2016-17 NBA season preview

Durant pivotal in trilogy hope

Kevin Durant of the Golden State Warriors perfects his no-look dribbling skills on Oct 15 in Las Vegas. His move after nine seasons as the face of Oklahoma City Thunder was a brave decision.
Kevin Durant of the Golden State Warriors perfects his no-look dribbling skills on Oct 15 in Las Vegas. His move after nine seasons as the face of Oklahoma City Thunder was a brave decision.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Bring on a third Cavs-Warriors Finals series, but former Thunder star will call the shots

LeBron James? He'll be around, be amazing occasionally, but he would most likely reserve his jaw-dropping best efforts for next May and June.

Stephen Curry? He could come out like a wounded bull after what happened at the last National Basketball Association (NBA) Finals, or he could decide to be like LeBron and sleepwalk until May.

Yawn, as you might, but few fans would cry foul.

In the first NBA regular season since 1997 without Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett on the rosters, everyone - including the league's two biggest stars - is looking ahead for a likely "Trilogy": The third straight NBA Finals battle between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors.

Who wouldn't, after the Cavs' historic comeback from 1-3 down to beat the Warriors - record-setters for the best regular-season mark - in seven exhilarating Finals games back in June?

So what compelling factor remains in this six-month, 82-game slog of the NBA regular season?

One player: Kevin Durant.

He is one of the best scorers the league has ever seen, a winner of four NBA scoring titles, a blur of arms and legs stretching way beyond helpless defenders for easy jumpers, lay-ups and dunks from anywhere.

Throw in the fact that he is a selfless team leader who passes readily to open team-mates and does all the grunt work without complaint, and any team whom he plays for seem to almost have an unfair advantage.

Now he plays for the Warriors.

Since he joined from Oklahoma City Thunder via free agency, the Warriors did not need to trade away their key players like Curry, Klay Thompson or Draymond Green.

Only a few bit-part role players had to make way for Durant's salary to fit, and the Warriors - roughly the same team that went a historic 73-9 last regular season - suddenly have another unstoppable weapon in their sizeable arsenal.

This seems really unfair to all the other NBA teams.

As it is, precious few teams managed to find a way to contain the ebullient Warriors last year. Smother either Curry or Thompson, and the other will erupt for 40-plus points. Smother both, and the Warriors' smooth-passing offence will swing the ball to an open player for an easy basket.

And now comes Durant, who will be a perfect partner with Curry for pick-and-roll sets to free themselves from defenders and launch countless easy baskets.

With the 2.06m Durant, the Warriors can also play "small ball" with him as the centre, together with four nimble shooters (Curry, Thompson, Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston). Good luck guarding that explosive line-up.

Defence-wise, Durant's long limbs are also handy in blocking more shots, stealing more passes and grabbing more rebounds.

So, what an upgrade by the Warriors, although they might need a month or two to gel into a winning unit and hurtle towards that Finals rematch with the Cavs.

And what a brave move by Durant too, to finally sever ties with his first club, the Thunder.

For nine seasons, he was the face of the Thunder - and carried the team to their single NBA Finals appearance in 2012, when they lost in five games to the Miami Heat.

Shortly after that Finals, the Thunder made one of the most baffling trades of the decade - trading away a young James Harden for role players Kevin Martin and Jeremy Lamb.

It was a trade they arguably never recovered from. Harden went on to develop into a streaky scorer with the Houston Rockets, and while the Thunder were still formidable with Durant and Russell Westbrook, they have yet to reach the Finals again.

Durant could have sulked at the controversial trade; instead, he soldiered on for four more seasons, honing himself defensively to complement his scoring prowess. When the Thunder came close to beating the Warriors in the Western Conference finals last season, Durant's despondent face was haunting - what more could he have done?

Still, his eventual move to the Warriors hurt plenty of the Thunder fan base. When Durant said his new team-mates "are selfless and enjoy the game in its purest form" and "make basketball even more fun than it was," Thunder fans took it to mean his old club were not and slammed him on social media.

It is a crying shame if the fans cannot make peace with Durant. Not every player can be as loyal as Bryant or Duncan, both of whom won their first NBA titles early in their careers and stayed on at their respective clubs until their retirements.

Garnett, on the other hand, stayed too long at his first club, the Minnesota Timberwolves, and won only one title with the Boston Celtics when he could arguably have won more had he moved on earlier.

Durant, like every superstar without a title, was restless and perfectly entitled to seek new job environments. He lucked out on landing on the Warriors, who needed a big lift after their devastating Finals burnout. It is a great opportunity for this near-perfect basketballer to try and earn a well-deserved title.

It will also provide a fresh challenge for LeBron James and the Cavs, even though things look decidedly more favourable for the Warriors should the Trilogy materialise.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 26, 2016, with the headline 'Durant pivotal in trilogy hope'. Print Edition | Subscribe