OAKLAND — When Kevin Durant agreed to leave the Oklahoma City Thunder and give the Golden State Warriors one of the greatest starting lineups in NBA history this past July, the rest of the NBA spiraled the various stages of grief. Denial. Anger. Bargaining. Depression.
Now, at the start of the regular season that begins Tuesday night, the league has moved into the final stage: acceptance. And beyond that, creeping into statements around the league, you can even hear traces of hope.
“I know history very well in this league, and there’s been a lot of super teams put together, quote-unquote, super teams, and I know the history,” Los Angeles Clippers Head Coach Doc Rivers said on the team’s media day. “I feel comfortable where we’re at.”
Rivers’s point guard, Chris Paul, told one reporter he was undaunted by the offseason’s seemingly seismic shift.
“It ain’t changed nothing,” Paul said. “It ain’t changed nothing. It’s another summer of free agency. … As you can see, I’m not sitting here, like, fazed.”
In Cleveland, LeBron James saw the move as merely an attempt by the Warriors — the team James’s Cavaliers vanquished in the 2016 NBA Finals — to catch up to his own title-winning team.
“I know teams switch and pick up new coaches or new players, and their whole goal is kind of they want to beat me,” James told cleveland.com. “It’s never just about me, but I always hear them saying, ‘We gotta beat LeBron.’ It’s not just me on the court, but I understand that teams get together in this conference and across the league to try to beat me.”
Fueling this hope that a Golden State team combining four of the league’s best 20 players won’t turn into an unstoppable juggernaut is a pair of lessons from James’s own past. Twice in the past six years James, the best player in the league by most measures, has constructed super teams. And twice, once in Miami and once in Cleveland, those super teams fell short of the title in their debut season. The same fate, the Warriors’ foes reason, could befall Golden State when issues of chemistry, coaching and philosophy come into play. When you combine four prominent pieces and personalities — as the Warriors have done by adding former MVP Durant to Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green — it will take time for everyone to find their proper niche.
Such was the case when James and Chris Bosh joined Dwyane Wade with the Miami Heat in 2010. It replayed itself in 2015 when James couldn’t capture a title with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love in their first year together with the Cavaliers. The cogs of those big wheels don’t always align seamlessly. Sometimes smaller wheels are required for proper assembly. Sometimes a little grease.
There’s only one problem with that theory comparing the 2016-17 Warriors to those titanic teams that stubbed their toes just short of a title — it simply doesn’t fit the Warriors because the Warriors already fit so well together.
Disagree? Take it from someone who was there. New Memphis Grizzlies Coach David Fizdale spent the past several seasons as an assistant coach under Erik Spoelstra in Miami, a tenure that included all of the time the Heat’s “Big Three” of James, Wade and Bosh played together. Few have a better handle on what the Warriors are about to face this season.
“The difficulty for us was the type of players we had to put together,” Fizdale said earlier this summer. “Dwyane and LeBron both being attacking wings, Chris Bosh had never shot a three before we got him … so we had to do a lot of tweaking and adjusting to make those guys work.”
Golden State, on the other hand, is just replacing one piece, Harrison Barnes, with another in Durant — only Durant can replicate Barnes’s role and production at a far higher level.
“The thing Golden State has an advantage with is all of those guys can dribble, pass and shoot. They’ll fit in perfect together,” Fizdale said. “All of those guys are position-specific [fits] . . . Kevin doesn’t affect Draymond, or anything like that. They’ll be okay. Their transition may be a lot faster than ours just because the pieces may fit together a little bit better.”
That Heat team famously got off to a 9-8 start and endured several rocky moments — including the infamous “bump” between James and Spoelstra that signified, at least symbolically, the tension within the team before the ship was eventually righted for a run to the NBA Finals. The biggest issue Miami faced, Fizdale said, was the Heat’s three stars all trying to make room for each other, instead of just playing their respective games and letting everything sort itself out later.
“Everybody was tippy-toeing around each other, and not wanting to hurt another guy’s feelings, not wanting to step on another guy’s toes,” he said. “Everybody was trying to feel their way around each other because all of them were used to playing 90 percent of the time with the ball in their hands.”
It was a similarly rocky road when James returned to Cleveland in 2014-15, when he paired with Irving and Love to form yet another “Big Three.” But, like in Miami, initial attempts at playing together were bumpy. James almost instantly clashed with then-coach David Blatt, waiting over a month to meet with him during the offseason. When Cleveland’s record sat at 19-15 and speculation ran rampant the team was already tuning out Blatt just a couple of months in, General Manager David Griffin had to publicly state that Blatt would not be fired before things finally began to turn around.
On the court, though, it was just as rocky. While Irving and Love were both far better shooters than Wade and Bosh, they were equally worse defensively than James’s running mates in Miami. Positioning concerns between James, Love and Tristan Thompson — all best suited to play the same two positions at power forward and center — has often meant Love has been relegated to the bench at key moments of games.
None of those issues, however, should be a problem for the Warriors. The first difference — and possibly the most crucial one — is that Warriors Coach Steve Kerr is the unquestioned leader. When James arrived in Miami and then returned to Cleveland, he played under two coaches lacking in the résumé department. It took Pat Riley backing Spoelstra in Miami and Griffin backing Blatt in Cleveland for both groups to finally settle internal tension and improve on the court.
Kerr, on the other hand, couldn’t be more secure in his job. After the Warriors have amassed at 140-24 record in his first two seasons on the job and with the firm backing of ownership, the front office and the face of the franchise in Curry, there’s little doubting Kerr’s solid footing.
But then there is the chemistry between the players, demonstrated clearly in how they recruited Durant in the first place. Unlike Miami, where James, Wade and Bosh came together from three different teams, or Cleveland, where James arrived and inherited Irving and knew Love was on his way from Minnesota via trade, the Warriors were already assembled. Champions in 2014-15 and finalists again last season, the Warriors flaunted a two-time MVP in Curry, a pure-scoring, dogged defender in Thompson, a triple-double machine in Green and the league’s best bench player in Andre Iguodala. It was a team that won more games in a single season than any in the history of the NBA.
It was they who sought out Durant during his free agent meetings in July, as the quartet flew cross-country to the Hamptons to meet face-to-face with Durant.
The message was clear: if Durant was going to come to Golden State, it was going to be because everyone in that room wanted it to happen. Not just Durant, but also the stars of the team that had just won more regular season games than any other in NBA history.
“I wanted to see those guys face-to-face,” Durant said of that meeting at his July introductory news conference. “I wanted to look Steph in his eyes and ask him how he felt about a guy like me joining his team … and the rest of the guys … I didn’t expect them to be there.
“But those guys, they came in there and it felt like they were hand-in-hand. They just wanted to let me know how much I would fit in with their group personality-wise. They’re different guys, but they all come together and make it work. It was natural, it was real and I just felt like I needed to be a part of it.”
Now, the rest of the NBA is struggling to keep up. The question now will be how — or if — there will be a way to effectively attack this team.
The strategy the Cleveland Cavaliers successfully used during the NBA Finals — letting Durant’s predecessor Barnes hoist wide open shots — won’t work anymore, given Durant is the one now getting those open shots. Barnes has averaged 10.1 points per game on 44.6 percent shooting throughout his career; Durant has averaged 27.4 while shooting 48.3 percent.
The NBA’s preseason doesn’t count toward the real standings, but it’s been clear during exhibition games the Warriors will have no trouble finding a wide-open shot for at least one of Curry, Thompson and Durant whenever all three are on the court together. That’s how the Warriors built a stunning 53-point lead early in the third quarter against the Los Angeles Clippers — expected to be one of the Warriors’ primary rivals in the Western Conference — or scored 84 points in 31 minutes against the Portland Trail Blazers later in the preseason.
Tuesday night in Oakland, the San Antonio Spurs will arrive as the NBA’s latest and likely greatest super team takes the floor in meaningful competition for the first time. And, for the other 29 teams in the league, the process of attempting to halt the juggernaut will begin in earnest.
Early ideas have not been encouraging …
“Try to outscore them,” Portland Coach Terry Stotts when asked how teams can hope to beat the Warriors. He paused and smiled.
“Try to get to 150,” he said.
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