How Kevin Durant, Warriors have adjusted without Steph Curry

ByChris Haynes ESPN logo
Thursday, April 26, 2018

OAKLAND, Calif. -- The Golden State Warriors were embarrassed in Indiana late in the season, suffering a 20-point defeat that resulted in coach Steve Kerr calling their effort "pathetic" and questioning their desire to win that night.

Some of the veterans took exception. When Kerr got wind of it, he apologized personally to the players and then publicly through the media before their next game. But an apology wasn't the cure for their woes. Five days later, the Utah Jazz hammered the Warriors by 40 in Golden State's season finale -- the biggest loss in Kerr's coaching tenure -- and players were visibly upset with their performance.

The defending champs were entering postseason play on a 7-10 skid, and Kevin Durant was taking the bulk of the blame for not stepping up with Stephen Curry out of commission with a knee injury.

"I've got to play better to help my team," Durant told ESPN at the time. "This is obviously not the way we want to finish this, but we have to move past this and focus on what's ahead. We don't have Steph right now, so we have to go out there and get it done until he gets back."

When Curry was out with a sprained ankle in March, Durant explained some of the team's struggles by saying that "Steph is the system here." The point Durant intended to make was that the free-flowing offensive system implemented by Kerr is tailored to Curry. Essentially, it's a V10 engine and Curry is the motor oil. So in his absence, it's a challenge for the team to run the same system.

It's similar to why the Cleveland Cavaliers struggle when LeBron James is sidelined. So much is run through James that when he's off the floor, it puts players in uncomfortable roles when attempting to execute the same system.

With Curry in the lineup this season, the Warriors went 41-10 while averaging 120.4 points per 100 possessions, which would be the best offensive rating over the past 20 seasons. With him off the floor, however, the Warriors were only 17-14 in the regular season and had an offensive efficiency that was right around the league average.

So before facing off with the San Antonio Spurs in the opening round, Kerr made some modifications. One of the more noticeable adjustments was allowing Durant to initiate the offense.

"I wouldn't use the word 'restructured' [offense]; I would say 'refine' is a better word because we're not doing anything that we haven't done all year," Kerr said. "It's more that we're focusing on certain things, certain sets. Obviously, Kevin has the ball in his hands more. Andre [Iguodala] and Shaun [Livingston] are handling the ball more than usual, but we're still doing the same things in terms of ball movement and spacing and pace, trying to make good decisions and then getting the ball to Klay [Thompson] and KD as often as we can."

Durant's usage rate in the playoffs is indeed up at 33.5 percent, which is greater than his career-high usage rate of 32.7 percent from his 2013-14 MVP season. The Warriors' four most common direct plays this postseason have involved Durant, whether it's an isolation play or pick-and-roll, according to Second Spectrum. He is averaging 9.3 isos per 100 possessions in the playoffs after averaging 6.7 isos per 100 possessions in the regular season.

"Steph in, Steph out, we still run the same stuff," Durant said. "I still get in pick-and-roll. Maybe the volume just went up a little bit more. It's not just one guy who has the ball all the time and making all the plays. I think that's the beauty of our team, that all of us can go off and score 30 or get eight, nine assists or grab 11 rebounds. ... All of us chip in when it comes to facilitating and orchestrating."

Durant averaged 28.2 points, 8.6 rebounds and 5.2 assists in the series against San Antonio, in which the Warriors won in five games by an average margin of 14 points. But the offense is still a work in progress because Curry's absence causes indecision within the system and less room to operate. During the Game 5 clincher, Durant called an audible on offense and it resulted in a turnover. And while Durant was getting back on defense, Kerr said something to him, and he was seen replying, "Relax."

Durant, as he showed in the Game 5 victory over the Spurs, can carry the team.He is arguably the best pure scorer in the association. But if he's continually trapped in pick-and-roll sets and the floor spacing is less than stellar, this could prove to be problematic in the next round against the New Orleans Pelicans, who swept the higher-seeded Portland Trail Blazersand often trapped Damian Lillardto force others to try to beat them.

"Well, I'll just give up the ball [if they trap me]," Durant told ESPN. "I'll just score in different ways, try to be effective in different ways. I'll play it possession by possession and see what happens. ... I'll try to get in positions for me to score and move off the ball. I'll let my teammates take over for me, and I'll get out in transition, too."

"We just have to play a different way with Steph out," Draymond Green told ESPN. "That's all. We can figure it out."

Curry, who is rehabbing a Grade 2 MCL sprain, will be re-evaluated for the third time on Friday, which will be exactly five weeks from the day he suffered the injury. He is expected to make his postseason debut in this series,and there's an outside chance he could be cleared to return for Game 1. But the team wants Curry to participate in live 3-on-3 or 5-on-5 drills without limitation before giving him the green light.

Whenever Curry does take the court again, Kerr says the system won't be disrupted much.

"It's not like we had to alter anything [with Curry out], it's more just kind of refocusing on certain aspects," Kerr explained. "And that will change once Steph is back, whenever that is, and we'll do the same thing with whatever is in front of us. Assuming that that's the position we're in, we'll adapt at that point."

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