The 2019 NBA finals between the Toronto Raptors and Golden State Warriors is ready to begin, but it will start without Kevin Durant. Durant has officially been ruled out of Game 1 in Toronto, and if the reports about his current basketball activity level (or lack thereof) are true, he is likely out for more games than that.
The Warriors, however, are coming off five straight wins in these playoffs without Durant including a sweep of the Portland Trail Blazers in the Western conference finals. The Warriors are also 31-1 in their last 32 games when Steph Curry plays and Durant sits. All of that has led to questions about the importance of Durant to the Warriors’ success.
Of course, at STATS we do not just ask the questions. We find the answers. Using our proprietary lineup analysis data, we took a look at the impact of Durant on the Warriors and how that might affect the Warriors performance in the finals. Here are our most important observations.
1. The Warriors aren’t better when Kevin Durant is out. In fact, they are definitely worse
The Warriors may not need him to win this year’s championship, but nothing in our lineup data suggests that the Durant-less Warriors are better or even comparable to the Warriors when Durant is playing.
During the regular season, the Warriors had a -5.1 net rating when Durant was off the court and a +11.9 when he was on the court. To put that in perspective, that difference in net rating is the difference between being the 28th ranked offense in the league this season and being one of the best five teams of all-time.
Despite the Warriors winning in the playoffs without Durant, the on/off numbers show the difference in their level of dominance. They have a solid +4.3 net rating without him but a much more impressive +9.2 net rating with him. An interesting note is that Durant’s impact on the regular season is mostly on offense whereas in the playoffs his absence affects both ends of the court more evenly.
Based on this data, every game without Durant increases the odds that the Raptors can pull off an upset over the Warriors. Also, anyone who thinks the Warriors will be just fine without Durant if he leaves in free agency might want to reconsider.
2. Without Durant, The Warriors offense struggles a lot more when Curry goes to the bench
As long as Curry is on the court, the Warriors are still great. With Curry on and KD off, they still had a positive net rating during the regular season and the playoffs. The impact of not having Durant, though, is extremely magnified when Curry goes to the bench.
In the playoffs, that difference is even worse. The Warriors offense becomes downright anemic without Curry or Durant. They have just a 100.8 offensive rating without either of them on the court. That is 3.2 points worse per 100 possessions than the New York Knicks league-worst offensive rating of 104.0 this season.
As good as some of the other Warriors players are, none of them can create reliable offense. That means that as long as Durant is out with the calf injury, the Warriors are vulnerable any time Curry has to rest.
3. Draymond Green also becomes more important…on offense
Obviously, Draymond has a massive effect on the Warriors defense, but that is true whether or not KD is playing. What’s fascinating is how much more important Green becomes to the Warriors offense when Durant is sidelined during the playoffs.
As I said above, that big difference in defensive rating when Green is off the court holds true whether or not KD plays. However, not only is that offensive decline massive at 18.9 points per 100 possessions when Green goes to the bench, but it is also way bigger than when Kevin Durant is on the court. When KD is playing and Draymond goes to the bench, the offensive rating of the Warriors drops, but it only drops to a 114.8 rating—still top-of-the-league quality.
Translation: KD usually keeps the Warriors offense afloat when Curry and/or Green go to the bench, but now that he is not there, the floor of their offense drops dramatically. If that trend continues, Kerr may be forced to play his stars more minutes or risk getting blown out when they sit.
4. No KD has meant no Draymond Green at center
The vaunted death lineup for the Warriors revolves around moving Draymond Green to center, so they can put their four other best players on the floor together (Curry, Durant, Klay Thompson, and Andre Iguodala). Despite its fame, the death lineup is rarely employed by the Warriors during the regular season. This year, they only used it for 743 possessions during the regular season or about 4.6% of the time. In the playoffs, they had already used it for 630 possessions, almost as much as the entire regular season, before Durant got hurt.
They were using a Green-Durant frontcourt a lot more in addition to the death lineup too. Prior to Durant’s injury, Green had played 49.1% of his possessions at center when Durant was also on the court with him in the playoffs. Without Durant, Green has only played center 4.6% of the time. Instead, Steve Kerr has opted to use Kevon Looney at center and Green as a forward rather than substitute a different wing player for Durant.
The Warriors have been good with Looney on the court, but playing big does not create the matchup problems that the Warriors are used to, and it should allow the Raptors to keep Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka on the floor.
5. Without KD, the Warriors are relying on Kevon Looney
I told you that the Warriors choice to use Looney at center has been effective so far. Well, that better continue. Every other traditional center on the Warriors roster has been abysmal without Durant on the court with them. Take a look at the numbers.
Yes, the sample sizes for Jones and Cousins are small, but Jones is just returning from injury and Cousins would be in the same situation if he plays in this series, so it would be surprising if the Warriors relied on either for heavy minutes. In the meantime, the other center options that have been available, Andrew Bogut and Jordan Bell, have been uninspiring, to say the least. That means Looney needs to keep playing well because otherwise, the Warriors are running out of reliable options.