Rome is burning: What the Golden State Warriors can learn from the Cleveland Cavaliers

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Tuesday night, the Golden State Warriors lost to the San Antonio Spurs 100–129. Immediately following the game’s conclusion, there were concerns regarding Kevin Durant’s decision to sign with the Warriors in the offseason. ESPN’s Max Kellerman stated that “Kevin Durant made the Warriors worse.” Although it’s easy to make such a bold statement following such a decisive loss, the Warriors did not get worse. If we look at the history of “Big 3s,” the Warriors are in the midst of a recognizable journey. Note: Although Draymond Green is a phenomenal player, I do not consider him a “superstar.” For this reason, when referring to Golden State’s “Big 3,” I am referring to Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, and Klay Thompson.

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In the summer of 2007, the Boston Celtics added Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to their roster. In the process, they created the original “Big 3” of Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, and Paul Pierce. This trio culminated their inaugural season together by winning the 2008 NBA Finals. Looking at each player’s playing style, it is easy to see how they were able to complement each other so easily and, unlike subsequent Big 3s, able to win a championship in their first season together. It is my belief that the framework that this team utilized is the foundation that subsequent Big 3s have followed to mimic Boston’s success.

Unlike their successors, Boston’s Big 3 was an effortless combination of each player’s natural playing style. In Kevin Garnett, you had a dominant post-player with a reliable mid-range game. In Ray Allen, you had one of the best catch-and-shoot shooters in the game. A master at running the baseline, you could not lose track of Allen for a second without paying the price. Finally, in Paul Pierce, you had a player who could create his own shot off of the dribble. Pierce was deadly from mid-range. When mixed together, each player’s skill set perfectly complemented each others. Furthermore, due to each player recognizing and sticking with their natural playing styles, there was never an issue of Boston’s Big 3 failing to recognize their individual role or struggling to find the right balance.

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Following LeBron James’ decision in the summer of 2010 to sign with Miami, the new “Big 3” was formed. Unlike Boston’s Big 3, this trio — comprised of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh — was unable to win a championship in its first season together. Instead, the Heat lost in six games to the Dallas Mavericks, a team comprised primarily of veteran players. Why was it that Miami’s Big 3 was unable to replicate Boston’s immediate success? I believe that it has to do with the Miami’s Big 3 needing to figure out their individual roles. If we look at what allowed the Heat to win a championship in their second season together, we’ll see the same framework that Boston employed to be successful. Unlike during his time in Cleveland, LeBron James became a dominate post player, spending a lot more time with his back to the basket and in the paint. Likewise, Chris Bosh, who previously with the Toronto Raptors had been a dominant post player, essentially became a spot-up shooter. Finally, Dwyane Wade continued to play his style of play, which resulted in him being particularly deadly from mid-range. This winning framework did not stop here though.

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In the summer of 2014, LeBron James became a free agent when he opted out of his Miami Heat contract. What resulted was, arguably, the most talked about NBA offseason ever, with James ultimately deciding to re-sign with the Cleveland Cavaliers. James’ decision resulted in the creation of the next “Big 3” — comprised of Kyrie Irving, LeBron James, and Kevin Love. Interestingly, just like in Miami, the Cavs’ Big 3 was unable to win a championship in their first season together. Instead, the team fell to the Golden State Warriors.

Although the Cavs did not have Love or Irving for the majority of the finals, it is my belief that the Cavs were really unsuccessful because of their failure to correctly implement Boston’s framework. Instead, primarily due to James and Irving’s playing styles covering very similar areas of the court, the Cavs were unable to determine each player’s role in the offense. However, following a difficult offseason, the Cavs’ Big 3 was able to win a championship in their second year together. How did they do this? By relying on the framework that James had utilized in Miami, and which was created in Boston, to perfect each player’s role. James, similar to his time in Miami, went back to spending a significant period of time in the paint. Love, who had previously been a banging forward with the Minnesota Timberwolves, became a spot-up three-point shooter. Finally, Irving, like Dwyane Wade before him, relied on his speed to create shots for himself, particularly in the mid-range.

This brings us to the Golden State Warriors. To understand the difficulties that the Warriors are going through, it is important to consider each of the individual players separately.

Klay Thompson

When I learned of Durant’s decision to sign with the Warriors, my first thought was that it would have a negative impact on Thompson’s play. Thompson, who has established himself as one of the best catch-and-shoot players in the league primarily because of his quick release, does the majority of his scoring from the wings (as evidence by the shot chart I have provided below), particularly the right-wing. Prior to Durant’s signing, Stephen Curry’s ability to get past his defender and draw double-teams often allowed Thompson to get a number of wide open shots. However, unlike last season, Tuesday night saw Thompson unable to get the shots he was so accustomed to last season. Why? Unlike last season, Kevin Durant’s penchant to also try and score from the right-wing (more on this in a minute) resulted in another defender being in the area, and Thompson unable to get as many shots in rhythm. Likewise, Durant was also forced to settle for a number of awkward jump shots. As a result, Golden State’s offense often looked clogged and was forced to settle for a number of poor shots. Against a well-coached team like the San Antonio Spurs, this kind of play is not enough to get the job done.

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Kevin Durant

While a member of the Oklahoma City Thunder, Kevin Durant was able to establish himself as one of the premier offensive players in the NBA. What makes Durant so unique is his combination of physical attributes and polished skill set. Due to Durant’s diverse skill set, he was a force to be reckoned with as either a spot-up perimeter shooter or a mid-range beast off of the dribble. Durant was particularly fond of the right wing, which as I mentioned above is Klay Thompson’s wing of choice.

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Stephen Curry

Curry, arguably the best player in the NBA, has established himself as the deadliest shooter in the NBA off of the dribble. What makes Curry so deadly is his ability to create shots for himself in difficult situations. In fact, last season Durant, now Curry’s teammate, made the comment that “[Curry] takes a lot of bad shots.” Although an offensive threat off of either the dribble or as a spot up shooter due to his quick release, Curry is also a tremendous mid-range scorer because of his ability to get by his defender. As evidenced by his shot chart below, Curry likes to predominantly work from the top of the key or wings.

So, what’s wrong with Golden State’s offense? In a word, spacing. Just like the Cleveland Cavaliers, and Miami Heat before them, Tuesday night we witnessed Golden State’s Big 3’s inability for each player to realize their role. Instead, we saw each member of Golden State’s Big 3 attempt to play the style of play that had made them successful in the past, prior to their coming together. However, unlike in the past, this did not result in Golden State being successful. This lack of flow, in my opinion, is primarily due to Durant’s desired style of play, which causes him to take up space in both Thompson and Curry’s preferred areas. This resulted in Golden State’s offense being lethargic, out of sync, and forced them to take a number of awkward shots.

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So, how does Golden State fix this? By utilizing the same framework that made Boston, Miami, and Cleveland so successful. For Golden State to be successful, Kevin Durant should start spending more time in the paint. With Durant’s skill set, and height, he has the ability to score in the post (think of Dirk Nowitzki). Furthermore, Durant becoming a force in the post, would allow both Curry and Thompson to get a number of easy catch-and-shoot jumpers. Most importantly, this would unclog the perimeter and allow both Curry and Thompson to return to the style of play that had made them so successful in the past. As comparison, Golden State won a championship by utilizing a framework similar to Boston’s with Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green. Finally, because of Durant’s unique skill set, which would allow him to be a force in the paint, from mid-range, and from beyond the arc, Golden State’s offense could be potentially more potent than any previous Big 3, particularly if they were able to utilize an unselfish style of offensive passing similar to the one utilized by the San Antonio Spurs.

Until the Golden State Warriors are able to realize each player’s appropriate role, I doubt that they’ll be able to defeat a well-coached veteran team in a seven-game series. In fact, Golden State even struggled Friday night to defeat a less than championship caliber team in the New Orleans Pelicans. It is for this reason that I believe the San Antonio Spurs and Cleveland Cavaliers will pose significant problems for the Warriors this season. Until the Warriors realize each player’s appropriate role, they are in for some serious growing pains. If the Warriors are unable to do that this season, I would not be surprised if, like the Heat and Cavaliers before them, Golden State does not win a championship this season.