The two biggest threats to the Lakers next season weren’t in the bubble. Kevin Durant and Steph Curry were the last two stars to beat LeBron James in a playoff series. They would have been the favorites if Durant had stayed in Golden State. What each does without the other could decide who will be the biggest challenger to a potential dynasty in Los Angeles.
Durant and Curry were a modern-day Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant before LeBron and Anthony Davis. They were 8-0 in playoff series when both were healthy. For as great as the Raptors were last season, it’s hard to believe they could have beaten the Warriors with both of their superstars. You can’t run a box-and-one against Steph with KD out there.
The tragedy of Durant tearing his Achilles in the 2019 Finals is that he could have taken his game to new heights on the Nets. His time with the Warriors was his version of LeBron’s with the Heat. He learned all that goes into winning a title on and off the court while improving as a player. Durant became the most versatile player in NBA history in Golden State—a 7-footer who could play all five positions on both ends of the floor. There’s no way to know what he will look like when he returns.
The good news for Brooklyn is that Durant doesn’t need to be the best version of himself to be an elite player. Even if Durant can’t be an all-world defender and ball-dominant star after his injury, he can still become a new version of Dirk Nowitzki, an über-skilled big man who can dominate out of the high post. Size and shooting ability are two traits that are immune to aging. There’s no reason that a limited version of Durant can’t get buckets for another decade, assuming he stays healthy, which unfortunately is a big assumption after last season.
What the Nets have to figure out is how to build an elite defense around Durant if he can’t be the tip of the spear. Scoring will not be an issue for an offense with Durant, Kyrie Irving, Caris LeVert, Spencer Dinwiddie, and Joe Harris (the Nets have said they will try to re-sign the latter in free agency). The big question for new coach Steve Nash is how to split up playing time at center between DeAndre Jordan, an aging veteran who’s close with KD and Kyrie, and Jarrett Allen, a fourth-year big man who’s clearly a better player. Allen would give the Nets a needed dose of youth and athleticism up front. But they may also need Jordan, one of the most well-liked players in the league, to keep the peace in the locker room.
This is a new type of challenge for Durant. As a young player, he shared those duties with Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma City, and he was a free-agent addition to an established culture in Golden State. He has to set the tone in Brooklyn. Kyrie isn’t as good as even a diminished version of Durant, and imploded when given the chance to lead a team in Boston. He has to give up the ball like he did with LeBron in Cleveland, and Durant has to be the strongest voice in the locker room. Just because they are friends off the court doesn’t necessarily mean that they will click on it.
An even bigger challenge will be getting the players in Durant’s supporting cast to buy into their roles. Dinwiddie is coming off the best season of his career and could be a free agent after next season. He will have to take a massive step back on offense. So will LeVert, who showed how good he could be in a leading role in the bubble. Durant needs to make everyone fall in line in the same way that LeBron has everywhere he has gone in the past decade.
The Nets have done everything they can to make Durant comfortable, including replacing Kenny Atkinson with Nash. But with great power comes great responsibility. One of the reasons people doubted the Lakers is they figured that LeBron would let his personal relationships get in the way of running a team. That didn’t happen. He let one of his best friends (Carmelo Anthony) twist in the wind rather than sign him and stunt Kyle Kuzma’s growth. Can KD be as ruthless?
What happened to the Clippers this season is proof that there’s more to putting together a superteam than assembling talent and letting it cook. Durant has shown that he can be as good a player as LeBron. The next step for him is showing that he can be as much of a visionary.
Curry has never had to shoulder that much responsibility. He has lived a more charmed NBA life than Durant and LeBron, who were drafted to small-market franchises that weren’t able to win a title with them (at least the first time around). Curry landed in the perfect situation in a big market in Golden State, with two Hall of Fame teammates (Draymond Green and Klay Thompson) who complemented him. Their synergy should be enough for the Warriors to remain an elite team, especially given how much time Steph (broken hand) and Klay (torn ACL) had to recharge this season.
But they still have a lot of questions if they want to win another title. The NBA has become a big-wing league in the past decade, and the Warriors no longer have a great one. Forget Durant. They need to replace Andre Iguodala, who won the Finals MVP in 2015. His contributions for the Heat in their run to the Finals showed that he still had some juice left, though he likely couldn’t have returned to the same role that he had with the Warriors before Durant’s arrival.
The Warriors dealt Iguodala last offseason as part of a series of transactions that landed them D’Angelo Russell, whom they then swapped for Andrew Wiggins and a top-three-protected pick in 2021 from the Timberwolves. After finishing 15-50 in 2020-21, Golden State also landed the no. 2 pick in this year’s draft. Wiggins is the most important of the three assets for next season. They need the former no. 1 pick to turn his career around after six seasons in Minnesota, where he proved that he could not be a primary option. He needs to become a better shooter, playmaker, and defender to thrive in a secondary role in Golden State. It’s certainly possible. He’s a 25-year-old with unbelievable athleticism. The challenge for Steph, as well as Klay, Draymond, and Steve Kerr, is holding Wiggins accountable for his mistakes while also building up his confidence.
Golden State may have to go through both Los Angeles teams just to make the Finals, which means Wiggins would be the primary defender on Kawhi Leonard and LeBron. Thompson is coming off a serious injury and has always been better on smaller guards than bigger wings, while Green is a small-ball big man more effective as a help-side presence and defensive anchor. The Warriors won’t be able to add that kind of wing stopper in the draft or free agency.
The unfortunate thing for Golden State is that 2020 isn’t a top-heavy draft. There aren’t any surefire stars, and no player who can be Tim Duncan to Steph’s David Robinson. It’s unclear who will be available for them at no. 2. Minnesota could go in a number of directions at no. 1, as well as muscle into any trade that Golden State could come up with.
The Warriors have been linked to a number of prospects in the past month. None of the consensus top three—LaMelo Ball, Anthony Edwards, and James Wiseman—is a perfect fit. But a case could be made for all three in Golden State. Ball is a 6-foot-7 playmaker who could thrive in an offense built around ball movement that empowers role players and doesn’t need them to space the floor. Edwards is an elite athlete who could round out a new version of the Lineup of Death. Wiseman is the type of big and athletic center whom the Warriors have never had, and could develop into someone who can match up with Davis.
But could is doing a lot of work in that last paragraph. The best-case scenario for Golden State is that the player they take becomes someone they can trade for the piece that would help them beat the Lakers.
That piece is likely in Milwaukee. Giannis Antetokounmpo, the reigning two-time MVP, could be a free agent next season and there has been speculation about a move to Golden State in the past. This is where Steph needs to learn from LeBron. LeBron identified his next costar in Davis and pursued him until Davis demanded to play with him. Steph needs to do the same thing with Giannis. Steph may ultimately need to move on from Thompson or Green to make it happen. But that’s the price to pay at that level of the game. LeBron left Dwyane Wade and Pat Riley hanging in 2014. There are no friends when you are chasing immortality—only business partners.
LeBron has redefined what it takes to win a title. The best players in the NBA aren’t just playing basketball anymore. They are playing chess. That’s what gets forgotten in the comparisons between LeBron and Michael Jordan. What Jordan has done running the Wizards and the Hornets is proof that he would have had no idea how to scheme and recruit against LeBron. The era of leaders being able to humiliate their teammates and counting on their organizations to put the right pieces around them is over. They have to serve as de facto coaches and GMs in the post-LeBron world.
Steph and KD proved they could beat LeBron at his own game in the summer of 2016. Now they have to do it without each other’s help. They are the two biggest roadblocks to LeBron’s reign, just like they were four years ago. The only thing more fascinating than LeBron having to beat both of them in the 2021 playoffs is if they end up facing each other in the Finals.