With the Golden State Warriors currently riding a 13-game winning streak, it’s fair to wonder, as it was last summer, how much better they can be with Kevin Durant. Unlike last summer though, we now have plenty of empirical evidence that makes the answer to that question abundantly clear.
Durant, who has been sidelined by a knee injury for the past 19 games since suffering a left MCL sprain on February 28, will make his return tonight against New Orleans (tip-off: 06:30+1), one week ahead of the start of the playoffs.
Depending on how coach Steve Kerr chooses to handle Durant, the Warriors could get three games under their belt with the former MVP back on the floor before the entering the postseason.
It may not be enough time to fully assimilate Durant to the point Golden State are firing on all cylinders again like they were before he went down, but it at least starts the process before the games truly begin to matter.
In the two weeks after Durant was hurt, the Warriors weren’t exactly in a free-fall, but they did drop five of seven games and showed concerning signs as to how they could manage in his absence.
Since then, however, Golden State have looked akin to the juggernaut of the past two years that didn’t need a fourth All-Star to dominate. They’ve reeled off 13 straight victories, including an impressive three-game stretch that featured two wins over Houston and another against San Antonio.
Surprisingly, the Warriors’ defence has somehow improved sans Durant. While it shouldn’t be the case when you lose a long, rangy and versatile defender from your lineup, Golden State’s defensive rating has dropped from 101.3 points surrendered per 100 possessions before Durant’s injury, to 100.5 after. Over that span, the Warriors rank first in the NBA in opponent field goal percentage at 43.1, while ranking fifth in 3-point percentage allowed at 32.2.
What hasn’t been surprising in the wake of Durant’s injury though, has been the return of Stephen Curry as an alpha scorer.
The two-time reigning MVP is averaging two full points more since February 28, while shooting slightly higher percentages from the field and 3-pointers on more volume. Instead of willingly deferring to Durant and slotting as the second option, the injury has forced Curry to assume more responsibility and he’s thrived as he did over the past two seasons.
Even with Durant coming back, Curry’s play of late should allow Golden State to function with even more balance going forward.
But for as well as have the Warriors have done without Durant, it still hasn’t been near the peak of their world-beating form when he’s been available.
They weren’t on a pace to match or better their record 73 wins from last season, but judging by the point differential between this year’s team with Durant and last year’s historic squad, the Warriors are better now.
With Durant healthy, Golden State have outscored opponents by 12.8 points, a rate that would be the best in history and top the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers’ mark of 12.3.
A better question would be if the Warriors can win the title without Durant because it’s obvious they’re the clear favourites with him. A lot depends on how quickly they can get back in sync, but if and when they do, it’s hard to imagine anyone beating them.