Has KD Taken The Fun Out Of Warriors-Cavs III?

1:32 | NBA
How Kevin Durant impacted competitive balance in the NBA
Thursday June 1st, 2017

Less than 30 minutes after the Warriors finished sweeping the Spurs, owner Joe Lacob was talking about last year's Finals. "We were the better team, but they did win," he told the Mercury News. "We need a chance to go in there and prove that." That's the subtext to Warriors-Cavs III, also known as the Thrillogy, also known as the Three-match. Everyone understands the stakes. The Warriors are out for redemption, LeBron is chasing Jordan, and it will all be settled in one of the greatest rubber matches the league has ever seen. 

And I get it. It almost works. But the closer we've gotten to this series, the harder it's become to get all that excited. Doesn't everyone see Kevin Durant standing over there?

Imagine if the Lakers and Celtics had traded titles in '85 and '86, and before settling the score in '87, L.A. added Bernard King to play alongside Magic, Worthy, and Kareem. Would the Celtics even get a game? Would a Lakers win have been all that thrilling?

NBA
The NBA's Superteam Era: For Better Or Worse?

That's Warriors-Cavs III. We're in a completely different phase of the story this year. Golden State entered last year's Finals having survived seven brutal, spectacular games against the Thunder. This year's Warriors are 28-1 since March. 

And look, what the Warriors have done is outrageous. They deserve credit for all of it. Durant deserves credit for integrating his game seamlessly. But it would be much easier to appreciate this run and KD, himself, if I weren't driving myself crazy imagining how much cooler these Finals could've been without him.

Elsa/Getty Images

Durant's free agency can be debated elsewhere. He's free to do whatever he wants, and God knows it's not an argument I'm going have on Day 1 of the Finals. But for now, just consider an alternate reality in which KD never signed the Warriors. 

To begin with, it means we'd be getting Steph and LeBron going toe to toe to see who owns the league. That's the rematch we deserve. 

Half the basketball world has openly second-guessed Steph Curry's dominance for three years now, and it's ridiculous. I understand that LeBron reaffirmed his claim to the throne last year, but the Warriors have won 67, 73, and 67 games with Curry as the catalyst for everything they do. He dominated down the stretch of the 2015 Finals, and he owned the league for most of last season. Then he got hurt in the first round of the playoffs, never quite got healthy, and sputtered at the end of last year's Finals. That should validate three years of skepticism. 

LeBron is LeBron, of course. It's him and Jordan at this point. He's got nothing left to prove after last year's Finals. But it would be so much fun to watch Steph come back at him. Curry may not be better than LeBron, but in terms of success and dominance, he's the only player who belongs in the conversation. 

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images Sport

Instead, Scottie Pippen's out here telling the world that Curry's not even the best player on his own team, a continuation of the condescending themes set forth over the past few years. And even if Steph wins and continues to dominate—he's scoring 29 per game on 50% shooting this postseason—it will be easily discredited by everyone who (correctly) points out that LeBron never really had a fair shot in this matchup.

It's not just Curry and LeBron. Without KD, Draymond's job would be twice as important as he tries to hold together the defense and redeem himself after his suspension last year. Or Kyrie Irving. He's already the biggest variable in any game we'll see over the next two weeks, but if the Warriors were a little bit more vulnerable, Kyrie's scoring could potentially swing a title (again). Or look at the sidelines. if the Warriors weren't playing this series with such a massive margin for error, can you imagine how much crazier it would be that Steve Kerr's not coaching? As it stands, Mike Brown is kind of a fun wild card with the KD Warriors. But if we went back to last year's dead-even matchup, suddenly every single adjustment comes with a world of questions about what Kerr might've done. It'd be fascinating. Likewise, Andre Iguodala's health would be a source of daily speculation, and on Cleveland's side, the whole world would be watching to see whether Kevin Love can hang on defense. 

Maybe Harrison Barnes and Andrew Bogut would be involved in this scenario, and they'd be trying to live down last year's disappointments. That would be ... actually, that's not much cooler than what we have this year. On the other hand, with no KD, people would remember that Klay Thompson's on the Warriors roster. That'd be an upgrade for everyone who may have forgotten that a year ago this week, Klay was doing this.

Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images

Golden State would probably still be favored in a series without Durant, but it'd essentially be a toss-up. Especially after last year. The challenge would be tougher for Steph, Klay, and Dray, and winning would be a lot more realistic for LeBron, Love, and Kyrie. It'd be amazing. 

Knowing that's the alternative, what we have instead rings a little hollow. Even when these games are close, it's hard to imagine the outcome of this series will ever truly be in doubt.

It's not about the Cavs. They have been fantastic. LeBron's at the peak of his powers, and Kyrie's been fantastic. With a rejuvenated Kevin Love and Kyle Korver off the bench, they have more weapons than they did last year. 

NBA
2017 NBA Finals Predictions: Warriors Or Cavs?

It's not even about the Warriors. Steph and Durant are the No. 2 and No. 3 best players in the league, and both future Hall of Famers. When Klay wakes up, they have three of the best shooters ever. Draymond is the best defender on the planet (and he's had had my two favorite quotes of the playoffs). They are putting together dominance the league's never seen and the most emphatic response possible to a summer of 3-1 jokes. 

All things considered, this is better than watching Celtics-Spurs, or any other variation from the rest of the league. Warriors-Cavs III was always the best outcome for these playoffs. It's just not half as dramatic as it should've been. 

The best players on the Warriors are as dominant as anyone in the league, but they don't have to be quite as incredible in this context. Steph can go for an efficient 25 points and still win by 20. Durant can do the little things and pick his spots to go off, and he'll still get his title. Draymond and Klay are the same story. And when people try to discredit the individual significance of winning with a team this talented, I can't totally disagree. We'll see how it looks in a few years. 

For now, heading into Game 1, LeBron and Kyrie look doomed at the outset. It's a rematch that doesn't really feel like a rematch. It's Ali-Frazier III, but Ali is now 10 feet tall. 

I'll watch, and it'll be the first time all year that playoff basketball feels like it matters. I'm ready. Hopefully I'm wrong about how this plays out on the court. But I'm also not kidding myself. Durant is in Golden State now, and that means the ceiling is probably lower for everyone. Less heroics, less drama, and not quite the series we were supposed to see.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide—from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Andy Staples, Grant Wahl, and more—delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.