NBA

NBA Sunday: New Warriors, New Identity

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As it relates to the Golden State Warriors, the prevailing sentiment is that the rich only got richer by adding Kevin Durant. That perception will be challenged, especially if the Dubs fail to win the Western Conference this season.

And as crazy as that may sound, Stephen Curry and Steve Kerr now know better than anybody.

In the NBA, there are no guarantees.

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When it comes to basketball talents, Kevin Durant is one in a million.

To this point, one could argue that the scoring prowess and gifts he has shown are fairly remarkable for a man his size. Still, in comparison to some of the game’s other historically great scorers—George Gervin, Bernard King and Dominique Wilkins come to mind—you could make the case that Durant is just another. Stephen Curry and LeBron James, on the other hand, have already accomplished some things that will have them remembered as being historically great. They will be remembered for generations to come, especially after they cemented their legacies with championships.

On the other hand, in Oklahoma City, Durant appeared to be headed down the same path as Allen Iverson and Tracy McGrady. No disrespect to either of them, but if you polled 10 NBA superstars and asked if they’d rather be, say, Paul Pierce or Allen Iverson, the choice would be easy.

For that reason, it really shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise when Durant opted to join a team that had dynastic potential. It also shouldn’t have come as a surprise that the Warriors—staring at the prospect of adding a talent like Durant—jumped at the opportunity. It’s easy to see why Durant and the Warriors had eyes for each other.

Even more so, after flaming out in the Finals, it was easy to rationalize the decision to obliterate a core that went 140-24 and won back-to-back conference titles and one championship.

Since then, the prevailing sentiment has become that together, Durant and the Warriors ruined the NBA because they will become some sort of insurmountable juggernaut.

Sound familiar?

Just six years ago, much of the same was said when LeBron James decided to join Dwyane Wade in Miami. To a fair amount of basketball onlookers, the central (and very valid) question was how the two would coexist since each preferred to play on the basketball. The other questions about the team revolved around their lack of size and around the ability of the green Erik Spoelstra to tie it all together. In basketball years, six years is an eternity, but lest we forget, so many things had to go right for the HEAT to become a dominant force.

Their progression should serve as a wake-up call to everyone that has even a casual interest in the NBA. No matter whose names are on the back of the jerseys, winning at the highest level requires a number of things, none of which are guaranteed to anybody.

The players need to care about winning more than all else. The players need to trust one another and their head coach and, most importantly, they need to remain healthy over the long haul.

Having gone just 10-9 over their first 19 games together, LeBron’s HEAT wouldn’t even score the best record in the Eastern Conference in their first season together. And while they would advance to the NBA Finals, both James and Wade would admit to you that, along the way, they wondered if they’d made a mistake in joining forces.

James and Wade have long been close and it was during their time together the ensuing summer that Wade told James that he would be happy with allowing James to become the team’s alpha. Basketball is about sacrifice, especially when dealing with superstars who are playing for legacies. That Wade loved James as a friend probably made wanting to sacrifice for him that much easier.

That was one of the few things that had to happen for the HEAT to become who they were. Aside from that, James had to develop into a low-post threat. Chris Bosh had to simultaneously develop into a three-point threat and an All-NBA level defender. Spoelstra had to have the courage to stand up to James when the two disagreed over usage and philosophy, and on top of all of that, the HEAT needed the Bulls and Pacers to buckle under the pressure while the likes of Mario Chalmers, Shane Battier, Mike Miller, Ray Allen and Chris Andersen thrived under it.

Just because they did doesn’t mean the Warriors will. Mind you, there are a few “super teams” that weren’t able to get it done.

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The teams that fare best tend to be those with continuity and chemistry. Of this, the San Antonio Spurs and the Cleveland Cavaliers are exhibit A and B.

And while the Warriors may have added the biggest fish in Durant, en route to signing him, the franchise parted ways with Harrison Barnes, Andrew Bogut, Leandro Barbosa, Festus Ezeli, Marreese Speights and Brandon Rush, mostly out of salary cap necessity.

Collectively, those six players were vital to the success of the team and are effectively replaced in the rotation by Durant, David West and Zaza Pachulia. Under Kerr, the Warriors have had strength in numbers, evidenced by Kerr’s employing a 10-man rotation. That’ll change this season, as the once 10-man rotation will likely feature eight players, at most. Also relevant? The Warriors traded key cogs for pieces that are older, less athletic, less capable at spacing the floor and less dominant on the defensive end. That’s not exactly ideal.

What is ideal, though, would be for these Warriors to lose a few more games between now and the All-Star break. Last season, beginning shortly after they improved to 11-0 after defeating the Brooklyn Nets in a November game, the questions began. As the season progressed, they got more plentiful. During All-Star Weekend, all anyone wanted to talk about was the fact that the 48-4 Warriors had a serious chance to break a record which seemed unbreakable. In response, the Warriors made no secret of the fact that they wanted it, too.

There’s no way to prove that their pursuit of immortal greatness had any impact on their falling short to the Cavaliers. To be quite honest, the health (or lack thereof) of Stephen Curry, Andre Iguodala and Andrew Bogut were probably bigger factors.

But that season-long pursuit was emotionally taxing and also gave the Warriors something other than simply winning a championship to think about. And as to not be hypocritical, now is a good time to point out that several times in this space, it was argued that the Warriors could and should pursue the record.

Still, winning 73 games and walking away without the championship is the equivalent of speeding out in front in a 400-meter sprint, only to stumble, fall and lose with 10 meters remaining.

After losing their season opener to the Spurs, one thing we already know about the Warriors is that they won’t have an opportunity to challenge the NBA record the team set last season, winning their first 24 games. That may actually be a good thing, though.

Between now and All-Star weekend, as the team attempts to rediscover its identity, learn its defensive strengths and reinvent itself to maximize its new personnel, a few more losses are likely to come. In the end, these Warriors aren’t likely to win 70 games and they probably shouldn’t even be favored to win the regular season Western Conference title.

But in the end, that’s okay.

As the entire world learned last year, for these Warriors—and especially with Kevin Durant on board—there are some things far more important than regular season success.

For now, the Warriors need to reinvent themselves, find a new identity and avoid joining the long list of superteams that couldn’t get it done. Because the truth is, they have a lot of work to do.

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About Moke Hamilton

Moke Hamilton

Moke Hamilton is a Senior Writer and Columnist for Basketball Insiders, covering the NBA and international basketball.

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