There is real, live drama in Golden State, and suddenly the NBA landscape is wide open. There is a skip in the step of the Portland Trail Blazers, enthusiasm in Toronto, a renewed spirit in Boston—if the floundering Celtics can figure out how to play together.
For the first time in three years, the vaunted Warriors are vulnerable.
Or are they?
Monday’s dustup between Draymond Green and Kevin Durant represented the most significant tension in Oakland since Durant signed on two summers ago. Whatever happened—and credible reports suggest the bitterness stemming from Green’s refusal to pass the ball to Durant at the end of regulation in Golden State’s 121–116 overtime loss to the Clippers spilled into the locker room, where Durant’s upcoming free agency came into play—it rose to a never before seen level in Warrior-land. The emotional Green has had incidents before—nearly coming to blows with Steve Kerr during the 2016 playoffs, for example, and multiple on-court beefs with Durant—but none that were deemed suspension-worthy.
This one was.
There will be temptation to blame Green, who could have defused the whole thing with a chest tap and a “my bad” after fumbling the ball away in the Clipper frontcourt. Instead, Green got defensive, barking at Durant in the huddle and continuing the fight in the locker room. That Durant’s free agency reportedly worked itself into the argument was gasoline on the fire—and completely unnecessary in the aftermath of a meaningless regular season game in November.
Green can be a polarizing figure. He’s the soul of the franchise, respected by teammates and coaches alike. But the drama he creates can be exhausting, and over the last two years some Warriors veterans have privately grumbled about the frequency with which Green has to be reined in. His passion is one of his greatest strengths, and doubles as a glaring weakness.
“Draymond is always going to be who he is,” Steve Kerr said. “He’s a powerful force … Draymond is going to continue playing the way he plays. I don’t see him operating any other way.”
There will be a temptation to blame Durant because, well, free agency. Short of declaring a humanity-ending nuclear strike as the only thing stopping you from re-signing, there may be no good way to handle pending free agency in this era. Kyrie Irving preempted questions about his future in Boston by publicly declaring his intention to re-sign next summer; Klay Thompson routinely says the only place he wants to be is Golden State. But if you’re not fully committed—what do you do? Durant laid the groundwork for rampant speculation about his future when he left money on the table last summer in favor of a one-year deal, and his willingness to regularly engage on free agent questions—his right, of course—only fuels it.
It’s compelling fodder for November, but really—does it matter? Kerr was right: Blowups happen. Teams, even tight-knit ones, have moments. Kerr played on Bulls teams with big personalities. “When you play at a really high level, things happen,” Kerr said. “By the way, I kicked [Michael Jordan’s] ass.”
It would be astonishing to see the Warriors unravel. “Once we go on a little win streak, this will not matter,” Klay Thompson said. Indeed, even if Durant has eyes for elsewhere—and there are a surprising number of NBA-types who believe unequivocally that Durant is gone after the season—he’s not going to mail it in over some name calling. Green, either. They don’t talk three-peat inside the Dubs locker room, or so Kerr says, but everyone is aware how dynasty defining a third straight championship would be.
They will chase that championship, relentlessly. After that—who knows? They may retool if they lose Durant. Green is a norm-busting player—remember when being a tweener was considered a bad thing?—and one of the best defensive players of this generation. But there are more than a few league executives that think even the cash-rich Warriors would be bonkers to hand Green, 28, a max-level(ish) contract in 2020, citing Green’s size and limited perimeter skills—Green shot 30.8% from three last season and is connecting on just 24% of his triples in this one—as signs that Green’s game won’t age well. Prime years for NBA players are typically pegged at 28–32. Yet many NBA decision-makers will tell you it’s more like 26–30.
Next summer, Green could be a trade chip.
This season? Don’t count on it.
The Warriors will begin a three-game Texas trip on Thursday, and who knows—maybe the Durant/Green beef will be squashed by then. Long plane rides can be useful for that. And while he's out for the next five games, Stephen Curry, who was not in L.A. when the feud started, will come along for this road trip. For what it's worth, Durant has not let what happens next summer affect his play this season—his scoring and field goal percentage have ticked up as he has re-entered the MVP conversation—so he’s not the problem. And Houston’s collapse makes the path back to the Finals that much easier.
The Warriors remain the NBA’s most talented team—by a lot—and around midseason four-time All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins will join the supporting cast. Draymond v. Durant may signal the end of the Warriors run is coming. But that run isn’t over yet.