Can The Golden State Warriors Handle The Pressure?

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Folks… we’re back. One Olympics, dozens of free agency moves, and no less than a billion “The Warriors Blew A 3-1 Lead In The NBA Finals” jokes later, actual NBA basketball is back in our lives. Over the next week on What’s The Action dotcom I’ll be bringing you those fire NBA takes and prognostications. We’ll talk Durant and the Warriors. We’ll talk Lebron and the Cavs. We’ll talk Wolves and Celtics and Bulls and Clippers. We’ll talk Westbrook and Harden, Kawhi and Dame, Davis and Boogie, and of course, the blessing that is JR Smith. And yes, we’ll talk Knicks. So much Knicks. So much Kristaps, so much Melo, so much D-Rose. More Knicks than you can possibly consume. But guess what, you’ll consume it nonetheless because you love basketball as much as I do. And from now until the Cavs and Knicks tip at 8:00pm on Tuesday, October 25th, I’m gonna do everything I can to get you ready for the 2016-17 NBA Season. This is the What’s The Action NBA Preview. Let’s hoop.


Kevin Durant is on the Golden State Warriors.

That’s just facts my guy. It’s a thing that happened that we didn’t think would happen but has happened nonetheless. The seventy-three win, 3-1 Finals-leading Golden State Warriors added a dude who, by any measure, is one of the three best basketball players on the planet. They’ve thrown him in the mix with the two time reigning MVP, the best spot up shooter of this generation, and one of the most unique, versatile “big” men of this generation. Four of the league’s twelve best players now play for the same team. I’m gonna try to keep this whole column as clean as possible but like, yo… Fuck.

From a basketball standpoint, the fit is seamless. Durant slides right into Harrison Barnes’ role on both ends of the court. Just, you know, with significantly more talent in all aspects of the game.

He can play both on and off the ball, inside and outside, you name it. He’s got the vision and unselfishness necessary to play in Steve Kerr’s offense. He can, create off the dribble, spot up and shoot, move the ball around the perimeter, crash the boards, and has quietly become one of the league’s most efficient scorers from the post over the last few seasons. And we’ve seen him stand idly by for the Russell Westbrook show enough to know he’s experienced in playing second fiddle (much more on this later).

On the defensive end he fits right in with the Warriors switch-heavy scheme. He’ll switch 1 through 5 with relative ease and has the length and timing to act as a rim protecter when they go small, as evidenced most noticeably against his new team this past May. There’s an easily imaginable and absolutely frightening visual of Durant coming to block a shot from the weak side, Draymond taking the ball up court, kicking to Steph or Klay on the wing, and swinging it back to a trailing Durant for a wide open three from the top of the key.

I don’t know how anyone can guard a Curry-Durant pick-and-roll. I don’t know how three perimeter defenders will be able to stick with and keep a hand in the face of Curry, Durant, and Klay for possession after possession after possession. I don’t know how defenses will be able to stop penetration while sticking with these shooters. I don’t know how teams will be able to double Durant in the post without being susceptible to the ball movement that leads to a Steph or Klay three. I don’t know how you prevent one of those three shooter from getting open threes in transition. I just… I don’t know how you can stop them once they’re comfortable playing together. Injuries aside — If it all clicks, there’s no reason the Warriors shouldn’t waltz through this season. When you look at the talent and the fit on paper, there’s no way this team can lose.


But…

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Can they handle the pressure?

Look, this is all we’ve got with this team, guys. All we can do is speculate on how they’ll handle the pressures that come along with building a “Superteam”. And you know what? That’s fine. The questions are not unfounded. There’s been no Superteam that’s figured it out right away with some growing pains, and there’s been no Superteam that’s had this much talent to balance. And yes I’m done saying Superteam right now. No more Superteam’s, I promise.

We don’t know what to expect from this situation because it’s so unique from what we’ve witnessed. Unlike other scenarios where superstars teamed up, there’s only one guy switching teams. Also unlike other scenarios where superstars teamed up, there was a highly successful blueprint for this team in place. The Celtics rebuilt things from the ground up around KG, Pierce, and Allen. Miami rebuilt things from the ground up around Lebron, Wade, and Bosh.

Golden State has already built this team around Steph, Klay, and Draymond. There is a championship framework in place. Like… an actual championship framework with the hardware to prove it. This is a team that entered the offseason after blowing a 3-1 lead in the Finals as the 2016-17 favorites over that same team they just blew a 3-1 lead in the Finals to. Oh and they won 73 games last season. That too.

Now they’re attempting to add the best non-Lebron player in the league to that preexisting structure. That’s not easy, no matter Durant’s talent and willingness to adapt to system. Golden State is attempting to fit him into a very well-established, very successful culture and team dynamic. One that carried them to within a blown 3-1 lead in the Finals from back-to-back titles.

That can’t be done overnight.

We’ve seen time and time again that you can’t just throw elite talent together and hope they figure it out. Ask the ’97 Rockets, the ’04 Lakers, the ’10 Heat, or the ’12 Lakers.

No matter how seamless the fit might appear between these four players and within this team’s structure, it will take time to adjust.

 

And with that comes pressure.

There’s going to be more pressure, more media scrutiny, and more written and talked about with this team than any we’ve ever seen.

They’re the bad guys now. They’re the villains. And that’s new to both the Golden State Warriors — a team that’s enjoyed the largest bandwagon of casual, adoring fans in sports history — and to Kevin Durant — a star who’s lived in the comfortable, forgiving bubble of the Oklahoma City media his whole career. This is a drastic and immediate change. They’ve never felt an ounce of pressure for a meaningless November loss –  now those losses will lead SportsCenter*.

*Do we say “Lead Twitter” now instead of “Lead SportsCenter”? Maybe “Lead The Blogs”? No offense to SVP’s SportCenter which I still enjoy the hell out of, but I think we have to adjust the phrase these days I’ll go with “Lead What’s The Action”. I mean, it’s literally the biggest Action. Feel free to adapt that.

How will the Warriors handle the pressure? These questions will determine that. Let’s look at the biggest Q’s facing the Warriors right now:


 

1. How will Klay handle a diminished role?

Look, Klay can say all he wants. The simple fact is, his role is diminished on this team whether he likes it or not. And in a way his own talent is what’s to blame.

Durant? He’s never been surrounded by elite shooting. Shit, he’s never been surrounded by average shooting. Now he’s playing alongside the two best shooters of this generation. For the first time in his career, teams won’t be able to double team him or sag off and help. From a simple numbers standpoint, teams would rather settle for Durant, inside the arc, with single coverage than sag off and leave Steph and Klay with open threes. As much as this Warriors offense is predicated on ball movement, they now possess the ability to bang the ball down to KD on the post or the elbow and let him go to work. In a weird way, the unique and transcendent shooting and ball movement of Klay and this entire Warriors team will lead to more isolation and less spot up opportunities.

That same logic applies to drive and kicks. The inability of defenders to leave these shooters means the lane will be open all day. Klay, a notoriously sketchy ball handler who gets most of his shots off catch-and-shoot opportunities, is rarely the one orchestrating the offense for Golden State. Plays that used to be Steph or Draymond drive and kicks will now more frequently result in Steph or Draymond or Durant drive and dunks because of how open the lane is. Klay isn’t an off the dribble creator like those three, or Iggy and Livingston for that matter, and won’t benefit in the same way from the lanes created by this team’s spacing.

Now, the argument is there that Klay is chill and passive enough that this won’t be an issue. He’ll still have his occasional quarters to go off. He won’t complain to the media. He just wants to win.

But this is also a guy on the verge of superstardom. We’ve all seen what he was capable of. He single-handedly saved Golden State’s season with his 41 points in game 6 of the WCF. There were long stretches in the playoffs where Klay was the best player on the Warriors. Without Durant in the picture we could very well be talking about Klay as a top seven player this season. A guy looking to expand his game and take the next step to that upper echelon the way Kawhi did last season.

Now he’s the fourth banana on his own team.

Can he handle that? Can he handle going from 17+ shots per game back to 12? To 10 at times? Will he show the same level of engagement on defense if he’s not getting rewarded on the other end? These questions can seem petty and silly now – what happens if this team starts losing? What happens if his numbers are down? Will he feel under-appreciated and underutilized in his role. Does he start to believe he can be The Guy somewhere else – something he showed he was capable of during that Thunder series? Just… you know… throwing it out there.

That leads to my next question…


2. Who’s Team Is This?

For the past two seasons Draymond has been the unquestioned alpha dog. He’s the voice in the locker room. He’s the emotional leader on the floor. He’s set the tone for the entire organization.

He’s been The Guy.

That dynamic has worked for two reasons. One, because of Steph’s more passive nature. He’s not the force of personality that Draymond is, and he’s completely fine with that. And two, because of how effortlessly the Warriors Big Three fit into their roles. Draymond was the emotional and defensive leader, Steph took the ball with the game on the line, and Klay was ready to catch-and-shoot and defend. It was a perfect situation for a big three, similar to the KG-Pierce-Ray Allen dynamic in Boston. There’s never been any question between Draymond, Steph, and Klay as to what their respective roles were on the team. Draymond sets the tone, Steph has the ball in his hands with the game on the line.

Durant changes that. He walks into this situation as the best player on this team. Yes, better than Steph. Better natural scorer, more versatile, better defensively. He’s a better basketball player.

Becuase of that… he presents a challenge both to Draymond’s role as the tone setter for this team, and Steph’s role as the “game on the line, give me the ball” guy.

That’s fine, right? That’s the way it should be, right? Durant is the best player on the team and thus should be the guy who sets the tone and who has the ball when it matters most. That’s what Lebron has done in Cleveland. That’s what Kobe did. That’s what Jordan and Magic and Bird did. That’s what all the legendary players do, right?

The issue is… Durant has never committed to being that guy in either sense. He himself admitted Westbrook was the tone setter for the Thunder, and there’s ample evidence of him deferring to Westbrook with the game on the line. He was his team’s best player, yet wasn’t The Guy in either sense of the word.

Recent NBA history has shown us that’s a problem. These Superteams (sorry) have only worked when those roles were defined. The Kobe-Shaq Lakers fell apart because neither would let the other be The Guy. Boston worked because KG set the tone and Pierce had the ball when it mattered and they were both okay with it. And Miami only worked once Wade conceded and allowed the more-talented Lebron to both set the tone and control the ball when it mattered. There will always be pressure, alw

The question is… can a team who’s best player is neither the tone-setting guy nor the “game’s on the line, give me the ball” guy actually work? If Durant chooses to adapt to Golden State’s personality rather than create the personality of the team himself… to play second fiddle… to be a role player despite being the best player… can it still work?

For now, Durant seems content just to fit in. Like Lebron in Miami, he’ll start the season conceding to Draymond as a tone-setter and to Steph as the big-shot-taker. And, for now at least, the collective talent of this team and their excitement to play together in that system should outweigh any concerns over alpha male status.

The issue is whether or not they’ll figure it out before the games truly matter. Do they care about solving that issue? Will they even play enough close games to get the crunch-time reps needed to work that out as the season goes on? Are Steph and Draymond willing to give up those roles? Will their personalities clash as they attempt to figure this out? Will Durant take it upon himself to become the guy? Does he even want to do that, or did he leave OKC to avoid it? will he play out the year in a secondary role like Lebron in his first Miami season and suffer the same fate when it matters most?

There’s enough collective talent and experience to overcome this issue in Golden State, more so than Miami in 2010. As well as a coach in Steve Kerr who is much more equipped to handle these issues than Spoelstra was at that point. But those questions will linger over this regular season, whether the Warriors like it or not.

That dynamic will be the most interesting thing to watch this season. And I’d give it the second best odds to be the issue that submarines this Warriors season.

The best odds…


3. Can Draymond check emotions.

This… this is the biggest concern in Golden State.

We know the book on Draymond. He’s a force of personality. Arguably the most forceful, alpha-doggiest personality in the NBA today.

He, more than anything else, is the fuel to the Warriors fire. Yeah, Steph Curry is Steph Curry and does Steph Curry things. Yeah, Klay can post outrageous shooting quarters unlike anyone in the NBA. Yeah, Livingston, Iggy,  and the bench can throttle another team’s second unit and end games in the second quarter.

Draymond is still the straw that stirs the drink.

When he’s at his best… when he’s blocking shots and leading the break… when he’s hounding seven footers in their small-ball lineup and creating mismatches all over the floor… when he’s strutting around the court and screaming at his opponents and flexing to the fans and causing absolute mayhem like no other player in this league can… that’s when the Warriors are at their best. Draymond’s swagger drives the Warriors. Everyone on that team knows it. It’s why he’s still The Guy like we discussed above, even if he’s not taking the last shot.

Conversely… his bullshit could submarine this Warriors team.

For all the good it leads to, Draymond’s swagger has it’s drawbacks. There are still repercussions for his frantic energy and competitiveness on the court. And the entire league has seen the result of that. Teams and officials and the league office alike… they know what to expect. Coaches and players know they can get under his skin and will do everything they can to exploit that. And the league will be watching.

It’s not just the dick shots with Draymond either. Refs will watching for all of the little tricks he’s been getting away with the last few years. No matter how discreet, all eyes will be on Draymond. And if he can’t restrain himself from that stuff, there are coaches smart enough to exploit it and player brazen enough to take their own licks just to draw it out of him.

This seems easy enough to avoid, right? Draymond should be smart enough to control it, and the team and staff around him will be ever aware to remind him of the consequences.

The thing is… this is what comes with the territory. You don’t get fiery, competitive Draymond with the risk of him flying off the handle. A calm, contained Draymond limits his potential. A calm, collected Draymond isn’t blocking shots and leading the break and flexing to the fans and strutting all over the court. A calm, collected Draymond is not the best Draymond, and that prevents the Warriors from reaching their peak. You want Draymond at his best? You’re gonna have to learn to love him at his worst. You know the line.

If he can learn to limit those “worsts”… to control the outbursts and stop with the cheap shots… he’ll be spectacular. He’ll thrive in this situation. He embraces the role as the league’s villain. And he’s better equpped to play that role for this team than Steph or Klay or new bad boy Kevin “I don’t care what you think, here, listen to me talk about how much I don’t care” Durant. As long as he can learn to control his outburts and limit the sheap shit to the least important of times, they’ll be fine. Whether or not he can do that remains to be seen.


4. Can Steph Stay Healthy?

From a basketball perspective, this doesn’t matter as much. Golden State could still win the title without Steph, the same way they still could’ve won it this year without Durant.

But that’s kind of the point here.

What happens if Steph does go down? What happens if he misses a handful of games and the Warriors keep on rolling? What happens if Durant is forced into that role as The Guy and thrives, and then Steph comes back and things are thrown off kilter? What happens when people realize that Durant is just a better basketball player than Steph? How would the chemistry of the team be thrown off?

Steph Curry is a free agent after this season. I’m not saying he’d leave. But like… I mean…

If someone had to go, doesn’t Curry make the most logical sense of the four? It’s insane to say, but it goes back to what we talked about with how naturally Steph, Klay, and Draymond fit together. Draymond is the emotional and defensive leader, Klay is ready to catch and shoot and guard the other teams best perimeter player, and Steph is the one with the ball in his hands with the game on the line. Well… what happens when Durant takes that role from Steph? What happens when people realize Durant is the better player? Isn’t Steph the worst defender of the four of these guys? Isn’t Steph the oldest of the four? Isn’t Steph the least durable?

Yes, you’d obviously prefer to keep the two time reigning MVP and greatest shooter of all time. I’m not saying you choose to let him go. I’m not saying the team is better off without him. But like we’ve said, there needs to be a hierarchy to these teams. Pieces need to fit together. And Durant and Curry are the most similar pieces of the four. Even if they’re the two best pieces, that doesn’t mean they can coexist.

If… BIG if… But if Steph gets hurt this season… if Steph watches Durant become The Guy in his absence… maybe he’s not that interested in hanging around to play second fiddle. Maybe he wants to explore his options. Maybe he saw what Lebron did for his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers and wants to return home to Charlotte as the prodigal son. Maybe he sees an opening at the point guard position and a chance to play with Kristaps Porzingis under the bright lights of MSG and to be the guy who saved the New York Knicks. (I just melted into my keyboard thinking about this. Peak Knicks coke dream right there.) I’m not saying he will. I’m just… you know… just sayin’…

Right now it seems insane to picture Steph ever leaving the Warriors, but stranger things have happened. Just remember we had this talk when things start shaky for the Warriors and then Steph rolls an ankle in December and needs three weeks off and Durant takes over the offense and the Warriors rattle off a 12 game win streak and everything looks to fit better than it did when Durant and Curry were sharing the floor. Just sayin’…


So there it is… there’s my best attempt to play devil’s advocate. If anything can make Golden State susceptible to the pressure, it’s that.

Are there other concerns? Of course. The bench lost three of their most important pieces in Barbosa, Speights, and Ezeli and replaced them with unproven Ian Clark, old af David West, and motherfuking Javale McGee – who’s name will remain motherfucking Javale McGee until proven otherwise. Andrew Bogut’s rim protection and screening is a significant loss, even if Zaza gives you 85-90% of that. Andre Igoudala and Shaun Livingston, for all their talent, are another year older. Luke Walton left and poached a couple of Warriors assistants vital to the team’s success these last two season – and the players absolutely loved Luke Walton. And yes, outside of Steph’s playoff fall, the Warriors have experienced extreme fortune when it comes to injuries. Nobody wants to see that be the reason they fail, but it has to be said.

All of those raise concerns, as they should. But at the end of the day, this team will rise and fall with Klay’s happiness, Draymond’s maturity, and the ability of Steph and Kevin to figure out their respective roles in the hierarchy of this roster. If you’re presenting a case against the Golden State Warriors, it starts and ends with these three issues.

The most important thing to remember is that these questions will take time to be answered. As in, like, the entire season. You know how you’re supposed to give these Superteams (sorry) time to figure it out? How you’re not supposed to overreact if things go wrong these first few months? Well the same goes for these questions. Don’t call me an idiot if Klay Thompson is happy and scoring right away. Don’t say I was stupid if Durant seamlessly adapts the role of The Guy on this team. Don’t call me fat if Draymond hasn’t punched someone’s dick by Christmas.

It’s a long, long season. And these issues might not show themselves until… well until the Finals. No matter how good things seem to be going from now until April, these question can’t truly be answered until May and June. What appears copacetic and fun now might could very will differ from what we see at the end of the year.

I wouldn’t raise these questions if they didn’t genuinely raise concerns in the potential of this Warriors team. They have the talent and infrastructure to overcome these things. They’ve appeared cohesive and willing to adapt to one another to this point. But that all might change once the ball is in the air.

Ah, fuck it. They’ll probably still win the whole thing anyway.


P.S.

 



P.P.S.   Shoutout to Kyle @ky_toons for this dope illustration for the blog. Couple more of these coming in the rest of the What’s The Action NBA Preview.

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