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How the Warriors got Kevin Durant, and what it means for the NBA

KD OKC curry

With Kevin Durant joining the Warriors, we’ve officially entered uncharted territory in the NBA landscape. Golden State now has four of the Top 12 or 14 players in the NBA, and most certainly two of the best four. Draymond Green, Stephen Curry and Durant all ranked amongst the best eight contributors in the NBA last season by ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus, a feat no other team has a chance of matching.

We’ve seen amazing two-man combinations like Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal, or John Stockton and Karl Malone, and Big Threes such as LeBron James with Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade, the Spurs with Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. But it’s unlikely the NBA has ever witnessed a Big Four like this.

Klay Thompson, Green, Curry and Durant are right smack-dab in the middle of the primes of their careers. And not only are the players great, the fit on the court could perfectly mirror every advantage modern basketball has to offer. Three-point shooting, multiple pick-and-roll ball handlers, defensive versatility and length, high-level passing and the ability of every player to run a fast break from point guard through center.

With Andre Iguodala to fill the last spot in the new Death Lineup (which is in need of a dramatic name upgrade), the Warriors have put together a squad with a chance to create something we’ve never seen before in the league – and that potential extends to both ends of the court.

Durant’s decision to join the Warriors benchmarks one of the most important free agent decisions in NBA history, and the ripple effects will be felt for years to come. Losing Durant is absolutely catastrophic for the Thunder, and it’s understandable for the fan base to be disappointed. At most, only 3-5 teams each year compete for the NBA title, and the Thunder have been a part of that group for at least six years running.

Alongside the Spurs and whatever team James has played on, the Thunder’s run fueled by Durant and Russell Westbrook was the longest extended title chase going in the NBA. All that has now come to end, and it may over a decade for the Thunder to have another team that can compete for the championship again. Trading Westbrook, or him leaving in free agency a year from now, are real and harsh possibilities that have to be considered.

For the rest of the league, every team now knows what the top of the NBA will look like for the next five years. While there’s some risk of the marriage between Durant and the Warriors not working out– injuries can happen, Durant signed a 1+1 deal with a player option and he can leave if the chemistry gets screwed up, Curry is an unrestricted free agent next summer, etcetera – by far the most likely outcome is that the Warriors have cemented their path to one of the historic dynasties. Every playoff series teams get into with the Warriors, they’ll always be coming in as overwhelming underdogs, no matter the talent.

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HOW WE GOT HERE

There are multiple reasons why it’s virtually impossible to assemble a team like the one Warriors have today, and the NBA has found itself in a very odd and unique situation where such an event can happen.

By the salary cap, the max extension a player can receive coming off their four-year rookie deal is one that’s 25 percent of the cap. Almost without exception, the players eligible for that max contract stay with their own team, and only in a weird situation where a second-rounder, or with someone like Hassan Whiteside this season, is it ever even remotely likely that a max player can “escape” their current team, as their original team has matching rights in restricted free agency.

Players such as Al Horford, Nicolas Batum and Mike Conley, who were all eligible for max contracts that start at 30 percent of the cap and were signing their third contract, were available to be lured from their respective teams. But even in those cases, fitting in one of those max players is hard. Most players want a better opportunity to compete for the championship, and finding the right team that has max cap room yet still could be a title contender by adding one key piece is exceptionally short in most years.

Given the fact that NBA teams are required to fill a certain number of roster spots with minimum contracts, and the real need to have really good role players around a core of superstars, it’s hard to add up multiple max-level players together at one time. Especially when luring a free agent like Durant, who can’t be signed with Bird rights over the cap.

The Warriors have somehow managed to procure four players who would instantly command the highest available salary should they hit free agency. Not only have the Warriors been fortunate (and skilled) enough to draft Curry, Thompson and Green, but each of those players signed their second big contracts under a completely different salary structure. When Curry’s extension started, the salary cap was at $58.7 million, while the 2016-17 cap has ballooned to $94.1 million– a 46.3 percent increase. The 2017-18 cap is going to hover around $110 million, which is vital for Golden State to be able to sign Durant to a max-extension.

Even the rising cap isn’t enough to make Durant happen. Curry’s severe ankle troubles kept him from getting the type of extension that would have forced the Warriors to sacrifice Iguodala in all likelihood, which could have meant Durant wouldn’t have signed. Renouncing Marreese Speights and Leandro Barbosa while making Ian Clark and James Michael McAdoo unrestricted free agents was just enough to fit in Durant’s contract under the cap.

In addition to the once in a lifetime cap machinations that have to break right, recent NBA history has had to break the exact right way for Durant to fall to the Warriors’ lap. The Thunder were up 96-89 with five minutes to go in the fourth quarter of Game 6 in the Western Conference Finals. Those five minutes will now define the greatest “What if?” game in NBA playoff history.

durant okc bye

Also, it’s tough to imagine Durant would have joined the Warriors had they won the title – meaning the Cavaliers had to be the first team in NBA Finals history to come back from a 3-1 deficit for all the pieces to come together.

Back in the summer of 2012, the Thunder offered James Harden a four-year $55.5 contract, which was just $4.5 million under his potential max salary at that time. At that time, the Thunder were not willing to pay the new punitive luxury tax (which they would have only had to pay for a year probably) and moved on from The Beard. Harden is one of the best players in the NBA today and that deal set the Thunder on the path to tragedy. Oklahoma City had just made the Finals and were en-route to dominating the league until that trade. Bad injury luck in the playoffs and failures at the biggest moment sealed the deal.

In hindsight, the trade may have not turned out as bad as originally imagined due to Steven Adams’ improved play in this year’s playoffs, but the unwillingness to spend like their counterparts at the top of the NBA sent a clear message that the Thunder wouldn’t commit to doing whatever they could to win a title.

The massive irony here is that not spending $4.5 million (plus whatever luxury tax payment) is one of the contributing reasons to Durant leaving, and for the Thunder’s franchise valuation it will likely end up costing hundreds of millions.

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A POTENTIAL DYNASTY IN THE MAKING

The Warriors already had the best offense by a mile last season, scoring 112.5 points per 100 possessions. a mark matched in the last two decades only by one of the 7-seconds-or-less Suns teams led by Steve Nash. The offense has already been described as “unguardable”, built around the pick-and-roll play of Curry, the gravity both he and Thompson have on the defense, and beautiful ball movement mixed with high-IQ players running intricate sets under a wonderful offense philosophy instituted by Steve Kerr.

That “unguardable”-moniker is much closer to reality now. During the regular season, the Warriors are unlikely to go all-in on small-ball in an attempt to reduce the banging inside for Green and Durant, but in the playoffs the Warriors now have an unmatchable trump card. Previously, when doubling a Curry pick-and-roll, Green was left open on the three-point line. Place Durant, a 40 percent three-point shooter even when guarded, in Green’s position to take those wide open shots and it’s death.

durant okc warr

Teams could get away with switching, if they had a player that could switch out and guard Curry on the perimeter. Durant was one of those players, and one way the Thunder were able to hurt the Warriors in the playoffs was by taking advantage of those switches. No one is afraid of Green’s post-ups, but Durant ranked as the most efficient post-up player in the league last season at a ridiculous 1.23 points per possession.

In fact, the difference between Durant and the second best player David West at 1.08 points per possession, rivaled the difference between West and the league average player last season. If Curry can’t get an open three-pointer against his man, Durant will destroy point guards in the post.

On a Curry-Green pick-and-roll off the double, the Warriors have gotten whatever they wanted for the past two seasons. First, Curry makes the pass on the short roll and if the corner doesn’t rotate it’s an alley-oop. If the corner rotation makes it on time, it’s a wide open three in the corner.


Curry-Green pick and roll. Short roll lob and corner options

Last season, one major move Billy Donovan made was moving Durant more to the elbows and right side of the floor. Off of down screens and the Warriors off-ball action. Durant should get those same opportunities but much more open. Overall, you’d expect Durant’s shot chart to be the analytic geek’s dream.

STAT DurantDurant shot chart 2015-16 vs. 2013-14

For those worried about how Durant fits, just imagine the place Harrison Barnes used to stand in and replace him with Durant. Remember, the option not to rotate means one player guarding two guys in the lane, and Green can throw that alley-oop on target in his sleep.

The math problem to solve here is impossible. Double Curry and you get a much dangerous version of the offense that has been destroying the league for two years. Switch, and suddenly you have the most efficient post-up player in the NBA going against a tiny guy. Leave one of the perimeter options open and live with the results? With Durant in Barnes’ spot, that’s a death wish.

Over the past two seasons, the Warriors have ranked first and fourth in defensive rating, and defensively Durant is a better, smarter, more athletic and longer version Barnes. He can switch on to point guards on possessions and guard all but the greatest behemoths in the middle.

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In the playoffs against Golden State, we saw the level Durant could play at defensively, and once he gets used to new schemes with the Warriors, the results have a chance to be devastating. Durant is one of only a few players who can average both a steal and a block every game due to his size and versatility, and in the modern NBA those guys have become increasingly valuable. Even without a classic rim protector, the Hawks built their third ranked defense around the versatility of Paul Millsap, and Durant can do everything Millsap does and he’s also a few inches taller and a better athlete.

Durant’s defensive upside still remains unlocked, but in the Warriors system he’ll thrive in ways that he hasn’t before. For the NBA, as much as everyone likes to talk about competitive balance, super teams are a real draw, and chasing history – which this team will do in multiple ways – is super exciting.

Mika Honkasalo is an NBA writer, geek, chart maker and most of all fan. He studies computer science and works in software development and business analytics. His writing can be found at Nylon Calculus and Vantage Sports, and you can find him on Twitter @mhonkasalo.

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