As the specter of superstar transactions this summer hangs over the NBA, many parts of league business take on double meanings.
The lottery affects trades, the draft affects free agency and the playoffs aren’t just a competition but a showcase for the future.
These circumstances hang over the Golden State Warriors in particular at the moment. As they navigate the historic challenge of trying to three-peat, the Warriors must simultaneously rally themselves to overcome the injury to Kevin Durant the player while staying on message about Kevin Durant the free agent.
Over an inspiring last nine quarters, the Warriors have relied on their championship experience while utilizing some previously untapped depth. Gone are the isolation and post-up sets that are a big reason Durant has become such a dominating playoff scorer.
It has ushered in the more guard-based flowing offense that has opened the door for Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry to get going while creating chances for players who previously weren’t getting minutes, shots or both. In their 22-point victory over the Portland Trail Blazers in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals, the Warriors had just three isolation plays for the entire game, their lowest in a playoff game under coach Steve Kerr.
For the time being, it has brought them a throwback feel that has energized the team. After a season that the team admits was a slog, it has lightened the mood.
But right down the line, from Kerr to the team’s veterans, all have been measured in making sure they acknowledge Durant’s greatness and value even as they play well without him.
Despite the jaw-dropping stat that they’re 28-1 in the past 29 games when Curry plays and Durant doesn’t, they are doing their best to snuff out any perception that they can thrive without him.
“I know he’s just dying to get out there on the court,” Thompson said. “But we definitely feel his energy and can’t wait ’til he comes back. We miss him.”
“He’s important to things we do on both sides of the ball,” Draymond Green said. “It’s up to everybody to step their game up a couple notches.”
“He’s been the best player in the NBA in the playoffs,” Kerr said. “He’s been phenomenal. He’s a huge loss.”
This is from experience. As they enjoy the current challenge, the Warriors know it’s likely they’ll hit another rough patch and Durant may be needed to get them out of it. Like when they ran into some issues in their first-round series with the LA Clippers and Durant assembled one of the most impressive stretches of games in his career.
But they also appear conscious that it’s not prudent to imply Durant isn’t vitally important. Impending free agency is never too far from their minds, and Durant has shown to be sensitive to commentary about himself. When in front of microphones, the Warriors have been nothing but supportive.
“He’s the best player in the world,” said Quinn Cook, Durant’s close friend who has played well in minutes opened by the injury. “He’s the greatest teammate you could ever have. We’ve all taken the challenge to step up to have his back.”
The team’s front office and ownership had made it known that re-signing Durant is the highest priority. Durant’s choice to pass up a max contract offer and leave his options open with a one-year deal has generated a measure of stress throughout the season — even for Durant, who went on a media hiatus after the New York Knicks made a trade to open salary-cap space with the obvious intention of chasing him in July.
But business is business. Andre Iguodala went through some machinations to create leverage when he was a free agent two years ago. Green has dropped a hint or two about his next contract. It’s a part of the game.
In this case it just happens to be a high-stakes part of the game. The Warriors are experts at all aspects, and they have not lost sight of it.
“We miss our guy. He’s carried us,” Curry said. “We’ll be ready for him when he’s ready.”