Kevin Durant’s Inessential Greatness

The Golden State Warriors forward is an unstoppable scorer and matchup nightmare—and without him, the team is on the doorstep of another championship.

The Golden State Warriors forward Kevin Durant (35) and guard Stephen Curry (30) look on during the third quarter against the Houston Rockets in Game 4 of the second round of the 2019 NBA Playoffs at Toyota Center. (Troy Taormina / USA TODAY Sports / Reuters)

One afternoon last month, the Golden State Warriors’ star forward Kevin Durant spoke to reporters. The two-time defending champions had just blown a 31-point lead to the eighth-seeded Los Angeles Clippers, and the questions concerned strategy and morale. Durant touched on the team’s talent for ball movement and his belief that the difficulties were simply a hiccup. But the prime quote—and something like the thesis for Golden State’s next couple of weeks—was less inclusive. “I’m Kevin Durant,” he said. “You know who I am.” Over the next four games, Durant poured in 38, 33, 45, and 50 points as the Warriors dispatched the Clippers. Against the Houston Rockets in the next round, he averaged 33.2 points per game, 10 more than his nearest teammate.

The stretch seemed clarifying. Durant came to Golden State in the summer of 2016, joining a team stocked with the two-time MVP Stephen Curry and the all-stars Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. The franchise had already won a title, in 2015, and set a record for regular-season wins the following year. Since then, the Warriors’ style of play has been lovely but often frivolous, the stakes-free experimentation of a squad all but assured victory by its roster alone. But against the Clippers and in a neck-and-neck Houston series, with the shooting strokes of Curry and Thompson turning inconsistent, Durant built a case for his necessity. Talking heads labeled him the league’s “best” and “most unguardable” player. The Warriors’ head coach, Steve Kerr, called him “the ultimate weapon.”

The Warriors that open the NBA Finals on Thursday against the Toronto Raptors, though, won’t have Durant, who strained his calf in the second-to-last game of the Houston series on May 8. In what may be a preview of a permanent condition, they’ve hardly been worse for his absence. Curry has regained his MVP form, Green has averaged nearly a triple-double, and Golden State finished off the Rockets in six games before sweeping the Portland Trail Blazers 4–0 in the Western Conference Finals. With the timetable for Durant’s return still unclear, the Warriors remain the favorites to win a third straight title, but the postseason has lately taken on the feel of a referendum: on who drives one of the most dominant teams in NBA history, and on how much one of the league’s best players actually means to it.

“I think they are harder to guard [without Durant],” Seth Curry, Stephen’s brother and a backup guard for Portland, said after the Warriors won Game 1 of the conference-finals series. “They move around faster when he’s not out there. They’re definitely not a better team, but they’re harder to guard.” The comments echoed a sentiment common among basketball fans, that Golden State gains something—strategic or aesthetic, in function or fun—when their nominal best player is missing. The 2015 champion Warriors, it is hard to remember now, could be credibly thought of as an underdog, their jump shot–heavy approach unlike the traditional style of title-winning teams. And they played with an underdog’s panache, all joyful interdependence and long-range daring.

This Durant-less stretch has seen a return of that spirit, and it began, as it did back then, with Curry. In the clinching game against Houston, Curry made up for a scoreless first half with a 33-point second, canning an off-balance three-pointer with a minute and a half left to put the game out of reach. Against Portland, he scored more than 35 points in each of the four games and averaged more than eight rebounds and seven assists. Even more than the totals, the particulars of Curry’s style of play—his constant trotting to this corner or that wing, the way a series of gyroscopic crossovers gives way, in an instant, to the letting go of a jumper—set the Warriors in motion. “Steph has got the defense so extended—35 feet away from the basket, that’s unheard of,” the Hall of Famer Scottie Pippen said after the series—“how do you defend that?”

Without Durant, the secondary stars returned to comfortable roles making use of the space Curry creates. Thompson, who spent the first few weeks of the postseason shooting poorly enough to prompt rumors about his unhappiness with the team, became his old self against Portland, blanketing the Trail Blazers’ best players on defense and knocking in whatever open shots came his way. Green, the team’s emotional bellwether, was a blur: hauling in rebounds, pacing fast breaks, picking out open cutters, propping up discouraged teammates. “He was like a wrecking ball out there,” Kerr said after Game 3, in which Green scored 20 points to go along with 13 rebounds and 12 assists. “He was destroying everything in his path.”

The Warriors themselves don’t sign off on any notions of addition by subtraction. “We desperately need him back,” Thompson said of Durant shortly after the injury. “He’s our best player.” But the conversation surrounding the team is now focused less on whether they will win the Finals than what a win would signify, were Durant to miss some or all of it. As morning shows find easy fodder in weighing how the team’s success affects the player’s reputation, Durant has publicly and grumpily taken notice.

The ongoing appraisal of the Warriors’ hierarchy has ramifications beyond sports-bar debates. Durant will be a free agent at season’s end, and rumors about his leaving Golden State for a team that would be unmistakably his have persisted all year. In April, ESPN reported a near-leaguewide consensus that Durant would head to the New York Knicks come summer, and earlier this month, the NBA insider Adrian Wojnarowski said that “the Warriors are bracing for possibly seismic change within that organization.” The subtext occasionally surfaced during the season. Late in a testy overtime loss to the Clippers back in November, Green bristled at a critique from Durant. “We don’t need you,” Green reportedly fired back in the huddle. “We won without you. Leave.”

This era of Warriors basketball has been characterized by excellence at the expense of intrigue, the straightforward settling of games and seasons in which the team has better players than any other. Even in its current hampered form, the talent gap remains; few analysts have picked the Raptors to win the championship. But this year’s Finals promise elements that the last two—easy victories over the LeBron James–dependent Cleveland Cavaliers—have lacked. For starters, at least at the beginning of the series, there will be the back-in-time pleasure of seeing the pre-Durant Warriors again on the biggest stage, with Curry launching his audacious shots and Green going about his burly do-it-all business against a (slightly) more convincing backdrop of possible failure.

There will also be the strange sensation of seeing the on-court action echo off-court storylines. Since Durant signed with Golden State, fans have argued about whether doing so diminished his standing, whether his presence on the team was gratuitous. That line of thinking, the theory goes, at least partially informs Durant’s impulse to leave town for a team of his own, where he could put questions of leadership and legacy to rest. For the next two weeks, though—if the Warriors delight and win without him, if they struggle bringing him back into the fold, or even if they cruise to a dull victory with him putting up gaudy, not-strictly-necessary stats—those questions will only get louder.