there’s no such thing as an indestructible team — not when the league is given time to catch up, and certainly not when the wear and tear of long championship runs takes effect.
As I’ve said before, the NBA is better for having to chase the Warriors for three years with Durant and for five years overall. So, now what? It’s important to remember that this is goodbye to the superteam version of the Warriors but not everything that has created a dynasty. The Unfair Era is over, but Curry remains in his prime and, in my opinion, he’s still the most valuable player of the past five years in the NBA. No one has really solved how to defend the system Kerr built around him. Thompson will miss most of next season recovering from a knee injury, but he just landed a five-year, $190 million extension, and he’s only 29. Green is 29 and playing for his next contract. And as a revenue-generating behemoth about to play in a new arena that will print money, the Warriors could do bold things such as use Durant’s departure as a vehicle to execute a sign-and-trade for Brooklyn guard D’Angelo Russell.
Russell seems to be a peculiar fit on the Warriors, and to make this deal, they had to lose Iguodala, one of the league’s greatest role players. All of a sudden, the Warriors don’t have a ton of versatile three-and-D players. They can’t play as many exotic lineups. But they still have a creative coach and organization. They’re still among the NBA’s best at developing and using talent. This will be a difficult adjustment, but the Warriors won’t be irrelevant. And something tells me that, with Curry free to shoot and score and create at will, it would be unwise to erase them permanently from the championship discussion.
Phase 1 of the Warriors, pre-Durant, was a pleasant surprise. Phase 2, with Durant, was scary good. Will there be a Phase 3? Hope you eulogized them in the right way. They might not be done.