Not playing in the NBA Finals has been the best thing to happen to Kevin Durant’s reputation. The reigning two-time Finals MVP has not received much credit for his accomplishments in Golden State because he joined a team that had won a title without him. That lack of praise seemed valid when the Warriors closed out the Rockets and swept the Blazers while he was out with a calf strain. It no longer does after four games against the Raptors, who are up 3-1 heading into Game 5 on Monday. Golden State’s best chance for a comeback is for Durant to make an improbable return. The tables have suddenly turned headed into his free agency this summer: The question is no longer whether Durant can win without the Warriors, but whether the Warriors can win without him.
Toronto has exposed the lack of firepower in Golden State’s supporting cast. Steph Curry and Klay Thompson scored 55 points on 20-for-40 shooting in their loss in Game 4 on Friday. Their star backcourt did its part; the problem was their other eight players scored only 37 points on 15-for-38 shooting (39.4 percent). There wasn’t much the Splash Brothers could do for their teammates, none of whom could make a shot from the perimeter. The Raptors even went back to a box-and-one defense on Curry when Thompson was out. Klay’s return after missing Game 3 with a strained hamstring was supposed to even the odds, but it just made up the difference for Curry’s regression. Steph scored 27 points after going for 47 in a transcendent performance on Wednesday.
The Warriors still need one more scorer. It’s no coincidence that their only win in the series (Game 2) coincided with a strong performance by DeMarcus Cousins (11 points, 10 rebounds, and six assists on 3-for-8 shooting). Cousins was nowhere near the All-Star-caliber player he was before tearing his Achilles, but he still filled several important holes on the team. He gave Golden State a frontcourt player who could space the floor, create his own shot, and distribute the ball. In other words, he was a bigger and slower version of Durant, at least on offense. When Cousins was a legitimate third option, it allowed Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala to slide into more natural roles. They are both far better at creating open 3s for teammates than knocking those shots down themselves.
The Raptors have not let Cousins beat them in the past two games. They have relentlessly attacked him on defense and made him almost unplayable. He went from getting 28 minutes in Game 2 to 19 in Game 3 and 15 in Game 4. It would be hard for any big man to be effective after tearing his Achilles and then tearing his quadriceps a year later. Cousins was never an above-average defender even when he was healthy, and all the injuries have robbed him of his mobility. He needs to score to make up for the points that he gives up on defense, and Marc Gasol has shut him down during the past two games. Cousins scored only 10 points on 4-for-13 shooting (30.8 percent) in games 3 and 4, while handing out seven turnovers and three assists.
The Warriors have no one else to pick up the slack. Their two key veteran role players—Iguodala (35) and Shaun Livingston (33)—are showing their age. Iguodala was 31 when they won their first championship. He was the Finals MVP primarily because of his defense on LeBron James, and he also averaged 16.3 points per game on 52.1 percent shooting in the series. He hasn’t been the same type of offensive threat in these Finals and is averaging only 7.0 points per game on 37.9 percent shooting. Livingston, who may retire at the end of the season, has been even worse. He was one of the best backup point guards in the NBA in 2015. He doesn’t have much gas left in his tank in 2019. Golden State has a net rating of minus-22 in his 66 minutes on the floor in the series.
The Warriors have only five players who can contribute on both ends of the floor against a team as good as Toronto: Curry, Thompson, Green, Iguodala, and Kevon Looney, who made a miraculous comeback in Game 4 after breaking his collarbone in Game 2. Everyone else either doesn’t have to be guarded on offense or can’t guard anyone on defense. The only adjustment left for Warriors head coach Steve Kerr to make in Game 5 is benching Cousins and starting Looney. The problem is that move would leave him with nothing on his bench. Reserves are supposed to play better at home than on the road. It will be difficult for any of them to play well in front of a hostile crowd in Toronto ready for its first NBA title.
This series is starting to resemble the 2014 Finals between the Heat and the Spurs, when Miami was playing in its fourth consecutive Finals and was blown off the floor in five games. Their stars were worn out from all the wear and tear on their bodies, their veteran role players were on the brink of retirement, and they didn’t have any young players who could provide a spark. It’s hard to make it this far into the playoffs every year. Golden State has played in 103 playoff games over the past five seasons. There’s a reason they are the first team since the Celtics in the 1960s to play in five consecutive Finals. Only two other teams in that span (the 2011-14 Heat and the 2015-18 Cavs) have even played in four Finals in a row. None of the players on those teams, with the exception of LeBron James, has been the same since.
Of course, the difference between the Warriors and every other dynasty in the past 50 years is they added a superstar in the middle of their run. Durant turned them from great to almost invincible. His presence would change the dynamic of these Finals. He was playing the best basketball of his career before his injury. Durant is the most well-rounded star in the league. Not only would he give Golden State the third scorer it has been looking for, he would also give the Warriors another defender on Kawhi Leonard, who has been the best player in the series by far. It still might not be enough considering how rusty Durant would likely be after being out for the past month. But it would at least give them a chance.
Golden State will be great even if Durant leaves. Their original Big Three of Curry (31), Thompson (29), and Draymond (29) are still young enough to be the backbone of a contender. The problem is the Warriors would have to retool around them despite having no salary cap flexibility. Keeping a championship team together is expensive. Curry signed a supermax contract last summer. Thompson is up for a max contract of his own this summer, and Draymond will be free in the summer of 2020. It’s hard to find quality players willing to play for minimum contracts, and it’s even harder to find young players who can contribute to a title contender at the end of the first round. A Big Three of Durant, Curry, and Thompson can cover up a lot of flaws. Swap Durant with Draymond, an undersized big man without great scoring ability who may not age well in his 30s, and a strength-in-numbers approach is more necessary. The Warriors may be better off rebuilding around Curry and Thompson and making a run at Anthony Davis in 2020 or Giannis Antetokounmpo in 2021. Either of the two younger 7-footers would provide an interesting twist on what Durant has brought to the team, and both could be sold on playing on a veteran team with championship experience.
Keeping Durant would give Golden State its best shot at winning a title next season. He has seemed headed out the door for most of the season, and Draymond famously called him out in an on-court argument in November, daring him to leave the team in the summer. No one knows exactly what he will be looking for. He will have a lot of options. The Nets, Knicks, and Clippers all have room to sign two players to max contracts, while the Lakers have room for one next to LeBron James. All four teams may also be in the running for Davis, if the Pelicans end up moving him. Durant is essentially in the same position that LeBron was when he left the Heat in 2014. LeBron wanted to rebuild his reputation after The Decision and win a championship for his hometown, but he also saw the opportunity to jump from an older team that was falling apart around him to a younger one with fresher legs.
The Warriors may have a better case for Durant to stay now than if they had rolled to a third consecutive championship. There would have been nothing left for him to prove in that scenario. He still would have been viewed as a replaceable part on a historically dominant juggernaut. His absence has made his value clear in a way his presence never could. Durant is a two-way force who can match up with elite forwards in the Finals like LeBron and Kawhi. Overcoming that type of player has become almost a prerequisite to winning a title: One of those two has been in the Finals in each of the past nine seasons. Golden State barely beat LeBron in 2015 even when they were at full strength and he was playing without Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. If they don’t win another ring, Durant may get more credit for the Warriors’ last two championships than he has at the moment.
Getting credit is overrated, anyway. There has been a lot of debate about whether Durant or Curry should receive more credit, but the reality is that they need each other. They are 8-1 in the Finals together, while Curry is 8-9 without Durant and Durant is 1-4 without Curry. They are the 2010s version of Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant. None of the possible superstar pairings that could be created this summer fit better together. Shaq and Kobe broke up because both wanted all the glory. Curry and Durant don’t have to follow the same path. Durant may find out that the grass is not always greener if he leaves in the offseason. None of his possible destinations has the same history of success as Golden State, or another superstar as willing to share the spotlight as Curry. The Warriors always knew they needed Durant. Now everyone else realizes it, too. That may be enough for him to stay.