First of all, we should say: Nothing quite like this has ever happened before. The Golden State Warriors getting Kevin Durant the year after they won 73 games is a bit like, say, the 72-win Chicago Bulls getting David Robinson, or Magic Johnson’s dominant late ’80s Lakers teams getting Larry Bird. Really, it’s a bit like the Empire, circa third Death Star, getting Luke Skywalker.
Yes, there have been many attempts to build superteams before — we’ll talk about a few in a minute — but never before has a team as great as the 2015-16 Golden State Warriors simply added an in-his-prime player as transcendent as Kevin Durant. He turns 28 in late September. He was, by player efficiency rating, the second best player in the NBA last year behind Steph Curry. He is already one of the greatest scorers in the league’s history, and he’s joining a team that averaged 115 points a game, most in the NBA in a quarter century. This is the mountain coming to Muhammad.*
*People may bring up older players like Gary Payton or Karl Malone or Oscar Robertson going to great teams, but in my opinion the only near-example that compares happened in 1986. The Boston Celtics had just gone 67-15 and easily won the championship. The Celtics lost one time at the Boston Garden. They were a team of basketball Hall of Famers — Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parrish, Dennis Johnson, Bill Walton. They remain in memory one of the greatest and most wonderful teams in basketball history. And then they drafted Len Bias, who was so good at Maryland that Michael Jordan comparisons were inevitable. Bias would undoubtedly have been an extraordinary player. He died two days after the draft of a drug overdose, one of the saddest sports stories.
Now comes the question: Will Durant to the Warriors work?
But before you can ask “Will it work,” you have to define your terms. And that’s where it gets tricky.
In 2011, the Philadelphia Phillies built a pitching staff featuring Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt. They were four of the best pitchers in baseball, and together they combined a pitching staff so extraordinary that Sports Illustrated’s legendary writer Gary Smith decided to follow them around for the whole season and write about what figured to be their ultimate triumph.
Did it work? Define your terms. That Phillies team won 102 games, most in baseball, most in the National League in seven years. But they were promptly booted in the playoffs by the Cardinals, and they never made the playoffs again.
So you would have to say by superteam terms: DID NOT WORK.
In 2003, the Los Angeles Lakers — still featuring Shaq and Kobe — went out and got all-time greats Gary Payton and Karl Malone. Those two were not the players they had once been, but the Shaq-Kobe Lakers had won three consecutive NBA titles before having a down year. Picking up Hall of Fame players like that had everyone buzzing.
Did it work? Define your terms. The Lakers won 56 games to take the Pacific Division. They took out the defending champion San Antonio Spurs with relative ease, winning four straight to clinch the series. They reached the NBA Finals. And then … they got pummeled and manhandled by Larry Brown’s Detroit Pistons in the Finals.
So you would have to say by superteam terms: DID NOT WORK.
Here’s a quirky one: In 2004, the U.S. Olympic basketball team decided to go young. Well, it wasn’t so much a decision as a necessity — many of the best players (Shaq, Kobe, Kevin Garnett, Tracy McGrady, etc.) did not play.
And so that team featured the best young players of the upcoming generation — LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony. It also featured established superstars Allen Iverson and Tim Duncan. That team was coached by the aforementioned Hall of Famer Larry Brown.
Did it work? This one’s obvious: The team was blown out by Puerto Rico in their opening game, lost to Lithuania in group play and was stunned by Argentina in the semifinal. They did win the bronze medal.
By superteam terms: This was an unmitigated disaster.
One more: The 2006 New England Patriots went 12-4 and lost a thrilling (for non-Patriots fans) championship game to the Indianapolis Colts. Tom Brady had a somewhat pedestrian season (24 TDs, 12 INTs, an 87.9 passer rating) and so Bill Belichick and company decided that what he needed were weapons around him. So, they went out and got the much maligned Randy Moss and the much-ignored Wes Welker to play receiver.
Did it work? Well, sure it did. The Patriots went 16-0 and scored a staggering 589 points. Brady had a season for the ages — 50 TD passes, 8 interceptions, a 117.2 passer rating. Moss was once again unstoppable. Welker in a way reinvented the slot receiver position.
But DID IT WORK? The Patriots lost the Super Bowl. They are mostly remembered not for their 16-0 season but for losing in the end. By superteam standards, one more time, you could say: DID NOT WORK.
* * *
What do all these have in common? Well, the same thing the 2016-17 Warriors will face: Nothing but a decisive and overwhelming championship will do. If these Warriors win 56, struggle through the playoffs and win a seven-game series with Cleveland, yes, it will be a triumph. But it would not live up to expectations.
This is the danger for the superteams. They are expected to win big and easy. This is especially true of these Warriors because this whole thing SEEMS like it should work. Durant is going to Golden State because he wants to win. The Warriors’ stars recruited Durant and seem eager to give up their own spotlights for him. There’s a whole lot of talk about strength in numbers and unselfishness and so … IT SHOULD WORK.
But things that look so perfect months before the season begins tend to muddy as time goes on. It’s easy to imagine the Warriors as unstoppable, with three historic scorers — Durant, Curry and Klay Thompson — at the points of a triangle that cannot be defended. Seriously, how can you cover all three? The image of Durant with wide open looks is both mesmerizing and terrifying, and yet how can it be any other way? Are you really going to leave Thompson and Curry with one defender?
But will it really be that easy? Let’s consider Klay Thompson for a moment. He averaged 17 shots and 22 points a game last year. He’s willing to give up some of those for Durant, so now let’s say his scoring average drops from 22 to 16. No big deal, right? Only, at 16 points let’s say he doesn’t get named to the All-Star Game for the first time in three years. Of course he says that doesn’t matter as long as the team is winning. But let’s say the team loses two or three in a row, and everyone keeps asking him about his shrinking production. Let’s say he goes into a shooting slump and people after every game ask about the effect of Durant on his own game.
Now consider the same exact scenario for Curry and Green and everyone else on a team that just won 73 games.
And there’s one other thing about the 2016-17 Warriors that will be different: People will not like them. The backlash to Durant’s move is not fair or especially logical — who can blame a man for taking $27 million a year to join one of the greatest and most fun teams ever? — but it’s powerful.
Does that backlash matter? Maybe. It occurred to me this past year that the Warriors fed off the positive energy that surrounded their team even when they played on the road. They were the good guys. That’s long gone. The playoffs exposed some of the Warriors’ humanity, and now Durant leaves Oklahoma City and joins the enemy to create this overwhelming team. Americans rarely like the favorite, especially the heavy favorite. Many will root for them to fail, for Durant to fail, for the whole Warriors thing to collapse under its own weight. Many will look hopefully for any sign of weakness and pick at it and pick at it and pick at it.
This is the superteam cadence. Every dominant performance is anticipated. Every slight crack in the foundation inspires panic. Nothing in the NBA regular season matters, so there are 82 games for stories and takes and social chatter. It can be suffocating. Look at the Washington Nationals. In 2014, they had the best record in the National League, and then they added probably the best pitcher in the American League, Max Scherzer, along with various other valuable players. They should have run away with it in 2015, especially because Bryce Harper emerged into a superstar. But instead there were injuries and there were grumbles and there was tension and in the end the team was a molten mess. The closer was choking the star, the manager was canned and the season was a fiasco. This happens so much more often than you would expect.
The Warriors are good enough, of course, to rise above any and all of it. I asked a dozen people in the basketball community a simple question: “Are the Warriors invincible?” My favorite answer came from Kansas coach Bill Self: “No, not invincible. But the Warriors-Cavaliers are now like the old Lakers-Celtics.” I think that’s right. From 1980-88 to the Lakers and Celtics won all but one title and they played each other in the Finals three times. The Warriors and Cavaliers will probably meet in the NBA Finals again. It’s just that the word “probably” leaves room for doubt.