Kevin Durant’s arrival in the Bay Area has created a divide between his new franchise and the rest of the NBA. For Golden State, it is the reward for meticulous planning, clever cap management and a little luck. For their detractors however, it means a perfect storm of criticism and negative narratives as the Warriors become the league’s villains, fully embracing their identity as the veil of inevitability that hangs over their 29 rival franchises.
When Durant was in Oklahoma City, the knock on his Most Valuable Player credentials was his ever improving running mate Russell Westbrook. The Thunder’s franchise point guard’s incredible athleticism, playmaking and highlight reel of plays meant he was catching more attention every season.
The effect on this meant that neither could win the MVP award outright because they would steal votes from one another to the extent where neither could win.
Sadly, the Thunder were never fully able to create a situation where that theory was well and truly tested. Durant’s MVP campaign came with Westbrook’s injury woes, when his game elevated to stratospheric levels to carry his team, whilst Westbrook went supernova with Durant sidelined. Despite their current feud being created more out of people’s twisting of their comments, when together they always knew how to make it work.
This aforementioned theory seems to have followed Durant to the Bay, and on the surface that’s rightly so. His new running mate Steph Curry is a back-to-back MVP (the only winner since Durant’s) and his 2015-16 was an all-time great season. It has it’s detractors, particularly due to how it ended and the everlasting debate around his knee injury and the impact it had. Nevertheless Curry’s regular season was one of the best in modern memory.
So why is the NBA so certain that neither can win the award in 2015-16?
This year has seen records tumble. Leicester City were never meant to win the Premier League. The Chicago Cubs (yes, the Cubs) may win the World Series. The Oakland Raiders might actually be good at football this season. The Golden State Warriors blew a 3-1 lead in the NBA Finals after coming back from a 3-1 deficit in the previous round. The point being, as Kevin Garnett once said:
So is it really that out of the question that a team like Golden State, incredibly likely to lead the regular season win tally by a fairly considerable margin just might have one or two MVP candidates? It just doesn’t seem that far fetched. Voter bias is certainly a determining factor, but beautiful basketball can be too.
And the basketball will certainly be beautiful. The Warriors have the potential and it is almost becoming a likelihood they may post the greatest efficiency numbers on the offensive end that the NBA has ever seen. This however, is where the doubt on the Warriors’ stars MVP credentials are spawned. Klay Thompson and Draymond Green’s All-Star and All-NBA worthy talents mean increased hesitation from the voters to be swayed that way.
There is no doubt there they will make sacrifices with four All-Stars on the roster. Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston remain, veterans and youth were brought aboard to provide depth on the roster. The Warriors are not as deep as they were, though, and the preseason has shown they certainly for all their strengths still have weaknesses particularly on the interior.
Kevin Durant’s defensive versatility though is a valuable addition to a team who surprisingly enough, might be in need of it. He creates the most dynamic and flexible front court pairing seen in modern basketball, and the potential on both ends for Green and Durant and tantalizing.
The former Thunder forward’s defensive prowess actually came to the fore in last season’s Playoffs. In the Western Conference Semi-Finals against the San Antonio Spurs, Durant turned the label on rival Kawhi Leonard putting a lock on him defensively in key moments and sometimes for entire fourth quarters.
In the Western Conference Finals, though, he took an even greater leap. While his offense struggled for efficiency, his defense was unlike anything we’d seen from him before.
In a phenomenal display of athleticism, Durant went from defending Curry, to forcing Green out of a shot in the air, then landing and jumping again while Livingston was already in the air attempting a dunk which Durant blocked. Incredible.
His unique frame means he can go with bigs, wings and guards on command. Part of the Warriors pitch from Jerry West and others was that Golden State can showcase Durant’s entire game.
He would become a more efficient offensive player, garnering easier shots created in a different offensive system while being able to flaunt his defensive prowess at the other end.
Harrison Barnes took 9.6 FGA in 30.9mpg last season, probably slightly below the number per game Durant is likely to play in his tenure. Last season in Oklahoma City, Durant averaged 19.2 FGA, right on his career mark of 19.1. Even if there is a slight fall off in field goal attempts, between 1-3 per game that’s still at least 17 for him to take.
A standard shooting night for him in the Warriors system, based on previous shooting efforts balances out at around 9-16 (56.3 FG%) or 10-18 (55.6 FG%), Durant could potentially average around 55.9 percent shooting from the field. Factoring in three-point attempts (around 6 to 7 per game) and his career free throw average of 8.1 per game, Durant could theoretically average approximately 30 points per game. Even a slight drop off from those percentages is still around or higher than his career mark of 27.4 per game.
He also is a great rebounder for his position, and he traditionally averages more rebounds playing at the four instead of the three, something he’ll do commonly next season. His shooting is also traditionally better when he slides to the four, per 2015-16 numbers.
Kevin Durant Position Splits (2015-16)
27.9 pts, 7.9 rbs, 5.0 ast, 62.4 TS%
29.8 pts, 9.1 rbs, 5.1 ast, 67.7 TS%
— Liam (@KDsIntellect) October 13, 2016
If Durant’s numbers are somewhere near what they were in Oklahoma City playing Power Forward, can he realistically be ignored as an MVP candidate? Not likely. His playmaking will increase in the Warriors fluid passing system, and he’s averaging 5.4 assists per 36 minutes in preseason.
That number should rise as the intensity does when the regular season gets underway. It’s also worth mentioning he’s shooting 53.7 percent from the field (10.3 FGA) and 61.1 percent from the perimeter (4.5 3PA). Durant’s efficiency and numbers could be otherworldly.
Curry meanwhile shouldn’t experience significant enough of a drop off to completely discount him from the race. He was so good in stages last season that the MVP race wasn’t really one at all. This was minus his new teammate of course, but he was named the unanimous winner of the award for the reason.
His 50-45-91 season, with 30.1ppg, 5.4rpg, 6.7apg and 2.1spg shouldn’t experience pitiful drop offs, and his otherworldly efficiency isn’t likely to fall away. Though he has had a quiet preseason, once the season starts it’s doubtful that echoes how his 2016-17 will pan out.
Ultimately, the Warriors should head to around the 70-win mark without overexerting themselves. Saying 74 or more wins is in play almost feels blasphemous, but that is the level of superstar talent currently on Golden State.
So, despite negatives and narratives dominating MVP Races in prior years, there is a distinct possibility that one of these two Warriors can overcome with a style of basketball that helps overcome the doubts. Because rather than the rule, Steph Curry and Kevin Durant could prove to be the exception.