While most of the NBA-watching world was locked in on Rockets-Spurs on Wednesday night, the Golden State Warriors quietly took care of business against Harrison Barnes and the Dallas Mavericks. Kevin Durant led all scorers with 28 points on a tidy 10-for-16 shooting from the field as the Warriors won 116-95.
So it goes for Golden State in 2016-17, especially against the dregs of the Association. Durant leads all Warriors in scoring, with his 28.8 points per game outpacing Stephen Curry's 26.1 by a sizable margin. Yet for this team to unlock the “superteam” status we all expected, Durant needs to do much more than score. He is the key to Golden State's potential, but not as a scorer. Instead, KD needs to embrace his inner LeBron — or more accurately, his inner Draymond.
For all of the roster changes this offseason, the Warriors' offense generally starts halfcourt possessions the same as it did last year. Stephen Curry starts with the ball in his hands, receives a Draymond Green screen, then takes what the defense gives him. Usually, that's a double-team out beyond the 3-point line, so Curry hits Green with a pass, setting up a 4-on-3 situation. Green finds the open shooter, and that's the end of it.
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You likely know all this; you've watched it for the past couple of years, and it's extraordinarily effective — especially now that Green can either look to Klay Thompson or Durant for a wide-open look. It works just fine, of course; Golden State boasts the NBA's second-best offense entering Thursday night's games. And for most teams, perhaps that would be the end of the experiment. Why mess with what works?
But there's another level to this Warriors offense — a rarefied air reached by only the very greatest teams — and Steve Kerr's squad absolutely must reach that apex if it plans to turn this epic collection of talent into a championship-devouring dynasty.
For Durant to play his part, Golden State needs to take a page out of the Spurs' book, circa 2014. Remember the beautiful game San Antonio played in two straight Finals against the Miami Heat? What defined the Spurs offense was patience. Gregg Popovich's team worked deep into the shot clock, passing up good shots for great ones, and great shots for optimal attempts. With KD in the fold, Golden State is primed to emulate that style and break the game once more.
It's anathema to the Warriors' approach from the past two years, when the Splash Bros. (and Curry especially) would hoist a shot as soon as they saw the slightest sliver of daylight. A contested 30-footer with 20 seconds on the shot clock? No problem!
But Durant is the one who can slow Golden State in order to bring out the best in the Warriors. For one, he's perfectly happy holding the ball, grinding the offense to a halt and picking apart opposing defenses. That's largely how he built a top-five offense out of isolation and stagnation in Oklahoma City, after all.
That's not the solution in Golden State, although KD's sloth impression is a nice weapon to have in the arsenal. Where Durant can really shine is as a playmaker. Rather than waiting for the second pass to Durant or Thompson and firing away, Golden State ideally should treat the first action between Curry and Green is simply a decoy for the real play — a pick-and-roll with the ball in KD's hands.
The concept is simple. After setting a screen for Curry and receiving the pass, Green's primary look will always be for an open, easy basket. If the defense has rotated properly, however, his next read is to Durant. Period.
Once KD has the rock, Green immediately screens for Durant, freeing the Warriors' best player in space and giving him room to create for others. The defense's instinct will be to find Curry or Thompson in the mad scramble created by so much offensive execution. Odds are they won't manage to cover both players, who will be running through screens on the weak side to get open on the perimeter. Durant hits one of the Splash Bros. with an easy skip pass, and everyone runs back on defense, celebrating the made basket like it's the most important shot in NBA history.
With neither Curry nor Thompson available, Durant still has myriad options. He can go right to the rim against a defense focused on the 3-point line, likely drawing a foul in the process. He can find Green for an open look or another two-man game, assuming the shot clock allows. Or he can get the rock to the fifth Warrior on the floor — whoever that might be — for an easy two points under the basket.
If this all sounds familiar, particularly for the Warriors, that's no coincidence. At the team's very best, Durant's role should resemble Draymond on steroids. Golden State has plenty of scoring, especially with Curry's tendency to fire away whenever he wants. With Andre Iguodala's health an open question and Andrew Bogut's passing no longer on the table, the Warriors desperately need someone who will keep the offense moving, eschewing the temptation of an OK 3-pointer for the best shot on every possession.
In fleeting moments to start this season, the Warriors have done exactly this, but those possessions approaching basketball nirvana seem to happen randomly, with no real rhyme or reason. To wit, Durant is dishing up his fewest assists per game since 2012. That's unforgivable with so much offensive talent around him, regardless of his status as the primary scorer. A concerted effort to hunt for the best shots by running the offense through Durant will go a long way toward converting Golden State into the juggernaut it's supposed to be. The Warriors are intimidating in November; by February, they could be truly terrifying.
And if a defense somehow stops all of that, leaving Golden State looking for its next option? Then by all means, let Durant or anyone else break out his best isolation game — an option that 29 other teams would kill to have in the waning moments of the shot clock. Even the worst shot from the Warriors is still pretty damn good, maybe even championship-worthy. But there's a better way forward for Golden State, if KD wants to take the reins.