The Warriors are in trouble, or are they?

By Zaheer E. Clarke

Published March 6, 2017

With Kevin Durant injured, several individuals believe the Warriors are doomed to make it out of the West. Don’t sound the alarm just yet. The injury might make the team better.

Kevin Durant to the Warriors, the rest of the NBA’s nightmare happened.
(Photo credit: SN illustration/Getty Images)

Seven months ago, former MVP and eight-time All-Star Kevin Durant released a statement that shocked the world and changed the landscape of the NBA possibly forever. Part of his statement simply read, “I have decided that I am going to join the Golden State Warriors.”

At the end of the last NBA Season, the Cleveland Cavaliers were crowned NBA Champions with Lebron James lifting his team from a 3-1 deficit against the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals. Two weeks after his team’s meteoric rise from the proverbial ashes, their beaten rivals in the NBA Finals, the Warriors, acquired former MVP and eight-time NBA All-Star Kevin Durant. The Warriors were the newly crowned best regular season team in NBA history, copping 73 wins in their 82-game regular season. This feat had just eclipsed the former record set by the all-conquering 1995-96 Chicago Bulls and Michael Jordan of 72 wins. However, the Warriors failed to cap off the effort by winning the NBA title.

Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (30, right) is congratulated by Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant (35) after game seven of the Western conference finals of the NBA Playoffs at Oracle Arena. The Warriors defeated the Thunder 96-88.
(Photo credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports)

Several individuals considered the move by free agent Durant to the Warriors as a punk move. Durant and his then-team, the Oklahoma City Thunder, had the Warriors in a 3-1 deficit in the Western Conference Finals. However, the Warriors overcame the Thunder, and at the end of the season, Durant chose to join the Warriors instead of staying with the Thunder or joining any other team in free agency.

At the time, Durant said of his reason to join the Warriors, “The primary mandate I had for myself in making this decision was to have it based on the potential for my growth as a player — as that has always steered me in the right direction. But I am also at a point in my life where it is of equal importance to find an opportunity that encourages my evolution as a man: moving out of my comfort zone to a new city and community, which offers the greatest potential for my contribution and personal growth. With this in mind, I have decided that I am going to join the Golden State Warriors.”

Golden State’s Kevin Durant blocks a shot by Cleveland’s LeBron James during the Warriors’ win on January 16, 2017.
[Photo credit: AP PHOTO]

Without a question, in his 59 games since joining the Warriors, Durant has grown as a player. Though averaging the second lowest point per game season of his career, Durant has been leading his new team in various statistical categories including points, rebounds and blocks per game. Unsurprisingly, Durant either led the Thunder or was ranked second in the same categories last season. What is surprising is that he is doing this while playing the fewest minutes per game of his career, 33.6, and with the lowest usage rate of his career, 27.7%. (Usage rate or percentage is an estimate of the team’s plays used by a player while he is on the floor). In other words, Durant, on his new team the Warriors, has been playing some of the most efficient basketball of his career.

Despite the hoopla about James Harden and Russell Westbrook, both former teammates of Durant, who are putting up crazy numbers leading their respective teams, the Houston Rockets and the Thunder, it is Durant, according to Basketball-Reference.com, who was the prohibitive favourite with a 43.3% probability of winning the MVP three months ago in early December 2016. Interestingly, although Westbrook is on pace to average a triple-double (in points, rebounds and assists) and would be the first player since Oscar Robertson to do so over an entire NBA season, history is not on his side to win the MVP crown. Of a fact, since 1983, no MVP has come from a team ranked lower than third in their conference rankings. Unfortunately, for Westbrook, his team is currently seventh in the Western Conference rankings.

Table 1. 2016-17 NBA MVP Award Tracker (on December 5, 2016)

Player MVP Award Probability%
Kevin Durant 39.7%
James Harden 23.9%
Russell Westbrook 14.7%
Stephen Curry 6.4%
Chris Paul 6.1%
LeBron James 4.3%
Jimmy Butler 1.9%
Blake Griffin 1.8%
Kawhi Leonard 1.7%
Kevin Love 0.9%

Durant has been known his entire career as an offensive juggernaut, ranking fourth all-time in points per game category at 27.23 behind Michael Jordan (30.12), Wilt Chamberlain (30.07), and Elgin Baylor (27.36) and ahead of Lebron “King” James (27.11). However, it is on the defensive side that Durant has been putting up all-time career season numbers since joining the Warriors. His rebound rate (8.2 rebounds per game) and block rate (1.6 blocks per game) are the highest of his career. Interestingly, on the offensive side, his turnover rate (2.3 turnovers per game) is the lowest of his career and his field goal percentage, 53.7%, is the highest of his career.

Durant’s role on the Warriors is a seismic shift compared to his role on the Thunder and it is being borne out in the numbers. With the Thunder (and the Seattle SuperSonics), Durant played 13% of his minutes as a shooting guard, 71% as a small forward and 16% as a power forward. With the Warriors, Durant has played only 44% as a small forward and a surprising 56% as a power forward.

Table 2. Percentage of minutes Durant plays at each position at the OKC Thunder vs at the Golden State Warriors.

Position Estimate
Seasons Team PG% SG% SF% PF%

C%

9

SEA, OKC 13% 71% 16%
1 GSW 44%

56%

Upon Durant’s arrival in his hometown of Washington D.C. for his 700th NBA regular season, he suffered a Grade 2 MCL sprain and tibia bone bruise after his teammate, Zaza Pachulia, fell on his left leg after a tussle with Washington Wizards’ Marcin Gortat. Durant, Warriors’ best player this season, is out indefinitely. The Warriors’ reports last week read that Durant will be re-evaluated in four weeks, just two weeks before the start of the postseason. Unfortunately, with Durant going down with this injury, his chances of winning the MVP has also gone down in the latest MVP tracker by Basketball Reference.com to 20.7 % from 43.3% in December. However, the Warriors chances of winning the title may have gone up.

Warriors’ fans will recall last season when MVP Curry suffered a Grade 1 MCL sprain in the first round of the playoffs. Curry, despite setting a record season in efficiency, 50% from the field, 45% from the 3-point line and 90% from the free throw, he never truly looked himself all through the playoffs. Eventually, he opted to skip the Olympics in order to rest the knee and recuperate fully for the start of this NBA season. It is left to see if the Warriors will not miss a beat without the super-efficient Durant and if he will return to his MVP-level performance. Fortunately, Durant has a good history of returning from injuries strong.

The Cavaliers have signed Andrew Bogut, Deron Williams and Kyle Korver in recent weeks in an effort to be prepared to tackle the star-studded Warriors in the NBA Finals. The Warriors have some depth and their role players will get added exposure with Durant being out for now. This might be a blessing for the Warriors if they are going to come out of the West and wrestle the Cavaliers for a third straight year in the NBA Finals. Despite losing their last two games since Durant’s injury, a caution to the wise, do not count them out just yet, the Warriors on a whole might get better in the long run with Durant being out.

Until next time…

© Zaheer Clarke

Zaheer E. Clarke is a multi-award-winning freelance sportswriter. In college, he sprained his knee, similarly to Durant, and was out for the remainder of the season. Shortly thereafter, the coach resigned and Zaheer was asked to coach the team. Though he spent the rest of the season drawing up plays while his teammates called him ‘Pill’ Jackson, he doesn’t remember how many games the team won with him as coach. Maybe two? … One? … Zero?

He can be reached at zaheer.clarke@gmail.com. Follow him on Facebook at Zaheer Facts, Lies & Statistics, or on Twitter at @zaheerclarke.

This blog article was also published in the Western Mirror on March 6, 2017.

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