On July 4, 2016, NBA superstar Kevin Durant signed with the Golden State Warriors, sending shockwaves through the league. The Warriors had just completed a historic, record-breaking 73-win season, only to lose in the Finals to the Cleveland Cavaliers in a dramatic seven game series. What would a Warriors team that replaced its worst starter, Harrison Barnes, with Kevin freaking Durant, one of the most efficient, explosive scorers that the NBA has ever seen look like?
History has shown that the addition of a superstar forces other players on the team to adjust their roles; we saw this with the Miami Heat in 2010, when LeBron James and Chris Bosh joined Dwyane Wade. That team struggled to find its footing in its first year with a loss in the Finals to the Dallas Mavericks, and it took LeBron improving his post game and Bosh transforming into a floor-spacing, three-point shooter to win a championship the next year.
While the Heat had to make many adjustments to fit together, that was not the case for this year’s Warriors. The Warriors run an offensive system that emphasizes unselfish passing, playmaking, and three-point shooting, lining up perfectly with Durant’s best skills as an offensive player. On defense, Golden State’s players are required to guard multiple positions; KD’s height (6’11”) allows him to be an effective shot blocker against bigger forwards and centers, while his fluidity and speed allow him to keep up with quicker guards.
Immediately after Durant signed with the Warriors, the most popular narrative circulating through the NBA was that Golden State would reach a level of dominance that would be impossible for other teams to match, and that Durant’s move to the Warriors would ruin the NBA by making it “too predictable.” To that point, we saw that they ended being a pretty unstoppable team: Golden State went on to win a league-leading 67 games, despite the fact that Durant was out with a knee injury for the last month of the season. This dominance continued into the playoffs, as the Warriors swept nearly every series they played in, eventually beating the Cleveland Cavaliers in a five game series to win the championship. But saying that the Warriors are ruining the league is nonsensical, especially considering that this year’s NBA Finals were the most watched since 1998, according to Nielsen. Regardless of their dominance, the Golden State undeniably plays a brand of basketball that is extremely enjoyable to watch.
When the previously-mentioned 2010 Heat team was assembled, LeBron James infamously declared that the team would win “not one, not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven” championships, adding that he “really [believed] it.” LeBron wasn’t alone; many analysts and fans also believed that the Heat would dominate for a decade. While the Heat did have a successful run of two Finals victories in four seasons, the team disassembled after its 2014 Finals loss to the San Antonio Spurs. We saw a similar situation with the 2012 Oklahoma City Thunder — although the team, including Kevin Durant, James Harden, Russell Westbrook, and Serge Ibaka, lost to the Heat in the Finals, it was assumed that their youth would result in multiple trips back to the Finals.
But due to untimely injuries to both Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, they never made it past the Western Conference Finals again. The point of these cases is to highlight that things can quickly change; from injuries, to problematic contract negotiations, to complicated salary cap situations, there’s a plethora of potential issues that can occur even when it appears that a team has a stronghold on the rest of the league. Steph Curry’s ankle issues that plagued the first few years of his NBA career could come back as he gets older, and Kevin Durant had a serious foot injury just two years ago. If those two get injured at the same time, Golden State could be in a world of hurt, leaving the top spot up for grabs.
While the end goal for every team in the NBA is obviously to win the Finals, there’s more to the league than winning the title. Just this year, Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook became the first player to average a triple-double in the regular season since Oscar Robertson in the 1961. Houston Rockets’ guard James Harden and new head coach Mike D’Antoni joined forces to create one of the most exciting offenses the league has ever seen.
The Miami Heat started their season 11-30 and impressively stormed back to a .500 record, narrowly missing the playoffs. Just today, a barrage of reports started flying around, including a rumor that the Cleveland Cavaliers are attempting to work out a trade for either Jimmy Butler or Paul George, which could catapult the Cavs to the Warriors’ level of dominance. Free agency officially begins on July 1, and there are already whispers of Gordon Hayward going to the Celtics to reunite with former head coach Brad Stevens, in addition to Chris Paul signing with Spurs to join forces with Gregg Popovich and Kawhi Leonard.
It will be fascinating to see how some of these trade rumors and free agency signings play out in the next couple of weeks. Maybe the critics will be right, and the Warriors will steamroll everyone in their path for the next five years, but history tends to repeat itself, and I think that something will happen to drastically change the league again. Only time will tell how the future of the league pans out, but even if the Warriors keep winning, the NBA will always be entertaining.