Golden State Warriors: Without Kevin Durant, the Dubs are still a playoff team

NBA Golden State Warriors Stephen Curry (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
NBA Golden State Warriors Stephen Curry (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images) /

With Kevin Durant gone, and Klay Thompson sidelined due to injury, the Golden State Warriors are still a playoff team

In the wake of a Game 6 loss in the 2019 NBA Finals that ended the Golden State Warriors‘ quest for a three-peat, Steven Ashburn of asked Draymond Green whether the loss marked the end of an era.

"Green quizzically responded, “I think everybody thinks it’s kind of the end of us buts that’s just not smart we’re not done yet. We lost this year.  Clearly just wasn’t our year, but that’s how the cookie crumbles sometimes. But, yeah, I hear a lot of that noise, it’s the end of a run and all that jazz.  I don’t see it happening though.  We’ll be back.”"

A little under three weeks after Green’s comments, Kevin Durant announced that he was signing with the Brooklyn Nets. The Warriors, however, were able to salvage an all-star in return for Durant by orchestrating a sign-and-trade with the Nets to acquire D’Angelo Russell.

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The sign-and-trade triggered a hard cap for the Warriors as a result of their payroll exceeding the luxury tax.  In order to create cap space under the hard cap to resign Kevon Looney and fill out the rest of their roster, the Warriors traded Andre Iguodala to the Memphis Grizzlies.

In the weeks following, many pundits, including ESPN’s Bobby Marks and TNT’s Charles Barkley questioned whether the Warriors would make the playoffs next year. Are they talking about the same team that will feature a back to back MVP in Stephen Curry, an all-star guard in D’Angelo Russell, a former NBA Defensive Player of Year in Draymond Green and will at some point get all-star guard Klay Thompson back from an ACL injury?

The Warriors were a shot away from forcing a Game 7 in the NBA Finals last year with Kevin Durant playing 12 minutes, DeMarcus Cousins returning from a torn quad injury,  Andre Iguodala being hobbled with a calf injury, Kevon Looney missing Game 3 and playing through a broken collar-bone the last three games of the series and Klay Thompson missing Game 3 and the 4th quarters of Games 2 and 6 due to a hamstring injury and subsequent ACL tear.

Before the Finals began there was legitimate, albeit foolish, discussion about whether the Warriors were better without Kevin Durant, as they closed out the final two games of the Rockets series and swept the Blazers in the Western Conference Finals without Durant.  Are the Warriors going to be one of the greatest teams to ever take the floor like they have been the last three years with Durant? No. Will they go 73-9 like they did the year before Durant joined the team? No. Will they be sitting at home watching the playoffs on TV next year? Absolutely not.

How much different would the Finals have looked this year had the Warriors had D’Angelo Russell, preventing the Raptors from playing a high school box-and-one defense against Curry when Thompson was off the floor. Curry turned in one of the greatest NBA Finals games of all time in Game 3, hitting for 47 points in a loss as Thompson sat out with a hamstring injury.  How much different would that game have looked if Curry had the help of another proven backcourt scorer in D’Angelo Russell?

People look at the accumulated losses of Durant, Iguodala and Shaun Livingston along with the injury to Klay Thompson and assume the Warriors will take a giant step backward from making the NBA Finals five straight years, a feat not accomplished since the Celtics in 1966, to not making playoffs.  As Draymond Green said, that’s just noise.

The Warriors will be one of just six teams who will open next season with two all-stars and when Thompson returns from injury, they will be the only team with three all-stars. Furthermore, when Thompson returns, they will be one of only two teams that will have three 20-point scorers on their team, the other being the Clippers, who boast Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, and Lou Williams.

The Warriors will certainly not be as good next season as they were the last three years. With Kevin Durant over the last three seasons, the Warriors were one of the greatest teams of all time.  During the post-game press conference following Game 5 of the NBA Finals, Klay Thompson was asked about Kevin Durant. In dispelling the farcical notion that the Warriors were a better team without Durant, Thompson said:

"“with him we are really one of the, I believe, one of the greatest teams to ever play, without him we’re a really good team but you throw Kevin Durant out there, like I said before, one of the greatest ever.”"

The Warriors very likely would have won the NBA Finals last year had Klay Thompson not torn his ACL in Game 6. At the time of his injury, with 2:22 remaining in the 3rd quarter, they were ahead by 5 points. Even without Thompson over the final 14:22 of the game, the Warriors still had an opportunity to win on a Steph Curry 3-point attempt with 8 seconds left. Had the shot gone down to force a Game 7 the Warriors certainly would have liked their chances to finish off the three-peat?

The Warriors will be a much different team than the team that began last season on a quest to win their third straight title with Kevin Durant but how much different are the Warriors really going to look next season than the team who swept the Western Conference Finals and were within a shot of forcing a Game 7 in the NBA Finals without Durant?

They will still have the two main pieces to their championship team in Steph Curry and Draymond Green. They will also have the two main bench players they used against the Blazers and Raptors in Alfonso McKinnie and Kevon Looney. Both McKinnie and Looney figure to play bigger minutes next season and they should flourish with an expanded role.

In place of DeMarcus Cousins, who oscillated between unplayable and making solid contributions during the Finals after returning from a quadriceps injury, will be Willie Cauley-Stein. While both Cauley-Stein and Cousins have their defensive shortcomings, Cauley-Stein seems to fit better with the Warriors offensive philosophy of ball movement, player movement, and pace. Cousins prefers to work out of the post, which generally slowed the Warriors tempo down when he was on the floor last year. Cauley-Stein, however, is more of the rim runner the Warriors like to run at center, like Javale Mcgee in the 2016-17, 2017-18 seasons and Damian Jones who began last season as the starting center.

In place of Shaun Livingston, rookie Jordan Poole will probably see most of the backup guard minutes. Poole appeared to be an effective scorer with a solid offensive arsenal during Summer League where he averaged 17.8 points a game. Livingston only averaged 4 points in 15 minutes per game last year and missed 14 games.

Alec Burks should supplant Andre Iguodala at the small forward position. It’s difficult to properly quantify Iguodala’s positive contributions by resort to stats but Alec Burks’ stats last season were very comparable to Iguodala’s. In fact, Burks averaged more points and shot better from the foul line and 3-point range.

To start the season, D’Angelo Russell will fill in for the injured Klay Thompson at shooting guard. Thompson and Russell had very similar numbers last season in points and field goal attempts per game. Thompson scored 21.5 points on 18 field goal attempts while Russell went for 21.1 points on 18.7 field goal attempts. Russell was much better as a playmaker, averaging 7 assists per game to 2.4 for Thompson and made only seven less total 3-pointers during the season.

Thompson did shoot a better percentage from the field and 3-point range and is a much superior defender, making 2nd team All-Defense last season.

Until Klay Thompson returns from injury the Warriors will just have to slog through the regular season with an elite All-Star level scorer at shooting guard, a former Defensive Player of the Year who was tied for 16th in the league in assists per game last year at power forward and a two-time MVP at point guard.

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At some point during the season, they will add one of the top ten two-way players in the league to that lineup. Is that lineup going to be enough to get the Warriors to their 6th straight Finals? Perhaps not, but that is a far cry from thinking that they do not have a talented enough roster to finish ahead of the Suns, Grizzlies, Pelicans, Timberwolves, Mavericks, Kings and Thunder.

If the Warriors are miraculously able to traverse the gauntlet of the aforementioned teams to sneak into the playoffs, don’t be surprised if they make another deep run through the playoffs.