- With Stephen Curry on the mend, Kevin Durant's superhuman ability to shift into a do-everything role is keeping the Warriors ahead of the curve.
The Warriors have gone to great lengths to avoid relying on pick-and-roll basketball. Steve Kerr seems to find it all a bit formulaic—functional enough, but predictable in a way he would prefer his teams not to be. Instead, Golden State whirls in a concert of cuts and curls, calling most every defender into action simultaneously rather than putting two on the spot. This system—one that produces beautiful basketball as an almost incidental byproduct—leans on the idea that defenses will have to respond to the movements of two of the best shooters in the world.
At present, the Warriors are without one. Stephen Curry has missed five straight games due to an ankle injury, an absence that limits the potency of what the Warriors typically run. Draymond Green, an essential defender and playmaker, has missed four of those five games with a troublesome shoulder, cutting Golden State's All-NBA core in half. The Warriors are hardly without talent, but in Curry and Green, specifically, they lack those players who typically give them shape.
They've gone 5–0 regardless, changing shape at times between the Warriors we know and the Warriors they try not to be. With Durant at the helm, this is a pick-and-roll team—not to the extent of the Rockets or the Hornets, perhaps, but noticeably more so than when Curry is active. Defenses are kept at bay by inversion. Durant assumes control of the ball in the absence of the team's point guard and point forward, often working around screens set by his shortest teammates.
It is already impossible to consistently deny Durant, a seven-footer who stops and shoots with alarming ease, access to his lethal pull-up jumper. Adding a ball screen to the equation devastates even sharp execution and best efforts. It takes favorable circumstances for a defender to even scramble his way into Durant's line of sight, should he decide to fire on the go. The Lakers learned this the hard way on Monday night, as the 6'6" Lonzo Ball watched Durant's game-winning shot soar over his head.
Durant, without question, is Golden State's best candidate to absorb the responsibilities that Curry and Green leave behind. Solid as Klay Thompson may be, his iffy handle doesn't allow his game to scale. More shots may come his way by nature of Curry's usual load dissipating, but Thompson is ultimately doing slightly more of the same. Durant is living in a different world—still curling and posting and isolating as the Warriors want him to, but also running the offense and setting the stage for everyone involved. To average 34.2 points per game—most in the league over the past two weeks—on 61.3% true shooting is madness. Bolstering that line with with 10.4 rebounds and 7.4 assists a night takes that lunacy to an entirely different level.
Durant had previously done a masterful job in moonlighting as Green on defense, where his length could mimic some of what the NBA's most versatile defender does so well. Now he seems to be modeling Green's playmaking just as deftly—somehow walking the line between go-to scorer and willing passer. Considering how easily Durant could hunt down a shot of his own, the lack of hesitation to his passing game is admirable. Durant wants to hit a teammate ahead of him on the break. He wants to draw two defenders on the catch and skip the ball to the open man. He wants to stride through the open floor and kick a pass to second-year guard in the corner, playing on a two-way contract:
The Warriors could win some games without Curry and Green no matter how they chose to play. They're running the table because Durant is dominant without strangling the life out of the underlying system. Kerr's principles of movement and passing still apply, only differently. Certain allowances are made for Durant to give this injured team its own way of creating playmaking momentum. As a result, nearly every member of the Warriors ensemble has had their moment. If it weren't enough that Golden State were so star-rich, they support some of the best players in the game with impressively functional depth.
None of Andre Iguodala, Omri Casspi, David West, or Shaun Livingston is a volume scorer, but each is so adaptable as to stumble into 15 points on a given night by playing in the flow of the game. Durant will do the heavy lifting. Thompson produces reliably and the team defense—even without Green—has been stout. All that's left is for the role players to find whatever organic means to contribute a particular game allows:
Short two of their best players (and their starting center, though that seems less consequential given that it's Zaza Pachulia), the Warriors are structurally in line with much of the league: there's one superstar, one supporting All-Star, a handful of veterans, and a selection of prospects. But this team is in such a state that on Monday they started second-round picks from the past two drafts along with JaVale McGee for good measure ... and won. It's not difficult to discern that all-time talent is what gives Golden State their dynastic potential. This run without Curry and Green, however, bears reminders of both how exceptional Durant can be and how much better the Warriors are at the nuts and bolts of basketball than almost everyone else.