The Golden State Warriors will enter the 2018-19 NBA playoffs as the overwhelming favorites to win their third straight championship. Their victory isn’t a foregone conclusion — after all, the Houston Rockets were one Chris Paul hamstring strain away from potentially toppling them last season — but they know the stakes of this playoff run.
It might be their last one together.
Kevin Durant will be the NBA’s most hotly pursued free agent in July, and he’s long been rumored to have eyes for the New York Knicks. That tension bubbled to the surface early in the season when Draymond Green got into a testy on-court confrontation with him. According to Yahoo Sports’ Chris Haynes, Green told Durant “something along the lines of, ‘We don’t need you. We won without you. Leave.’”
Durant may well oblige Green this summer. In early February, Ethan Sherwood Strauss of The Athletic reported “insiders around the league” expect Durant to leave the Warriors and sign with the Knicks. One month later, Haynes reported some members of the Warriors organization were concerned Durant already has “one foot out the door.”
If Durant does head elsewhere in July, it will have enormous implications for the rest of the NBA.
The Warriors have wreaked havoc over the past five years because of a once-in-a-lifetime set of circumstances. From Stephen Curry’s below-market extension to an unprecedented salary-cap spike allowing them to sign Durant in 2016, Golden State created an impossible-to-replicate Big Four model. (The Philadelphia 76ers have tried to follow that blueprint this season, but they’ve had far more mixed results.)
Because of the Warriors’ wealth of top-end talent, the pool of legitimate championship contenders got narrowed down to a handful of teams each season. The title picture essentially boiled down to the Warriors, the LeBron James-led Cleveland Cavaliers and one frisky Western Conference contender (the Rockets in 2014-15 and 2017-18, the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2015-16 and the San Antonio Spurs in 2016-17), which eliminated most suspense once the playoffs rolled around.
That won’t be the case if Durant leaves Golden State this summer.
Unless Klay Thompson also departs in free agency, the Warriors won’t have the requisite salary-cap space to replace Durant with a similar-caliber player. They’ll also be limited to offering DeMarcus Cousins no more than a $6.4 million salary in 2019-20, which likely means he’ll leave as well. While it’s impossible to write the Warriors off completely so long as Thompson, Green and Stephen Curry remain in town, they wouldn’t project the same aura of invincibility they have since Durant’s arrival.
Meanwhile, say Durant signs with the Knicks and every other player hypothetically stays put with his current team. How many organizations could talk themselves into being realistic title contenders? All five of the Eastern Conference’s top teams likely would, along with the Rockets, Thunder and Denver Nuggets. The Portland Trail Blazers, Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Clippers might not be far behind, either.
Factor player movement and salary-cap space into the equation, and the title picture in 2019-20 may undergo even more upheaval.
If the Clippers land Kawhi Leonard as a free agent this summer, they might have 60-win upside. The Los Angeles Lakers and Brooklyn Nets likewise could take a major step forward if they snag a max-caliber free agent. Most of the other teams with potential max cap space are further removed from the playoff picture, but the Indiana Pacers and/or Philadelphia 76ers could be sneaky factors in the free-agent market if some of their incumbent players depart (such as Bojan Bogdanovic, Thaddeus Young, Jimmy Butler or Tobias Harris).
An eventual Anthony Davis trade looms large as well, particularly once the Boston Celtics can get involved on the bidding. Their chemistry issues this season might convince them to consolidate their talent and go all-in on Davis, particularly if Durant’s departure opens a realistic pathway to a championship in 2019-20. If they sent some combination of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and salary filler to the New Orleans Pelicans, they could still theoretically trot out a Big Four of Davis, Kyrie Irving, Al Horford and Gordon Hayward next season.
While the Warriors’ dominance hasn’t stopped teams from making blockbuster moves in recent years, Durant’s exit from Golden State could spark even more action on the trade market and in free agency. Teams may sense they’re one move away from vaulting into legitimate championship contention, and the lack of a Warriors-sized roadblock may encourage risky all-in pushes.
In turn, that should only help drive more interest in the league, as a greater number of fanbases will have reason to be invested in both the regular season and the playoffs.
In mid-February, John Ourand and John Lombardo of Sports Business Journal reported regional sports network ratings for 28 NBA teams had dropped “10 percent on average at the All-Star break compared to the same point last year.” In addition, ratings had plunged by 18 percent on TNT and 17 percent on NBA TV.
The Warriors likely bear some responsibility for the ratings decline, as they’ve made fans of most NBA teams assume the regular season is largely meaningless. Playoff seeding doesn’t matter if Golden State can flip a switch and annihilate any challengers in its path. But without Durant and Cousins, Warriors fatalism may become a thing of the past.
Regardless of how this playoff run ends for the Warriors, they deserve credit for revolutionizing the NBA.
Before Curry’s 2015-16 MVP campaign, no player in league history had ever attempted at least 10 triples per game. He and Thompson weaponized the 3-pointer to an unprecedented degree, and the rest of the league has been playing catch-up ever since. Pulling up from 25-plus feet used to be anathema to coaches, but Curry ushered in a revolution that the likes of James Harden, Damian Lillard, Trae Young and Buddy Hield (among others) have since joined.
While the Splash Brothers bombed away from deep, Green also played a part in changing the landscape of today’s NBA. The Warriors’ vaunted “Death Lineup” with Green as a small-ball center caused traditional back-to-the-basket big men to go the way of the dodo. Whereas 7-footers rarely used to stray from the paint, they’re now forced to bomb away from deep and have the lateral quickness to defend stretch-5s. Meanwhile, the Warriors’ positionless lineups gave tweener forwards and bigs a new lease on their NBA life, as their versatility became in vogue.
The Warriors may be the #LightYearsAhead dynasty you’ve grown to hate over the past half-decade, but this year’s playoffs may be the last chance to appreciate their unparalleled greatness. Even if they fall short of a three-peat, the NBA community owes them a tip of the cap for all they’ve accomplished over the past five years.
But if you’re yearning for a more meaningful regular season moving forward, root against them staying together past this year.