July 4 wasn’t a fever dream. Players’ Tribune deputy publisher Kevin Durant really is signing with the Golden State Warriors, a power move that makes LeBron James to the Heat look like small potatoes. A 73-win team just added one of the three best players in the NBA, and we’ve only begun to unpack the consequences. It’s been fun imagining how good Golden State can be, but the real intrigue lies in what the rest of the league will do about it.
What will they be facing?
The Warriors are the next step in the evolution of the superteam. Unlike the Heat, who had to gut their squad and create an identity from scratch, the Warriors have a strong core in place and a ready-made role for Durant. Just as important, their top three scorers are elite 3-point shooters, which will allow their lineups to play in maximum space from Day 1. Spacing fixes a lot of ills, and any issues in chemistry and role integration the Warriors have will be papered over by three players who have to be accounted for 28-plus feet from the basket.
There’s no obvious way to guard Golden State. Doubling Stephen Curry and taking the ball out of his hands isn’t as appealing when it allows Durant, arguably the best scorer in the league, to play four-on-three. Forcing someone else besides Curry and Klay Thompson to beat you from 3 is no longer an option. The all-switching strategy won’t be as effective now that the Warriors can isolate Durant and let him shoot over the top of a smaller defender, or blow past a slower one and get to the rim.
The addition of Durant also improves them defensively, giving them another long and fast defender who can match up with all five positions. Durant is coming off the best defensive performance of his career, when he stymied Draymond Green in the Western Conference finals. With Durant, Green, and Andre Iguodala, the Warriors now have three frontcourt players who can comfortably switch screens and lock up opposing ball handlers.
The biggest concern is depth. They will have to let go of key contributors like Andrew Bogut, Festus Ezeli, and Harrison Barnes to clear room for Durant. The good news is that ring-chasing veterans will flock to play for them, as evidenced by Zaza Pachulia’s contract agreement Monday. And they’ve been one of the better drafting franchises in recent years. They have high hopes for Kevon Looney, their first-round pick in the 2015 draft, and they may have knocked it out of the park this season, with the acquisitions of Damian Jones and Patrick McCaw, as well as undrafted free agent Robert Carter Jr. Don’t be surprised if the young guys get minutes right away, particularly McCaw, a long, athletic, and multidimensional wing who fits perfectly in Steve Kerr’s system.
What does this mean for another potential NBA Finals rematch?
Not only did the Warriors make themselves stronger, but they also removed their biggest threat in the West, who now have to contemplate trading Russell Westbrook and starting over. Everything points to a third straight NBA Finals between Cleveland and Golden State, as neither seems to have much of a roadblock standing in the way. Given their histories as well as the sheer length of the NBA season, it’s unlikely that either team would be 100 percent healthy coming into the series. At full strength, though, it’s hard to see the Cavs having enough answers for the Warriors’ projected closing five of Steph, Klay, Iguodala, Durant, and Draymond. That’s not a Lineup of Death. It’s an extinction event.
The parallels between Durant’s decision and the one LeBron made in 2010 are unavoidable. It’s not just about narrative with these guys — it’s about winning anything and everything. Legacies will always be argued, but wins are etched in stone. As Jerry West told Durant in what will go down as one of the most important phone calls in NBA history, each of his eight losses in the NBA Finals still stings more than 40 years later. LeBron had the Warriors figured out over the course of the Cavs’ comeback after being down 3–1 in the Finals. Now he has to start all over.
Standing pat will be hard for the Cavs to justify. Even if LeBron and Kyrie Irving win one-on-one matchups with Steph and KD, that leaves the issue of whether Kevin Love and the rest of their supporting cast can match Klay and Draymond, much less Iguodala and Shaun Livingston. There’s a good chance the Warriors would have six of the best eight players in the series. Cleveland would have to fully weaponize Love and operate at peak capacity. Or they are going to have to add new players.
LeBron isn’t really the GM of the Cavs, but he has never been afraid of going out on the market and persuading guys to play with him. He has outs in his contract, and his legacy in his hometown is secure, so Team Banana Boat has to be in the back of his mind if he sees the Splash Triplets pulling away. Dwyane Wade has already been connected to Cleveland, and LeBron has said he wants to play with Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony before their careers are over. They would be older than the Warriors’ Big Four, but the intergenerational battle would be fascinating to watch.
How will the ramifications be felt in collective bargaining and competitive balance?
The unknowable question is how Durant’s decision impacts the next CBA. The owners have an opt-out after next season, and they could use the Warriors to push for changes that increase competitive balance, whether it’s a hard cap, even more punitive luxury-tax penalties, or the elimination of the max salary. Cynics would counter that the owners made similar demands in 2011, only to create a CBA that further incentivized the creation of superteams and whose main purpose seems to have been to increase their own share of basketball-related income, the holy grail in any labor negotiation.
Removing the cap on individual salaries is the only way to ensure a team couldn’t have the last two MVPs in their prime, but that’s unlikely to happen for a number of reasons. The whole point of a union is to spread the wealth, not reward the 1 percent. Why would the rank-and-file agree to a system that takes money out of their pockets and gives it to guys who already make hundreds of millions in endorsements? The owners, meanwhile, probably don’t want situations like baseball, where the top stars are worth as much as entire franchises. Tom Hicks spent $250 million on the Texas Rangers and $252 million on Alex Rodriguez. If you owe the bank $1 million dollars, the bank owns you. If you owe the bank $1 billion dollars, you own the bank.
Owners are in this business to make money, and the blockbuster TV ratings Warriors vs. Cavs II garnered hasn’t escaped their attention. A rising tide lifts all boats, and superteams competing in the Finals is good for the league’s bottom line, especially in an era when viewing patterns are changing and the competition for the entertainment dollar is more intense than ever. The huge sums Golden State and Cleveland pay in luxury-tax penalties erase a lot of the ill will generated by their success. Even failed superteams like the Nets made everyone else a lot of money.
The Warriors seem poised to dominate the NBA for an extended period of time, but that hasn’t happened since Bill Russell’s Celtics in the 1960s and it probably won’t now. LeBron, Westbrook, Blake Griffin, Chris Paul, Paul Millsap, Serge Ibaka, and Gordon Hayward could all be unrestricted free agents in 2017. James Harden, Carmelo Anthony, and DeMarcus Cousins will likely hit the market the following summer. The Heat were created in response to LeBron and Wade losing to the Big Three Celtics. It’s basic physics, and the natural order of the current NBA system: For every action, there is an equal reaction. We won’t know where it comes from, only that it’s coming.