PG: Stephen Curry, +6.9 / +9.7
SG: Klay Thompson, +0.8 / -3.3
SF: Andre Iguodala, +2.5 / +0.1
PF: Kevin Durant, +8.9 / +9.9
C: Draymond Green, +4.9 / +6.8
Regular Season Metrics:
Regular Season Record: 67-15, Regular Season SRS: +11.35 (4th), Earned the 1 Seed
Regular Season Offensive Rating: +6.8 (9th), Regular Season Defensive Rating: -4.8 (30th)
Shooting Advantage: +7.3%, Possession Advantage: -2.4 shooting possessions per game
Stephen Curry (PG, 28): 34 MPPG, 31% OLoad, 25 / 5 / 7 / 2 on +7.2%
Kevin Durant (PF, 28): 34 MPPG, 27% OLoad, 25 / 8 / 5 / 3 on +9.9%
Klay Thompson (SG, 26): 34 MPPG, 24% OLoad, 22 / 4 / 2 / 1 on +4.0%
Draymond Green (C, 26): 33 MPPG, 19% OLoad, 10 / 8 / 7 / 3 on -3.0%
Andre Iguodala (SF, 33): 26 MPPG, 12% OLoad, 8 / 4 / 3 / 2 on +7.2%
Scoring/100: Stephen Curry (36.5 / +7.2%), Kevin Durant (36.1 / +9.9%), Klay Thompson (31.6 / +4.0%)
Assists/100: Draymond Green (10.4), Stephen Curry (9.6), Kevin Durant (7.0)
Heliocentrism: 26.8% (70th of 84 teams) - Curry
Wingmen: 45.4% (12th) - Durant & Dramond
Depth: 27.8% (38th)
Playoff Offensive Rating: +11.24 (6th), Playoff Defensive Rating: -6.85 (30th)
Playoff SRS: +19.45 (1st), Total SRS Increase through Playoffs: +4.80 (9th)
Shooting Advantage: +7.9%, Possession Advantage: -1.9 shooting possessions per game
Average Playoff Opponent Offense: +3.55 (12th), Average Playoff Opponent Defense: -1.04 (73rd)
Steph Curry (PG, 28): 35 MPPG, 31% OLoad, 28 / 6 / 7 / 2 on +10.7%
Kevin Durant (PF, 28): 35 MPPG, 27% OLoad, 29 / 8 / 4 / 2 on +13.1%
Klay Thompson (SG, 26): 35 MPPG, 19% OLoad, 15 / 4 / 2 / 1 on -4.5%
Draymond Green (C, 26): 35 MPPG, 19% OLoad, 13 / 9 / 7 / 4 on +3.1%
Andre Iguodala (SF, 33): 26 MPPG, 14% OLoad, 7 / 4 / 3 / 1 on -4.1%
Scoring/100: Kevin Durant (38.4 / +13.1%), Stephen Curry (38.0 / +10.7%), Klay Thompson (20.5 / -4.5%)
Assists/100: Stephen Curry (9.1), Draymond Green (8.9), Andre Iguodala (5.8)
Playoff Heliocentrism: 32.7% (49th of 84 teams) - Curry
Playoff Wingmen: 52.7% (3rd) - Durant & Draymond
Playoff Depth: 14.6% (73rd)
Round 1: Portland Trail Blazers (-0.2), won 4-0, by +18.0 points per game (+17.8 SRS eq)
Round 2: Utah Jazz (+4.6), won 4-0, by +15.0 points per game (+19.6 SRS eq)
Round 3: San Antonio Spurs (+8.9), won 4-0, by +16.0 points per game (+24.9 SRS eq)
Round 4: Cleveland Cavaliers (+9.5), won 4-1, by +6.8 points per game (+16.3 SRS eq)
Offensive / Defensive Ratings from Opposition Regular Season Average:
Portland Trail Blazers: +6.3 / -10.8
Utah Jazz: +10.8 / -9.1
San Antonio Spurs: +18.7 / -4.6
Cleveland Cavaliers: +11.0 / +1.0
Shooting Advantage / Possession Advantage per game (unadjusted):
Portland Trail Blazers: +14.1% / -0.4
Utah Jazz: +7.8% / +0.4
San Antonio Spurs: +13.4% / -9.5
Cleveland Cavaliers: +2.7% / +1.2
Postseason Usage/Efficiency Change adjusted for Opposition:
Stephen Curry: -0.1% / +4.6%
Klay Thompson: -6.3% / -7.4%
Andre Iguodala: +2.0% / -10.2%
Kevin Durant: +0.5% / +4.3%
Draymond Green: +0.2% / +7.2%
Somewhere around 1162 AD a child named Temujin was born in the steppe of northeast Asia. His people were Mongols, a divided cluster of clans and tribes that raided each other ceaselessly. A highly mobile people, their children routinely were riding horses as young as four years old. As they grew they would practice fighting from horseback; shooting arrows at targets while riding at different speeds was a common game during times of recreation. When they raided and warred the Mongols needed no supply train. They could sleep in the saddle, their mounts helped them hunt quickly and provided their food and milk. Even their buildings were mobile, designed to be carried on horseback. And so used to fighting in cold northern climates were they that, in the winter when sedentary nations would be sheltering, it was normal for the Mongols to ride their armies right down frozen rivers to assault their enemies. But that part would come later.
It was a dangerous environment to grow up in.
Any band of riders could raid any other. Any night’s sleep might be ended with the thundering hooves of attacking raiders. Hearing such an attack the men in the camp would mount immediately and ride away, knowing that the raiders would not have attacked without superior numbers, and knowing that the attackers would certainly kill any able-bodied men they could find. The men in the camp would ride off, leaving their women, chattel and goods behind for the attackers to carry off. In this way could the more numerous and aggressive groups increase their holdings with little bloodshed.
But the surviving men would remember that their women had been carried off and who had done so. And for the duration of memory the survivors would have the unquestioned right to slay any of those who had attacked. It was an unforgiving environment where it was brutal and often deadly to be the loser in such a conflict, but the winners slept uneasily knowing that there were always survivors looking for payback.
It was in this milieu that Temujin grew up. His childhood was active and full of near-death experiences that I will not go into too much detail over. But his father was killed when he was young, and his tribe decided that his family (with no men of fighting age and many children to feed) was better left abandoned. Temujin and his siblings were kept alive through the tireless heroism of his mother, who scoured the riverbanks for roots, animals and fish. Years later, Temujin would not forget that his tribe had abandoned his family to die.
Temujin grew more ambitious and more capable, eventually becoming something of a war leader for a small tribe that he was responsible for. But as he grew in power he began to see the larger political picture. The Mongols were split between many tribes. One tribe may gain ascendancy, but that would only lead the remaining tribes to unite against them to restrain their power. And should those restraints fail, the neighboring Tatars, Jurched and other tribes would unite to end the threat. And so a balance of a sort would always be maintained, but it was a brutal balance that fostered endless conflict and ruined the lives of many. As he encountered more tribes he came to see the wealth of neighboring kingdoms, wealth that was beyond the comprehension of a Mongol raised rich in martial training but poor in everything else. He came to believe that these wealthy kingdoms weren’t half the warriors that his Mongols were, but as long as one tribe could be played off another, what could be done?
Temujin would solve this problem, and write his name large across much of the known world before he was done.
But now for some basketball.
The Warriors had a problem.
No, not the ones in Mongolia.
The ones in Golden State.
They were really, really good. Like, really good. In 2015 they brought in new coach Steve Kerr, ripped through the league and won a championship. In 2016 they broke the regular season wins record (set by the ‘96 Bulls) and made it through a Western Conference gauntlet unlike anything seen since 1972. But in the Finals they fell in seven games to LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
The problem was that the Warriors weren’t likely to get better. They had fielded two of the best regular seasons ever (and 2016 has an argument for being #1, though not a strong one). But the team’s offense, a high-octane engine of ball-movement and swished threes, slowed in the playoffs both years. In 2015 it had been enough (when Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving had been injured). In 2016 it had not been. It wasn’t clear if the Warriors’ title window was closing or not. How could such great regular season offenses struggle in the playoffs?
Let’s talk about passing. Or more specifically, about assist-dependency. By which I mean, teams where a disproportionate amount of their made shots were assisted.
You may be picturing the Steve Nash Suns or the Showtime Lakers here. But neither franchise shows up particularly high in this metric. The teams that show up super-high (+7.0% above league average is what I checked) tend to be dependent on an extremely specific kind of ball-movement. And, since ‘1991, teams that show up high in this metric and show strong offenses in the regular season (+3 or better) see their offenses regress pretty hard in the playoffs. I found fifteen teams between ‘91 and ‘16 that met those criteria (AST/FGM at 7% above league average or higher, Offense at +3 or higher, and at least two playoff series):
The 1993 Cavs. They showed a +4.7 offense in the regular season, but dropped by 5 points in the playoffs (adjusted for opposition)
The Utah Jazz (‘96 - ‘00): They led the league in Assist Dependency each year until 2000. They averaged a +5.42 regular season offense but saw their offense drop by an average of 2.94 points in the playoffs (in ‘96 and ‘97 their offense held up fine, the decline was ‘98-00).
The 2004 Sacramento Kings led the league and had an insane +7.4 Offensive Rating in the regular season, but it plummeted in the playoffs, dropping by 9.5 points.
The 2006 Detroit Pistons were 2nd, had a +4.6 Offensive Rating in the regular season but saw it drop by 2.4 points in the playoffs.
The Utah Jazz (‘07, ‘08 and ‘10) were second two years and first in the other, averaged about a +4.3 in the regular season. Unlike others in this group the Jazz got *better* in the playoffs each year, on average by about 2 points.
The 2015 Atlanta Hawks led the league in Assist/FGM and posted a strong regular season offensive rating of +3.3. But in the playoffs they struggled, dropping by 5.4 points per 100.
The 2015 and 2016 Golden State Warriors were 2nd and 1st in AST/FGM and posted outstanding regular season offenses (+6.0 and +8.1) but saw them drop off both years, but 1.9 and 3.9 points respectively.
I’ll be the first to admit that a fifteen-team sample size (ultimately dependent on a two-series playoff sample) is *not* a reasonable basis for a conclusion. The Deron Williams Jazz were very assist-dependent and their offenses held up reasonably well in the playoffs. And if I were actually trying to make a substantive argument about this I’d be charting all kinds of offenses and how they fared. Nevertheless, it’s an interesting pattern.
But either way, it’s notable that the Warriors super-charged their offense in 2015 by adding tons of ball-movement in the regular season, but in both postseasons they saw their offense take a step back. Everyone had an intuitive sense that the ‘15 Hawks (for example) wouldn’t be able to succeed in the playoffs with no star and lots of passing, but surely nobody had such a sense about the Warriors. And why should they have? Stephen Curry in those two years was about as good as any regular season player has ever been on offense.
But they did. Here are their average Regular Season -> Postseason differences in Usage and shooting (adjusted for opposition):
Stephen Curry: +0.8% / -4.5%
Klay Thompson: -1.3% / -2.0%
Harrison Barnes: -0.4% / -6.6%
Draymond Green: +1.1% / -2.7%
Andrew Bogut: +2.9% / -2.4%
Curry added volume but saw his efficiency drop hard, Klay dropped in both (which is no bueno), Barnes’ efficiency imploded, Draymond increased efficiency slightly but saw his efficiency take a hit . . . Bogut is the only player whose scoring contribution seemed to even out in the postseason.
I’ll happily admit that playing Cleveland hurts these ratings slightly (because these are based on Cleveland’s regular season defense) and that Curry’s injury in 2016 doesn’t help his numbers.
While the Cavs’ offense was a very good regular season offense that got historically great in the playoffs, the Warriors’ offense was an outstanding regular season offense that dropped to only very good in the playoffs.
This wasn’t a deal-breaker.
Both versions of the Warriors’ defense got better in the postseason (by 3.3 in 2015 and 1.9 in 2016) which basically meant that the Warriors in the playoffs were loosely as good as they’d been in the regular season, but trading some offense for defense. And that team, even with a fairly non-resilient playoff offense, played the LeBron Cavs to a draw (given that 2016 was crazy even and 2015 had the Cavs wrecked by injuries).
So the Warriors of 2015 and 2016 were great. But they weren’t as great as they needed to be to reliably win titles in the 2010s. The Warriors of both years were historically great regular season teams, and that they didn’t get a ton better in the postseason wasn’t an obvious problem (the ‘92, ‘93 and ‘97 Bulls all saw postseasons close to their regular season level of performance). But what for the Bulls was enough for three title wins (one pretty easy, two tight) was for the Warriors one six-game win over a crippled team and one heartbreaking loss. In the regular season? The Warriors were clearly better than LeBron and the Cavs. In the playoffs? It wasn’t clear at all.
The Warriors, however great, clearly had a ceiling of what they were capable of. And they wanted greater. Fortune, and enterprise would make this possible.
But there were things that the Warriors had already done that had paid dividends. They had implemented a team-first system that prioritized victory over personal glory.
Temujin would do something similar.
You may recall how Mongol raids always followed the same pattern, where the defending warriors would escape on their horses and the attacking warriors would go straight for the goods and slaves to be taken. This had the advantage of keeping casualties low on both sides and of satisfying the attackers’ desire for quick loot.
But it also prolonged the struggle because the escaped warriors would always return for vengeance.
So Temujin changed the ways of war. He made capturing or killing the enemy warriors the top priority, and forbade looting until the battle was over. This resulted in greater victories, and even larger amounts of loot won. To ensure compliance he declared that all loot won belonged, not to the first attacker to grab it but, to himself. After the battle he would divide the spoils of war up as though after a hunt. He ensured that all men received some, and he paid the share of the men who had died in the battle to their widows.
In this he took steps like Kerr and the Warriors would later. He prioritized victory over individual gain. And by trying to distribute the winnings fairly his army became deeply loyal to him. The warriors of Temujin’s army came not to fight for themselves or their families but for each other.
With this in mind Temujin implemented a new system of organization. Instead of letting his warriors cluster in family groups he had his soldiers divided into tens. These ten, he declared, were now brothers to each other. None of the ten was to be captured while the rest still lived to save him. He would endeavor to keep brothers, fathers and cousins together, but made no great strides to organize the groups beyond that. Each group of ten would be led by the oldest warrior (though the group could agree on a different leader). And ten of these groups of ten made a group of a hundred, again, loyal to each other. And so on.
With this system Temujin emphasized even further the bonds between fellow warriors, and diminished the bonds that had come before.
These were both significant changes.
But Temujin did one thing that changed the game completely, that eventually led to his uniting the tribes of the northeast into a force that would reach to the Mediterranean.
He accepted defeated enemies into his tribe as equals.
The Mongol style of war was family against family, tribe against tribe. It was a zero-sum game; one tribe’s victory by definition was every other tribe’s loss.
Temujin broke that pattern. When he had defeated an enemy tribe he would take their women and children into his own tribe, not as slaves but as family members. When he defeated the comparably massive Tatars he had one of their children adopted by his mother and married (to this point he had only one wife, his beloved Borte) two of their noble women. While he would slay a portion of the defeated leaders (generally the ones who appeared treacherous) he would bring their remaining leaders into the fold as leaders of his own army. And going forward he would treat them as equals in almost all ways.
This changed everything.
Instead of Temujin winning a victory and creating an enemy, he would win a victory and create a vassal. And by being fair and just he did much to ensure the loyalty of the conquered (who would otherwise either be slaves or slain). With every victory Temujin’s army grew, until he had conquered more territory than any before him, with a name that would echo through eternity.
The Golden State Warriors were in many ways prepared for such a transition. Their team-first culture made the embracing of new players easy, even natural. For a team that cultivated victory before ego it was a natural path.
But factors outside of their control would make building through free agency possible as never before.
Going into the offseason following the 2015-16 season, the NBA signed a new TV deal. And that deal exploded the league’s salary cap (which is determined in part by league earnings). Here are the salary cap increases from the prior decade for reference:
2012: no change
2013: no change
That may look like a big spike going into 2016. But then this happened:
Basically, the cap jumped so hard in 2017 that a team already reasonably maxed out could clear space and make a legitimate offer for a superstar in free agency.
Totally unrelated, but Kevin Durant’s contract with the Thunder had just expired.
Now it’s not uncommon to add talent through free agency here or there. A multipurpose big to round out your rotation, a solid 3&D wing to space the floor for your center. No big deal.
But adding a superstar? Those are pretty rare. And if that happens it’s normally to a team that’s not a contender yet, because to make such an offer they’d need to have a lot of cap room. When the Heat brought on LeBron and Bosh they had just cleared out $32M in Jermaine O’Neal and Quentin Richardson. It was a situation where a good team (47 wins) freed up a mountain of space with little on-court cost, and it won Miami two titles over the next four years. Normally you get more mundane situations, like Kyrie and Durant joining the Nets.
But for a team coming off a 73-win season to get a shot at signing a superstar was fairly unheard of. And this wasn’t just any superstar.
In 2016 the West had been loaded; both the Warriors and Durant’s Thunder were historically great teams. They actually met in the Conference Finals and fought to seven games. The Thunder actually led Game 7 as late as halfway through the third quarter. But the Warriors prevailed, and went on to face the Cavs in the Finals. So this wasn’t just any superstar, it was the one they had *just* barely beaten in the Conference Finals. Short of adding LeBron James, there is no player the Warriors could have pursued that was more of an enemy.
The Warriors’ offense didn’t seem able to sustain excellence in the postseason. They needed someone who could generate offense against playoff defenses, someone who could score when the player movement bogged down. It isn’t clear whether or not Curry was a misplaced first option, or a legitimate first option that simply didn’t have much support aside from teammate shots generated within the movement offense (I certainly lean toward the latter) but it was certainly clear that if Curry was their only serious playoff offense creator, the Warriors were limited. They needed some help.
So did Kevin Durant.
Don’t get me wrong. He had grown a lot from a proto-Nowitzki early in his career. What had been low teens Assist percentages through 2011 became high teens in 2012, and then up to the low-mid 20s since. But his passing tended to dry up in the postseason. If I ask stathead for every player to have a postseason with 250 minutes or more, 28% usage or higher and less than 20% assists, only five players have more than three such seasons: Shaq, Karl Malone, Duncan, Ewing and Durant. And the players with three such are: Carmelo, Gervin, Dominique and DeRozan. Which meant that, come playoff time, Durant became somewhere between an ISO-big and a high-volume chucker. And that meant that most of his value came from scoring.
Durant was an historically great regular season scorer and by some measures (Ben Taylor did a neat podcast episode about this) was perhaps the best regular season scorer ever. But in the playoffs he had a tendency to falter. Here are his usage/efficiency splits transitioning to the postseason since 2011 (adjusted for opposition) along with OBPM (not adjusted for opposition):
2011: -1.6% / -1.5% / +0.5
2012: -2.5% / +3.3% / +1.1
2013: +2.1% / -6.7% / +0
2014: -1.4% / -5.1% / -2.7
2016: +1.5% / -7.4% / -4.1
Don’t overread the numbers above; his 2014 playoffs were comparable to his 2011. It’s just that in 2014 he was so off the charts in the regular season that playing at only the ‘11 postseason level was a massive step down. So from 2013 to 2016 postseason Durant was a 31.9% usage, +2.5% shooter (unadjusted), good for a +5.8 OBPM. That’s really good. But it’s *only* really good. Compare that with his regular season numbers (shooting around +10% with OBPMs above +8) and it’s . . . a little underwhelming.
In the regular season Durant was one of the best scorers ever. But in the playoffs he was mortal. Teams started to figure out that if you walled off the paint you could force him into jumpers, and he wasn’t a good enough passer to punish you for doing so (and let the record show that the Thunder tended to surround Westbrook and Durant with defensively-minded non-shooters, which made passing out harder).
It must have been so frustrating for Durant.
His Thunder teams were *really* good. In 2011 they surprised everyone by making the Conference Finals before falling to the eventual champion Mavericks. In 2012 they made the Finals before falling in five to the Heat, despite Durant scoring well (if not passing well). In 2013 they looked like the team to beat . . . and then Westbrook went down in the playoffs. In 2014 they were healthy but were obliterated by the ‘14 Spurs (an ATG team). In 2015 Durant went down for the year. In 2016 the Thunder were really good; just not as good as the 2016 Warriors.
Durant was at a point where he was regarded as perhaps the best player in the game (or at least the best scorer). From 2010 to 2014 he finished in the Top 2 of the MVP voting four times and won once. But his teams kept coming up short in the playoffs, and his performance in the postseason with it. In 2016 he finished an awkward *fifth* in the MVP voting. It was becoming clear that Durant, as both a player and a winner, had reached his limits in Oklahoma City.
So the Warriors (specifically Draymond Green) took a page from Temujin’s book.
And embraced their enemy.
Thirty minutes after their Game 7 loss to the Cavs, Draymond stewed. He hated the extra burden that Curry had to carry, and hated that LeBron could coast while defending Harrison Barnes and freelance for steals and blocks. Green texted Durant saying “See what we’re missing? We need you. Make it happen.” Before Green pulled off his uniform he had Durant’s response, “I’m ready. Let’s do this.”
It’s not quite so unprecedented as it might seem.
Only six years before a different superstar had been in the same situation.
LeBron had given seven years to the Cavs, but his failure to win a championship had brought him a lot of detractors. So he jumped ship to Miami, a move that didn’t exactly endear him to the masses but it silenced his critics as he won two rings there and then another one when he jumped *again* back to Cleveland.
Well, LeBron had given seven years to Cleveland, but Durant had given *nine* to Oklahoma City and had little to show for it. Now the Warriors, arguably the best team in the league, wanted to add him.
Durant met with the Warriors later in the offseason, expressing concern that his addition might disrupt the team’s chemistry. Draymond answered with three questions: “How many championships can we win without you? How many championships can you win without us? How many championships can we win together?” Later Curry texted Durant, telling him that winning was the priority, not personal glory. Curry asserted that he didn’t care if Durant won the MVPs, didn’t care who sold the most shoes or who got the most attention. He only cared about winning, and Durant was a major asset on that front. And Durant wanted to win more than anything. And he came on board.
By being willing to embrace their enemies, the Warriors had taken a great roster and taken it to historic heights. And like Temujin, the Warriors were emphasizing the success and well-being of the whole instead of the pursuit of individual glory.
There’s a hilarious youtube video (
It wasn’t far off.
Vegas gave the new-look Warriors -128 odds to win the whole thing, and that’s without seeing Durant play with them at all.
Jordan got plenty of good odds in his day. In 1998 the Bulls were given about a 41.7% chance of winning a championship. In ‘93 it was 45.5% and in ‘97 it was as high as 50%.
The 2017 Warriors’ odds were around 56.1%. The team had never played together before and they were already more favored than the Jordan Bulls had ever been.
Of course they stomped their way through the regular season. They won 67 games (only six teams ever have had more), and posted an SRS of +11.35 (the fourth highest ever). You may say that these are disappointing numbers (and perhaps they are) but it’s worth mentioning that Durant missed 19 games during the season. Here’s the breakdown of the Warriors with him and without him:
With Durant: 52-11 (68 win pace), +12.4
Without Durant: 15-4 (65 win pace), +9.0
So without Durant (mostly starting rookie Patrick McCaw instead) the Warriors played on a 65-win pace and averaged outsourcing their opponents by 9 points a game. So without Durant . . . within this limited sample of games the Warriors were *still* the best regular season team in the league (the 61-win Spurs with a +7.13 SRS were the closest challenger). This is, frankly, a little insane. And one wonders whether or not they really needed Durant.
And then you see that with Durant healthy the Warriors averaged a +12.4 Margin of Victory, which would have led to the highest SRS ever if done for a full season (nobody’s ever broken +12). And then you remember that the major concern was playoff performance anyways (and it’s possible that the roster had to try harder without Durant). Either way, the Warriors were still great without Durant. But with him they threatened heights than none had yet reached.
And in the playoffs the Warriors would be able to prove the value of their decision.
When Temujin finally united all the tribes of the steps under one Khan they formed a military force the likes of which the world had never seen. They could travel long distances quickly, without being slowed by supply trains. Infantry were almost no threat to them; the Mongols fought on horseback and could simply keep at range and fill foot soldiers with arrows. Constant battle had been their lifestyle for generations; by comparison even professional armies were unprepared. Compounding matters, Temujin was quick to adopt any possible enhancement to his army. New tactics, weapons and inventions were deployed aggressively. Temujin even developed his own version of Bruce Lee’s “The Art of Fighting Without Fighting”. When first arriving in a nation, Temujin would demand surrender and fealty. If they accepted he would set up the terms of submission and move on. But if they did not surrender Temujin and his horde would commit whatever level of atrocity was considered necessary to properly inspire fear. This ranged from running captives in front of their army during sieges to absorb fire from the battlements to wiping out populations and stacking the skulls of the slain in mounds as a warning. The effect was that terror preceded Temujin’s armies, and many civilizations found surrender to be the better option.
If such a thing was a legitimate option, perhaps some of the 2017 Warriors’ playoff opponents would have taken that option.
In the first round they faced the league average (-0.2) Portland Trail Blazers. Durant sat for two of the four games but it really didn’t matter. In Game 1, with Durant, they were actually tied with the Blazers at the end of the 3rd, but blew them out by twelve in the final quarter, with Draymond and Durant combining for 18 points on 13 shots. In Game 2, with Durant sitting, the Warriors took a sixteen point lead in the first quarter and didn’t look back, winning by 29. In Game 3, with Durant sitting again, the Warriors trailed going into the fourth but won by six, with Curry scoring 14 on 7.5 shots in the final quarter. And in Game 4, with Durant back, the Warriors scored 45 in the first quarter (the Warriors were 8 of 11 from three) and won the game by 25.
The Warriors had swept the Blazers by 18 points a game. The Blazers weren’t that good, but it was still a pretty impressive victory. The Warriors’ offense played just fine; Curry averaged a 30/5/7 on +7.3% while Draymond and Durant both shot at +12% or better. But their more impressive achievement was on defense. Damian Lillarrd was held to -0.2% shooting and CJ McCollum to -3.5%. The Blazers overall were held more than 10 points per 100 below their regular season average. It was a dominant defensive performance by the Warriors. Again, the Blazers weren’t that good, but it was still a good showing.
In the second round they faced the +4.6 Utah Jazz. The Jazz had the third best defense in the league, led by the young Rudy Gobert. This would surely test the resiliency of the Warriors’ new offense.
It went fine.
The Warriors won the first three games by 12, 11 and 11 points, and kicked off Game 4 by running up a 22 point lead by the end of the first quarter. It was another sweep, this time by 15 points a game. And the Jazz weren’t league average, they were a legitimately good team. And you may recall from the ‘71 Bucks article, beating a +4 or better team by double-digits is a really good indicator of historical dominance. And the Warriors didn’t just beat the Jazz by ten, they won by 15 a game. They shut down the Jazz’ shooting (holding them to -3.8% as a team) and the Warriors’ offense ran right through the Jazz defense (over 10 points per 100 more than the Jazz normally allowed). Draymond averaged a 16/9/7 on +9.5%, Durant a 25/9/5 on +5.6% and Curry a 25/5/6 on +12.4%. Two series in and the Warriors hadn’t lost a game yet, had blown out all comers and didn’t even appear to be challenged.
But in the Conference Finals waited the second best team of the regular season, the +8.9 San Antonio Spurs.
I don’t want to pitch the ‘17 Spurs like they were on the level of the ‘14 or even ‘16 Spurs, but they were still really good. They put up a +7.13 SRS in the regular season, which is excellent. They’d easily dispatched the league average Grizzlies in the first round by 8.4 points a game. And against the +7.01 Rockets in the Semis, the Spurs prevailed by a solid 5 points a game. Nothing about them screamed juggernaut, and they were comfortably below the level of legitimate contender in the 2014-19 range, but they still need to be taken very seriously as an excellent team. If the Jazz didn’t challenge the Warriors, surely the Spurs would.
Game 1 was tight. The Spurs went out to a 14 point lead in the first, and the Warriors trailed by 9 going into the fourth. But the Warriors’ defense clamped down, holding the Spurs to 7 of 21 from the field in the fourth while Durant and Curry combined to go 19 in 12 in the final quarter. The Warriors barely squeaked by, earning a two-point win. Clearly, the Spurs intended to make a series of it.
But Kawhi Leonard was knocked out for the series. Whatever chance the Spurs had was clearly reduced.
So in Game 2 the Warriors went out to a 17 point lead after the first quarter, and led by 28 at the half. They closed it out and won by 36, despite sitting their starters in the fourth. Game 3 was closer . . . but the Warriors still won by 12. And the Warriors closed the series out decisively with a 14 point win. Not much of a series after all.
When the smoke cleared the Warriors had swept the Spurs by 16 points a game. It was an insane blowout. The Spurs were held to -3.7% shooting, while the Warriors averaged an astounding 18.7 points per 100 more than the Spurs normally allowed. Draymond averaged a 12/8/7 on +6.3%, Durant a 28/7/4 on +17.9% and Curry a 32/6/5 on +17.8%. I’d call it the most dominant playoff performance in NBA history, if not for the 2001 Lakers’ drubbing (also of the Spurs). The two series are honestly pretty close, on paper. The Spurs not having Kawhi was a big deal. But certainly not a 16 point-a-game big deal. At this point it was pretty clear that nobody was going to be stopping the Warriors. Then again . . .
LeBron and the 2017 Cavs (+9.5) looked really good. They’d won the championship the year before and had just come off obliterating two good teams (the Raptors and Celtics) by 15.3 and 20 points a game (respectively). The ‘17 Cavs were putting up offensive numbers not seen since the Steve Nash Suns. But these Warriors had crushed everybody. CRUSHED. Forget winning the series, could the Cavs even win a single game?
Vegas was pretty optimistic. The Warriors were only given -300 odds on the series, which is to say, about a 3 in 4 chance of winning the series. Those were good odds, but not amazing. In 2007 the Spurs got comparable odds; in 2004 the Lakers got better odds on the Pistons (oops!).
In retrospect it was a somewhat impossible position. How do you bet against a team fresh off a historic Finals win, led by a legitimate GOAT candidate in the middle of his postseason peak? How do you bet against them hard? Do you realize how good the other team would have to be? You’d basically have to believe that the new-look Warriors outclassed the defending champion Cavs completely.
And there was simply no historical precedent for that. None. Imagine the ‘96 Bulls, the ‘71 Bucks or the ‘01 Lakers (postseason mode) matching up against the ‘17 Cavs. Would those historically great teams be favored over the Cavs? Definitely (ignoring weird cross-era issues from the Bucks). But . . . would they be prohibitive favorites, like the ‘07 Spurs were over the Cavs? I don’t think they would. The 2016 and ‘17 Cavs were really, really good.
So I really can’t fault bettors for being gun-shy on the series. Yes, the 2017 Warriors were dominating. Yes, on paper, they were amazing. But for the ‘17 Warriors to obliterate the Cavs (thus justifying better odds than their 3 in 4) would mean that they were probably the greatest team ever. It’s sort of like looking at Michael Jordan after, say, 1987 and asking “Do you think this guy’s going to be the greatest guard ever?” I mean, the evidence was there that it was possible (that ‘87 season was bonkers). And yet, it takes a lot more than one (or two) amazing regular seasons to make that sort of thing. To take that bet, you’d have to be taking the position that Jordan was going to be a better player than West or Oscar, better than Magic . . . you’d have to bet that he was going to do something that nobody had ever done before. It’s tough to make that call.
So I can understand why betters weren’t comfortable taking that leap for the Warriors.
On that note, the Warriors won Game 1 by 22. Par for the course they shut down the Cavs’ shooting (LeBron had a 28/15/8 on +0.2% but with 8 turnovers, Kyrie had a 24/3/2 on -1.7% and the Cavs overall shot -8.3%). And the Warriors? The Cavs were able to seriously slow Klay (3 of 16 from the field) and Draymond (3 of 12) but Durant had a 38/9/8 on +9.2% and Curry a 28/6/10 on +8.4%.
The Warriors won Game 2 by 19. LeBron had a 29/11/14 on +16.6% with 3 steals (+15.8 BPM) but Kyrie shot -15.4% on the game. And the Warriors simply could not miss. Durant had a 33/13/6 on +15.6% (3 steals and 5 blocks), while Curry had a 32/10/11 on +13.9% (8 turnovers). The Warriors shot +11.1% as a team. When you’re shooting over +10%, it’s pretty hard to lose.
In Game 3 the Cavs led by 5 going into the fourth but the Warriors closed it out, winning by 5. In that final period the Cavs went 6 of 23 from the floor while Durant, Klay and Curry combined for 27 points on 18.5 shots. LeBron again put in a masterful performance (39/11/9 on +10.6%) but it simply wasn’t enough.
In Game 4 the Cavs finally caught fire. In the first quarter LeBron dished six assists and the Cavs scored a ridiculous 49 points in the quarter. The Cavs would maintain their first quarter lead, closing the game out as a 21 point win. It was the one game where the Warriors’ defense slipped, where the Cavs’ historic offense couldn’t be denied. The Cavs shot at +12.9% for the game, which made the whole thing pretty much moot. The Cavs had finally gotten on the board with a decisive win. They were down 3-1, but they’d done this before. Could they repeat history?
They certainly tried. Elimination Game James put up a 41/13/8 on +9.3% shooting. In spite of Kyrie struggling with a 26/2/6 on -3.4% and 4 turnovers the Cavs overall shot at +4.9%, an impressive mark against the Warriors. But the Warriors simply shot better. Curry posted a 34/6/10 on +8.7% with 3 steals, and Durant a 39/6/5 on +30.9%. The Cavs kept it close, but were unable to keep up with the Warriors’ offense. The Warriors won the final game of the series by 9 points.
The Warriors had beaten the defending champions 4-1 by 6.8 points per game. And, frankly, I think it’s an incredible endorsement of the Cavs that they were able to keep it that close. The oddsmakers actually pegged it pretty close. A 75% chance of winning the series would imply about a 4.5 to 5 point spread advantage (between a 60 and 65% chance of winning each game). The Warriors winning in five by 6.8 a game is better than their odds would have suggested, but not by a ton.
The Warriors playoff offense, with Durant added, proved extremely resilient. Here are their offenses from 2015 to 2017, with regular season, playoffs and the difference:
2015: +6.0 -> +4.07 -> -1.93
2016: +8.1 -> +4.2 -> -4.10
2017: +6.8 -> +11.24 -> +4.44
The 2017 regular season offense wasn’t any better than those of the prior two years. But in the playoffs the Warriors offense jumped, becoming the 6th best playoff offense on this list (by my calculations).
“But,” a reasonable skeptic would argue, “didn’t they mostly play Durant at power forward? Maybe what we’re seeing is less a resilient offense and more the decision to shift personnel away from defense toward offense.”
Fair point. But check out the corresponding defensive ratings:
2015: -4.2 -> -7.53 -> -3.33
2016: -2.6 -> -4.46 -> -1.86
2017: -4.8 -> -6.85 -> -2.05
The Warriors’ defense in 2017 was actually better than the prior two years in the regular season, and was as good as any of them in the playoffs (the ‘15 Warriors’ defense is a little inflated for their series against the injury-riddled Cavs). Adding Durant didn’t hurt their defense; if anything it made their defense better. But their offense went from being very good in the playoffs to being historically great. Exactly as hoped.
16 | Warriors
9 | Cavs
7 | Spurs
5 | Rockets
3 | Clippers, Jazz
1 | Wizards
0 | Celtics, Bucks, Grizzlies, Heat, Nuggets
-0 | Raptors, Hawks, Pacers, Thunder, Hornets, TWolves
-1 | Bulls, Blazers, Pistons, Pelicans
-2 | Mavs
-3 | Knicks, Kings
-5 | 76ers, Suns
-6 | Magic, Nets, Lakers
Do you know what the crazy thing is? 2017 wasn’t even a bottom-loaded year. Yeah, five teams worse than -5 isn’t great . . . but none worse than -7 is actually pretty good. So you can’t write the 2017 Warriors’ numbers off to a bunch of tanking teams driving up their metrics, because there really weren’t any.
And you can’t really argue that they played weak teams in the playoffs, because they really didn’t. Of the 55 champions on this list, the ‘17 Warriors’ playoff opponents are the 14th best . . . as measured by the regular season (which the Cavs completely mailed in).
Let’s look over the average OSRS of opponents for the Top 10 teams and their average MoV (weighted by game, not by series), sorted by average opponent:
1971 Bucks: +2.8 avg opponent, +14.2 MoV, 2 losses
1985 Lakers: +4.2 avg opponent, +10.1 MoV, 4 losses
1991 Bulls: +4.2 avg opponent, +11.7 MoV, 2 losses
1986 Celtics: +4.5 avg opponent, +10.4 MoV, 3 losses
2014 Spurs: +5.2 avg opponent, +9.3 MoV, 7 losses
2015 Warriors: +5.4 avg opponent, +7.8 MoV, 5 losses
2018 Warriors: +5.7 avg opponent, +10.0 MoV. 5 losses
2017 Warriors: +5.9 avg opponent, +13.5 MoV, 1 loss
1996 Bulls: +6.1 avg opponent, +10.5 MoV, 3 losses
2001 Lakers: +6.6 avg opponent, +11.7 MoV, 1 loss
So let’s try and ask the question: which of these is the best playoff team ever (arbitrarily limiting it to these teams)?
I feel like the answer has to be one of those last three teams, right? Those are the three toughest set of opponents that anyone faced, but they have MoVs as good as anyone’s. The ‘15 Warriors have a low MoV and the ‘18 Warriors lost 5 games en route. But the ‘17 Warriors against the ‘96 Bulls? The Bulls played slightly tougher teams, but the Warriors had much higher MoVs and two fewer losses. So it’s hard to go with the Bulls there.
So it’s down to the ‘17 Warriors and the ‘01 Lakers. They both only lost one game. The Lakers played tougher opponents (by +0.7 per game) but the Warriors had more dominant MoVs (by 1.8 points per game). Of the two, I personally lean Warriors, because they lack a weak series (not that the Lakers’ win over the Sixers was weak per se, but compared to the other seven series in consideration, it pretty much is).
But in terms of an ATG discussion, the 2001 Lakers are betrayed by their bizarrely weak-sauce regular season. And, in contrast, the 2017 Warriors had an extremely strong regular season (especially when healthy).
So how to do the ‘17 Warriors stack up against the ‘96 Bulls as the greatest team of all time?
Well, I think any system that weights the postseason heavily will favor the Warriors, for the above reasons. But what about the regular season?
‘96 Bulls: 72 wins, +11.80 SRS
‘17 Warriors: 67 wins, +11.35 SRS
Well, that seems pretty clear. The Bulls were the better regular season team. And if so there’s no shame in that; the ‘96 Bulls were amazing.
But let’s check a little bit.
We know that 1996 had some expansion teams in it. Did that throw anything off? The average bottom-half team in 1996 compared to 2017:
1996: 29.9 wins, -4.14 SRS
2017: 32.2 wins, -3.25 SRS
Wow. That’s a pretty considerable difference.
If we assumed that equalizing out bottom-half teams was completely even (adding a terrible team to the league benefits all top-half teams equally) and we normalized everything to the 1996 environment we’d get something like this:
Bulls: 72 wins, +11.80 SRS
Warriors: 69.3 wins, +12.46 SRS
By that adjustment, suddenly the difference isn’t so clear. The Bulls still win more games, but now the 2017 Warriors have the best regular season SRS ever. And that’s while missing Durant for 19 games. In other words, I think that if you adjust for league difficulty, the 2017 Warriors’ regular season probably needs to be seen as comparable to that of the ‘96 Bulls.
But what if adding terrible teams isn’t linear? What if adding terrible teams to a league disproportionately benefits the top teams because they’re able to blow out those awful teams much more than the 55th percentile teams can? I haven’t tested this so it’s hypothetical. Nevertheless, I suspect that this is at least somewhat true. And if it is true, then the ‘17 Warriors probably had the *better* regular season.
This is all from the v1 formula. There’s a lot of work and a lot of testing that needs to be done to tighten this stuff up. So it’s totally possible that, after a ton of research, I’ll find out that the 2017 Warriors weren’t (objectively) the most dominant team of all time.
But I doubt it.
Temujin’s willingness to embrace his enemies unified disparate tribes in Mongolia into one of the most effective fighting forces the world had ever seen. They conquered from China to Egypt, forming the largest contiguous land empire that the world would ever see. Temujin himself would give up the name of his birth and be known by his title. And the English-speaking world today remembers him as Genghis Khan, the greatest conqueror in history.
And so it was with the 2017 Warriors.
But there was one important difference. Temujin embraced his enemies, but once they were brought into the fold they owed him loyalty. He had a gift for inspiring loyalty in his followers, which explains much of how well he was able to fuse disparate tribes together into a solid whole. But Temujin’s willingness to forgive and forget did not extend to betrayal. Those who crossed him paid dearly. He brought former enemies into his fold with forgiveness and acceptance. But such bonds fray with time; the yoke of subordination does not rest easy on those who dream of greatness. But those who had sworn themselves to Genghis Khan had only to think of the great reckoning that would face them if they turned their back on him to hold to their oaths.
The Warriors had no such assurances.
What Genghis Khan united with promises he held with the threat of force. Steve Kerr and the Warriors bonded with promises too. All of them, from Curry to Draymond to Klay to Iguodala to Livingston, left their egos at the door in pursuit of a shared dream. And when an ambitious enemy could aid them in the pursuit of that dream they welcomed him with open arms. But their dream was bound together with goodwill (not the threat of force), which came not as easily to some as to others.
But there was not the threat of force to keep that dream together. What they embraced naturally Durant seemed to accept as a mercantile exchange, trading subordination for glory.
And with Durant they won. They won perhaps as no team has ever won. The 2017 and 2018 Warriors are almost certainly the most dominant two-year span for any team in history. To the original Warriors, it was their dream come to fruition.
But to Durant, it didn’t seem that way. For him the gift was tainted, though he could not have known it at the time.
There is a story, one often played for laughs, but it contains within it an allegory not unlike that Tolkein tells when speaking of the one ring. It is a tale of the pursuit of a goal, but of losing everything in that pursuit, that sometimes the realization of that goal means the loss of it forever. I will quote from that story directly:
“We found the gold, and we did more than take one piece, we took it all. Rich men we were and we spent it and traded it and gave it away in exchange for drink and food and pleasant company. But we found out: the drink could not sate us, and the food turned to ashes in our mouths, and no amount of pleasurable company could ease our torment. We are cursed men, to be forever consumed by our own greed. Gold calls to us, always, and we are driven, always to find more, and add it to the treasure.”
Durant took the easy way out. He wanted glory, he wanted recognition, he wanted love. And he made that deal with the devil, taking the gold, knowing that it might be cursed. And for a time it completed him. But that thing he wished for more than anything, the adulation of the masses, did not come. He won respect as a player to be sure. His Finals MVPs banished any reputation he might have of choking in the clutch. The asterisk by his achievements, that he couldn’t perform in the playoffs, had been put to rest.
But a far more insidious curse coiled around him. He may have won. He may have won Finals MVPs. He may have more gold than he could have hoped for. But his name could no longer be associated with Greatness. He had joined an already-great team with an already great player. And while Durant could play as well as Curry, perhaps better, it would always be Curry’s team. What came naturally to Curry, the effortless charisma and sacrifice for the team was not effortless for Durant. It chafed him. It chafed him raw. He began to feel . . . stretched. Like butter, scraped over too much bread.
That thing that had once empowered him now felt like a burden. At least Oklahoma City was his team; he was the leading scorer, he won the MVP, he was the team that the enemy conspired to stop. And if they failed, well, it was known that he didn’t have a great supporting cast. But he had sold himself to put that Ring on his finger. But what had given him joy slowly bent him, gnawed away at him. The fans, the pundits, the other players, they threatened to take it away. “You didn’t earn it,” they whispered from the dark recesses of social media. “You took the easy way out. You let Curry and the Warriors win your Rings for you.” What Durant felt that he had earned they wanted to take away. And like Bilbo when Gandalf announced that the One Ring was to be destroyed, Durant turned away from those once close to him, knowing in his heart that all overtures of friendship were only part of the conspiracy to take away that which was most important. As with the pirates on the Black Pearl, what had once brought Durant joy became poisoned. And when the promise of the ‘19 Warriors fell apart, it was Durant that received the blame. When Durant jumped to Brooklyn, few wished him well.
And you know what? It was bullcrap.
Why was Gollum consumed by the One Ring, but Frodo and Bilbo highly resistant to its pull? LeBron earned just as much scorn jumping to the Heat as Durant did to the Warriors. Yet Lebron was blessed (after a fashion) by Wade’s dominance suddenly fading. Even by 2012 there could be no question of whose team the Heat was, of who had won those championships. LeBron may have shoveled manure to get in that position, but he ended up smelling (mostly) of roses. And when he jumped ship to Cleveland to play with Kyrie and Love, he led the Cavs to such levels of playoff excellence that he won glory a second time. It all worked out for LeBron.
Why not for Durant? Why was it that Curry kept on playing just as well as ever, better even (in the playoffs)? And for that matter, how did Curry get so lucky to come up with the perfect team-first teammate in Draymond, and an ideal second-tier foil in Klay Thompson. How did Curry get so lucky as to blossom in a team-first movement-based system under Steve Kerr, when Durant was forced to come up next to compulsive chucker Russell Westbrook, with an offensive system little more sophisticated than “Don’t worry boys, Russ and KD will figure something out”? Think of it! If Klay Thompson blossomed from a decent floor-spacer to a strong second option (outside of the playoffs) in Kerr’s system, imagine what Durant could have achieved!
“Do you know how the Orcs first came into being? They were elves once, taken by the dark powers, tortured and mutilated. A ruined and terrible form of life.”
The Orcs that chase the heroes through the books/films . . . they weren’t created to be evil. They were created to be good. It was only through being subject to unspeakable pressures that the orcs came to be. And yet, but for the acts of Morgoth, elves they would have remained.
Is there another path where Durant might have had Curry’s fate?
Is there another path where Durant comes up in Golden State, with team-first teammates and under Steve Kerr’s system? Where Durant is beloved throughout the league for greatness without ego?
In that same path does Curry come up beside Russell Westbrook, doomed to come up short in the playoffs, wishing he could be greater? In that universe does Curry sell out and join Durant’s Warriors, and earn contempt for obtaining through artifice what Durant had come to naturally?
But that’s not what actually happened.
What happened is that Durant joined the Warriors, and for two years they enjoyed success that perhaps had never before been seen. The craving that consumed Durant for so long had finally been consummated. He had won the Ring(s).
Gollum gave everything he had in pursuit of the One Ring. And in the end he got it.
And it killed him.
Joining the Warriors didn’t kill Durant. He will go on to be remembered as one of the greatest scorers ever, one of the greatest players ever. And I can’t honestly say that his legacy because of his time with the Warriors is worse than it would have been if he’d continued to come up short in Oklahoma City.
But I cannot help but feel that his story is incredibly tragic.
And equally tragic is the fact his role in creating perhaps the greatest team ever should have such a bittersweet legacy.
“He hates and loves the Ring. As he hates and loves himself.”
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