– Bill Annechino
One of my favorite moments on Sportscenter happens when an athlete does something crazy and ESPN pulls up a statistic from the Elias Sports Bureau that says that this was the first time this has happened since 1991 (the year I was born). Sometimes it feels like it’s all been done, but for 1 second I get reminded that there was something that happened today that has literally never happened in my lifetime. It’s sort of like when a comet passes by Earth once every 200 years or something. IN fact, you may have heard the expression that someone or something was a “comet” in that it was a once in a lifetime experience. With that in mind, this year’s Golden State Warriors team is going to be a comet. What you probably don’t know is how historic this is primed to be. By adding Kevin Durant, the Warriors have paired two of the top three players in the NBA (Steph Curry is #1 and Kevin Durant is #3) for arguably the first time since the ABA/NBA merger. Throughout the history of the league, there have been memorable groups of superstars; Kareem/Worthy/Magic in L.A., Duncan/Parker/Ginobili in S.A., Jordan and Pippen in Chicago, Shaq and Kobe in L.A.… you get the picture. Rarely have these pairings resulted in 2 players from the same team finishing in the top 5 of MVP voting, however. In this article, we are going to try to figure out just how historic the 2016-2017 Golden State Warriors could be, as well as how their pursuit of history meshes with their basketball philosophy.
In this column, I am going to talk about a lot of MVP-related “firsts”. Some of these may feel like self-fulfilling prophecies due to the fact that teams typically hold onto their MVPs and MVP-caliber players hardly ever hit the open market. So, before we tackle the historic significance of the Warriors, we have to figure out how we got here.
There have always been superstar pairings created by the league’s better-drafting teams. In the beginning, there was the Boston Celtics. The first NBA MVP award was handed out in 1956 to Bob Pettit, a St. Louis Hawk. 6 of the next 9 awards would go to Celtics; 5 to Bill Russell and 1 to Bob Cousy. Every one of the first 11 MVP ballots included at least 2 Celtics in the top 10 of voting, including placing 3 several times.
3 players in the top 10 of MVP voting is a lot rarer than you might think. Since the merger, it’s happened once, in the 1980-81 season (it was 3 Boston players, this time Larry Bird, Robert Parish and Tiny Archibald). As the talent level of the league has grown, superstars have been less and less willing to play with each other, preferring to be the leader of their own team and be able to take full responsibility for their success (unless, of course, that superstar is a fraud like LeBron James, who would rather undermine the entire competitive nature of the league and play on his own personal All-Star teams, which multiple NBA legends are on record as disapproving of, but whatever). Due to this changing league dynamic, placing 3 players in the top 10 has become all but impossible, and having 2 in the top 5 has been almost as difficult.
How difficult, you ask? Since the merger, teammates have finished in the top 5 of MVP voting exactly 4 times, with Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar doing it 3 times in the early 80’s and Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook doing it last. It’s just my luck that I’m writing a column about the rarity of something that happened to have occurred last season for the first time in over 30 years. So, what does having two players finish in the top 5 of the MVP voting mean? Well, I’m glad you asked.
The most significant conclusion you can draw from having two of your players finish in the top 5 of MVP voting is that you had 2 players playing together that had a good chance of winning the MVP award. In 2 of these 4 instances, the team with these 2 players made the NBA Finals, even going so far as to win in 1985, when the Lakers did it. We were oh so close to seeing a third such team make the Finals last year, except Klay Thompson turned into a human fireball and did this to the Thunder. Still, if I were to tell you that your team has the chance to do something that guarantees them at worst a 50% of winning their conference, you’d do it as quickly as they could. This year’s Warriors, however, have the chance to do something that truly has never been done before.
Of all the great teams to play in NBA history, no team has ever placed 4 players in the top 10 of MVP voting. It just so happens that the Warriors starting lineup features the last two MVPs, as well as the 7th place finisher last year, Draymond Green, and the 12th place finisher from 2 years ago, Klay Thompson (who has only gotten better since then). In history, no two players have ever finished first and second in the MVP voting. In fact, two teammates have only finished top-3 in voting once, and that was in 1971-72, when Jerry West and Wilt Chamberlain did it. This year, it just so happens that Vegas thinks Steph and KD have the second and third-best chances of winning the award, respectively. Everything is pointing towards a truly historic season for the Warriors, but would I have your attention if I told you that, as soon as they step on the court for the first time this year, the Warriors will make history?
Since the merger, no two teammates have ever been the last 2 MVPs. If you’re feeling a little cheated out of history because Bob Cousy and Bill Russell played together as the consecutive-year MVPs pre-merger, try this one on for size: no two teammates have ever been consecutive MVPs where they had won the award with different teams. So, now that we know the Warriors are for sure going to make history, are there other areas in which they may find their way into the record books?
The style of basketball that the Warriors have and will continue to play lends itself to record-setting offense. They set the record for most 3-point shots in a season last year with 1,077 and I think it’s a fair bet that they will eclipse that mark this year with the addition of one of the league’s best shooters. I don’t think that they are going to push for 74 wins; they seemed to be gassed after hitting 73 last season and several of their players have commented that they are not concerned with the regular season wins record. I do think that they may be the team to break the 2015 Spurs’ and 1986 Celtics’ home record by being the first NBA team to go undefeated at home. The Warriors enjoy some of the best fans in basketball, and taking care of business at home is something that elite teams pride themselves in. They went 39-2 the last two seasons, so I would say there’s a 50/50 shot of this happening, barring injury. In terms of individual records, I don’t know whether or not Steph’s record 402 threes last year will fall, simply because the Warriors have one more mouth to feed now with Kevin Durant around, and that brings me to possibly my biggest question about this team.
The Warriors set numerous records last year in terms of winning and shooting, but they ultimately broke down in the playoffs due to injury and exhaustion. Anyone who watched the playoffs last year knew that Steph Curry was not playing at 100%, and it is impossible not to notice that the Warriors finished at second in the NBA in pace during the regular season (101.6). Only the Sacramento Kings averaged more possessions per game (102.2), which was a surprise to me because I try to avoid Kings games whenever possible, so you could have told me the Kings averaged 200 possessions. What’s significant is that the Warriors averaged 112.5 points per 100 possessions, which is insane. With the addition of Kevin Durant, is it beneficial for the Warriors to play at such a fast pace? Last year, the Thunder were 2nd in the league in points per 100, at 109.9, but were 9th in pace, averaging 99.4 possessions per game. Some quick math tells us that Golden State averaged 1.13 points per possession, whereas the Thunder averaged 1.10. Does it make more sense for the Warriors to play more into what KD is used to, and feature him in some isolation sets that weren’t present in the Warriors’ offense last year, or should Kevin Durant shift his game to fit in with Steve Kerr’s fast-paced offense?
I believe that a look into some advanced stats may help shed some light on this question. The Warriors have never had an iso threat that they can dump the ball into late in the shot clock and salvage a lost possession. There is perhaps no one in the league with Kevin Durant’s unique skill set, being 7 feet tall and an all-world shooter. I took a look at the isolation stats that NBA.com now provides. First off, let me say that any isolation rankings I use will be excluding James Harden because he had about 170 more isolation possessions than anyone else in the league. That’s not a joke or hyperbole, James Harden had 173 more isolation possessions than second place finisher, Carmelo Anthony. The numbers are not surprising, in that Kevin Durant is one of the 5 or 6 best isolation players in the league. What was surprising (or not surprising, depending on how familiar you are with his game) was that Steph Curry was just as good. On possessions that ended with an isolation, Durant scored 46.5% of the time and Curry scored 47.3%. On isolation shooting percentages, KD was second in the league at 44.1%, and Curry led the NBA with a smooth 45%. On a sheer points per isolation percentage, Steph again led the league with 1.07 points vs. Durant, who was 4th in the league at 0.99. The difference is that about 15% of Thunder possessions ended with a Durant isolation, whereas only 10% of Golden State possessions ended with a Curry iso. Keep this statistic in mind for a minute, as I have another area to consider before I offer my diagnosis.
Now that we know how these two megastars function in a vacuum, let’s take a look at a few stats that might illustrate how they played as part of an offense, rather than the offense. Curry and Durant finished 4th and 5th, respectively, in the league in terms of possessions where they received the ball off a screen. Steph ended up taking 246 shots off these possessions, whereas KD took 212. Last year, 55% of Durant’s made field goals were off of an assist by a teammate, and 46.6% of Curry’s were. For reference, only 21.5% of Russell Westbrook’s were, and I believe that this is important, as well. Now that we have examined both types of scoring possessions, let’s try to draw some conclusions.
I believe that Kevin Durant is better suited to try to fit into the Warriors’ offensive philosophy than the Warriors would be to try to adapt their system to something more like what KD has been used to playing in. For starters, both Durant and Steph Curry rank among the best players in the league in isolation scoring. These are two of the 3 best players in the league, so that makes sense. The Warriors do play a faster, more team-oriented style of basketball than the Thunder did with Durant, and I think that may make all the difference in why Durant left Oklahoma City in the first place. Consider that the Warriors have already won a ring, and ushered the Thunder out of the playoffs last season in a series whose outcome probably had a large effect on Durant’s decision. KD is not stupid; he has noticed that what the Thunder were doing wasn’t working, and the Warriors have a winning formula with proven success. Oklahoma City allowed its stars to take isolation shots at will, often at the expense of the success at the team, and they have the results to show for it. He has also had a front-row seat for the Russell Westbrook experience, which can be rewarding at times and infuriating at others. I’m not sure how much stock you place into narratives in sports, but I am of the belief that professional athletes are humans and are no different from you and I when it comes to being emotional creatures. I honestly and truly believe that Durant realized the brand of basketball he has been playing in Oklahoma City hasn’t been bringing results, that he is ready to give up some of his isolation possessions for the good of team basketball, and that he has spent too many possessions over the years standing in the corner, waiting for a kick-out from Russell Westbrook that never came. For all of these reasons, I think Durant will be another, infinitely more lethal, cog in the Warriors’ machine that we are used to watching.
So, after everything we’ve been through in this roller coaster of a column, what have we learned about the 2016-17 Golden State Warriors? Well, we know that they will make history the second they step on the court, by virtue of their lineup of MVPs. We know that they are disinterested in regular season glory such as win records, but may still go undefeated at home. We also know that Golden State and Steve Kerr have uncovered a winning formula, and that formula was a major part of what lured Kevin Durant over this summer. We also kow that KD is one of the more thoughtful players in the NBA, and someone who has showcased himself as the ultimate team player in sacrificing his own looks so Russell Westbrook could dominate the ball in Oklahoma City. I truly believe that, at some point, he realized that the two couldn’t coexist as teammates and that Durant realized that hero ball would never bring him a championship, especially not in the changing landscape of today’s NBA. That’s why I believe that a historically great NBA player made the decision to join a historically great NBA team and buy in to a team-first philosophy that will yield one of the all-time great teams in NBA history.
– Bill Annechino (Twitter)