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A Modern NBA Champion Can’t Be Led by Any One Player Anymore

As the Warriors secure their claim to a dynasty, their two biggest stars in Steph Curry and Kevin Durant have also changed the concept of team hierarchies, whether we like it or not

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Steph Curry and Kevin Durant took turns in the NBA Finals. Curry controlled Game 2, setting the record for most 3s made in a Finals game (nine) with 33 points, seven rebounds, and eight assists. Durant returned the favor in Game 3, closing out the Cavs with 43 points on 15-of-23 shooting, 13 rebounds, and seven assists, including a pull-up 3 with less than a minute left that sealed the series. The only question remaining headed into Game 4 was who would win Finals MVP, and both players made strong cases on Friday. Curry exploded for 37 points, but a 20-point triple-double from Durant won him the award for the second straight year. It’s the kind of argument that has broken up great teams before. If the two ignore the noise and stay together, they can redefine how we think about superstar pairings.

While they have now won two NBA titles in their two seasons together, there have been plenty of bumps along the way. Durant spent the first half of his career playing in an isolation-oriented offense in Oklahoma City, where he and Russell Westbrook took turns playing one-on-one. He had to change his game when he came to Golden State, adjusting to more of an off-ball role and playing within the flow of a motion offense. Steph has also had to adjust to playing with a dominant scorer like Durant, feeding him the ball on mismatches inside and occasionally turning into a spectator in the half court.

Things came to a head in their epic Western Conference finals against the Rockets, who switched almost every screen Durant was involved in and ground Golden State’s offense to a halt by refusing to rotate and create openings for ball movement. After bottoming out with a 98–94 loss in Game 5 that put them in a 3–2 hole, the Warriors regained control of the series by using Curry in more pick-and-rolls so that he could create offense, both for himself and his teammates, off the dribble. It was a decision met with rapturous applause by the Golden State faithful, who haven’t warmed to Durant in the same way.

There are many observers around the NBA, including players like Blazers guard C.J. McCollum, who questioned Durant’s decision to sign with Warriors precisely because he will never be a favored son in the Bay Area. It would be easy for Durant, who was caught using burner accounts on Twitter to defend himself last summer, to worry about losing popularity contests with Curry. That’s what happened with Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal in the early 2000s, and LeBron James and Kyrie Irving last season. Both Kyrie and Kobe wanted teams of their own, breaking apart groups that could have contended for years to come.

The biggest threat to Golden State’s dynasty isn’t another team, or even the punitive luxury tax penalties coming their way, but the possibility that Durant and Curry can’t coexist. Pat Riley coined the term “the Disease of More” when coaching the Showtime Lakers in the 1980s to describe what happens to championship teams. Everyone’s egos grow larger, and they start fighting over who should receive the credit. There’s only one question that could sink the Warriors: Are they Steph’s team? Or Durant’s?

The Finals proved it’s not an either/or proposition. Durant and Curry can shine at the same time. While Steph was lighting the world on fire in Game 2, Durant had 26 points on a hyperefficient 10-of-14 shooting, with nine rebounds, seven assists, and two blocks. Cleveland started the Finals by copying Houston’s formula of switching every ball screen, but their bigger and slower frontcourt defenders couldn’t stay in front of Curry, so they started doubling and trapping him in the pick-and-roll in Game 3, which created openings for Durant to exploit.

The results of the Curry-Durant partnership speak for themselves. There have been only eight seasons since 2000 when two teammates averaged at least 25 points per game, and they have two of them. Even more impressively, their combined true shooting percentage blows their peers out of the water:

Durant and Curry Are a Truly Modern Duo

Teammates Season Combined avg. FGAs Combined avg. 3PAs Combined TS%
Teammates Season Combined avg. FGAs Combined avg. 3PAs Combined TS%
Durant & Curry 2017-18 34.9 15.9 65.5
Durant & Curry 2016-17 34.8 15 63.5
Cousins & Davis 2017-18 37.5 8.3 60.1
LeBron & Kyrie 2016-17 37.9 10.9 60
Carmelo & Iverson 2007-08 38.2 5.5 58.8
Shaq & Kobe 2002-03 41.6 4 57.1
Shaq & Kobe 2001-02 38.3 1.7 57
Durant & Westbrook 2014-15 39.3 10.2 55.9

The key, as the chart shows, is 3-point shooting. That’s the skill that separates Durant and Curry from every other superstar pairing in NBA history. The math is simple. They don’t need to take as many shots since more of their shots are worth three points instead of two. That, in turn, means there are more for each to take. There are only so many scoring possessions to go around in a game, which is why not many teammates have been able to each average 25 points in the same season. Durant and Russell Westbrook did only once, and that came in a season when KD played only 27 games. LeBron James and Dwyane Wade came close in their first season together, but never actually reached that threshold. Neither did Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen in Chicago.

Three-point shooting is one of the only skills without a diminishing marginal return. Durant and Curry threaten a defense just by standing 25-plus feet from the basket, and they demand even more attention when they start cutting. The genius of Steve Kerr’s offense is that he’s leveraging the gravity created by Durant, Curry, and another all-time great shooter (Klay Thompson), as well as the playmaking ability of Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala. Every piece on the Hamptons Five fits together perfectly, and they even have a sub (Shaun Livingston) who can slide right in and take Iguodala’s place.

From a basketball perspective there’s no reason for these Warriors to ever break apart. Their best players complement one another incredibly well, and they will only get more comfortable with each other as time goes by. Curry and Durant have another level they can get to: The Warriors don’t use the pick-and-roll between the two nearly as much as they could. They are the most interchangeable pair of superstars in NBA history: Durant can screen for Curry as easily as Curry can screen for Durant.

Durant raised the bar when he signed with Golden State in the summer of 2016. The last two seasons are proof that the only way to combat a pair of superstars is to have two of your own. LeBron may go down as the best player in NBA history, and he took only one game off the Warriors in the last two Finals. The Rockets were up 3–2 in the conference finals when Chris Paul went down with a hamstring injury, and James Harden couldn’t close them out on his own. Harden and LeBron could pair up this summer to compete with Golden State. In that scenario, it wouldn’t matter whose team it was. Houston would need LeBron and Harden operating at peak capacity together to have a chance.

Every dynasty leaves a mark on the NBA, and it’s easy to see where the league is headed in the post-Warriors era. The future of the game is at the 3-point line. When I was at the McDonald’s All American Game in 2017, the coaching staffs were putting centers through drills that would have been reserved for shooting guards a generation ago. Every young player watching the Finals sees the importance of the 3-pointer, and the next generation of great players will spend their teenage years fine-tuning it. It may not be possible to be an All-Star without a consistent 3-point shot in 10 years. And if every great player in the next incarnation of the NBA is an elite outside shooter, fitting them together in superteams will be even easier than it is now.

Of course, as Durant and Curry have shown, the basketball fit goes only so far. Two guys who share a team have to have a good relationship, and they have to be willing to swallow their pride. Basketball, more than any other sport, straddles the line between the importance of individual and the importance of team. One great player can’t win a football or baseball game, or soccer match, but they can come awfully close to winning a basketball game. Ever since Jordan, NBA fans have turned team competitions into a referendum on individual players. That era is over. It doesn’t matter if Golden State is Durant’s or Curry’s team. The only way they keep winning titles is if it’s both.