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Kawakami: What this Finals trip means for Warriors — Distance from Durant era, Chase Center’s moment and more


This is about the Warriors, generally, not Kevin Durant, specifically. It’s about everything before and beyond Durant’s arrival and departure from the Warriors. It’s about the beginning and continuation of the Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson era, not about the middle — and Durant’s three incredible years with this franchise were right in the middle.

This is about simple math: The Warriors went to the Finals three times (and won two titles) with Durant from 2016 to 2019; and now they’ve gone to the Finals three times (with a chance at their second title) without Durant, including trips in 2015 (when they won it all), 2016 and now again six years later.

Right now, the Durant segment of Warriors history is epic but also not measurably greater or less than what came before it —  and is what is now coming after.

I try to avoid the temptation of discussing legacies while careers and playoff games are still happening. The 2022 Warriors’ run, which has taken them back to the Finals for the sixth time in eight seasons, might look very different once this series begins at Chase Center on Thursday against either Boston or Miami. The Warriors could lose in the Finals, as they did in Durant’s last, injury-battered season here. There could be quick re-evaluations across the board. There almost always are.

But a few days after the Warriors’ emotional celebrations last Friday in the wake of their Game 5 Western Conference finals clincher over Dallas, I think it’s becoming easier and easier to permanently affix Durant’s place in this epoch and to understand that the Durant era is a past-tense portion of what Curry, Klay, Draymond, Steve Kerr, Bob Myers and everybody else have accomplished and continue to accomplish.

Durant is not overshadowing the whole thing, even though I am spending time right here to discuss it. I hope this is the last time. But I also think it’s important to etch out four important conclusions as the Warriors aim for the fourth championship of the Curry Age:

• The Warriors were excellent before Durant joined them in July 2016, and he made them even better; the 2017 team that went 16-1 in the postseason might’ve been the most talent ever cohesively assembled on a basketball floor together, and Durant was the best player in that group and probably in the universe at that time.

• Durant chose to leave in July 2019 because he wanted another challenge and he didn’t believe that remaining in the Bay Area would fulfill him; this is part of his wandering spirit, which, I always remind people, is how the Warriors got him to leave Oklahoma City in the first place. I don’t think Durant regrets bolting the Warriors for Brooklyn, though the Warriors are back on top and the Nets have not come close to a title and have gone through all sorts of odd events in his three years there so far.

For all sorts of reasons, Durant didn’t enjoy his last year-plus with the Warriors. Once he only committed for only one more year after the 2018 back-to-back title, his exit already was heading toward inevitability. Which added to the tension. Which made Durant even more restless and unhappy. And I don’t think that would’ve improved for him if he’d stayed.

Was it wise for Durant to attach himself to somebody as mercurial as Kyrie Irving after experiencing Curry’s ultimate superstar serenity? That was Durant’s decision to make, and he made it. I actually think some part of him was seeking a little more unpredictability and rejecting the Warriors’ balance and cohesion. No regrets. No do-overs. I don’t think Durant yearns to be part of the Warriors again. I really don’t. He’s walking a different path.

• When you’re as great as Durant is, you change the league’s gravity every time you change teams. I mean, look at Oklahoma City since Durant’s departure from the Thunder … six years ago. Fascinatingly, though, he didn’t really do this to the Warriors.

Simply, the Warriors win when their Big Three is healthy. They won before Durant. They won with Durant. They’re winning after Durant. They are winning because Curry, Klay and Draymond are healthy and their chemistry changes the careers of those who join them. And the Warriors lose when their Big Three is less than healthy, which happened in the 2019 Finals and then in the two seasons after Durant’s departure.

• This is, really, about Curry. It starts and continues and it will end with Curry.

He has, of course, been aided in essential ways by Draymond, Klay, Andre Iguodala, Kerr, Myers and every other player, coach and executive up and down the line. But Curry is the guy who started this. He’s the guy who created and maintained a culture that Iguodala and then Durant wanted to join. He kept it together during the two-year playoff hiatus. He’s the best player and leader now.

It takes a monumental figure to turn three years of Durant into a few key chapters, not the whole story. But Curry is more than a monumental figure for the Warriors and the league. In a lot of ways, he is the figure. With four more victories before he can celebrate another title … and maybe his first Finals MVP.

That’s the main thing I believe the Warriors have accomplished by getting to the Finals this year. Here are a few more:

Andrew Wiggins’ star turn means this could go on for several more years

Yes, good thing for the Warriors that they didn’t go star-hunting on the trade market last summer. The under-reported part of any potential Warriors trade for, say, Ben Simmons or Bradley Beal was that the Warriors would’ve had to include Wiggins in any offer just to keep the incoming and outgoing salaries matched by CBA rules.

And, of course, it wouldn’t have just been Wiggins, who, as recently as a few months ago was considered a negative value due to his $31.6 million salary this season and $33.6 million salary next season. If the Warriors were going to seriously get into the big-name chase last offseason, they would’ve had to include both James Wiseman and Jonathan Kuminga. And they never seriously got into anything. They were betting on Wiggins, to a large extent. Which was wise then and brilliant now that Wiggins has turned in three consecutive tremendous two-way series.

The Warriors currently have no other wing who can guard great perimeter players all game. They used to have a bunch of them: Klay before his injuries, Iguodala when he was younger, Shaun Livingston, Durant. Now it’s Wiggins. As Kerr has said, it’s hard to imagine the Warriors getting anywhere near this far without him.

If you need statistical evidence, here are the Warriors’ updated cumulative postseason plus/minus leaders:

1. Wiggins plus-111 (currently fourth-best in the league)
2. Draymond plus-97 (sixth-best in the league)
3. Otto Porter Jr. plus-91 (seventh)
4. Curry plus-86 (ninth)
5. Jordan Poole plus-54
6. Klay plus-34

And just narrowing down to the Dallas series, Wiggins was a team-best plus-55 in those five games, when he defended Luka Dončić well while adding 18.6 points and 9.3 rebounds per game.

Oh, and he’s 27, joining the 26-year-old Kevon Looney in the Warriors’ middle-career tier. Behind them is the youth brigade of Poole (22), James Wiseman (21) and rookies Kuminga and Moses Moody (both 19). Curry and Draymond show few signs of an immediate career drop-off. Klay looks better and stronger every additional day beyond his two leg injuries.

The Warriors have no major free agents coming up, unless you count Looney, who has hit free agency before and received very little interest. Maybe he’ll get interest this time after his roaring performances in back-to-back clinchers. But then again, the Warriors can spend whatever they want on their own player and have proven that nobody values Looney more than they do.

It’s very possible that the Warriors will be better (and certainly deeper) next season than they are now, on the verge of a title. If not for Wiggins’ grand postseason arrival, there is no way any of that would be true. He’s having a $31.6-million postseason. He’s worth all of it for now, and he’s worth it into the future. The Warriors have a lot of money. They make it by challenging for championships. And they don’t have a habit of discarding players who help them challenge for championships.

Even if the Warriors can project Kuminga or Moody as high-minute forwards into the future, they won’t be looking to replace Wiggins, who, as we’ve seen this postseason, does things that are not replaceable.

Jordan Poole is very valuable, up to a point

Why are the Warriors playing more zone in these playoffs than they’ve played in the previous five postseasons combined? There are many reasons, starting with the unique offensive skill sets of Denver’s Nikola Jokic in the first round, Ja Morant in the second and Dončić in the previous round.

But the main reason is that they need Poole on the floor to maximize their offense … except that gives them exposure on the defensive side when opponents line up every play to get somebody going at Poole. (The Warriors just don’t have a great two-way unit this season. Their best offensive unit, which is the small lineup, can struggle on defense. Their best defensive unit, which has Looney at center and Poole out, can get bogged down on offense.)

So the Warriors are playing zone almost every time Poole comes into the game. And it feels like they’re getting better at it every series. But, as Dallas coach Jason Kidd suggested a few days ago, playing so much zone is somewhat of an admission that you can’t match up with your opponent. Really, it was the Warriors admitting that they just didn’t want Poole in a one-on-one situation with Dončić.

And for all Poole’s fantastic offensive repertoire, this is something that might limit his long-term earning power. He’s eligible for his rookie extension this summer, and I’ve gone back and forth on what that salary number might be. Back when Poole was struggling during the season, I was thinking something less than $20 million per. As he erupted in the late-going and through certain postseason games, I was tilting toward the max value closer to $30 million per.

He’s valuable as a counter option alongside Curry and to carry the offense when Curry rests. That is not in question. But unless Poole’s dominating most games offensively (the way Luka does), $30 million a year is a lot for the target of every opponent’s game plan. If the Warriors face Boston in the Finals, for example, they’ll do anything possible to avoid getting Poole matched against Jayson Tatum or Jaylen Brown. Anything possible. Is that a $30-million-a-year player?

Of course, Curry was a liability on defense his first few years in the league and he’s absolutely not a liability now. Teams still sometimes target him, but Curry is strong and savvy enough to hold his own and at least makes it difficult to score over him. Poole is not at that stage. He’s foul-prone because he can get out of position, and he’s also prone to just give up points. Which might lead to the Warriors waiting and watching for another year — Poole is under contract next season and, if he doesn’t sign an extension this offseason, will hit restricted free agency in July 2023. He might be worth the max then. I don’t think he’s quite worth it now.

There will be a line of veterans ready to sign minimum deals with the Warriors again this offseason

Porter’s status is still blurry for Game 1 after he missed the Dallas clincher with a foot injury, but I think the long break should probably be enough to get the Warriors’ most important reserve big man back in action.

A telling stat: Porter leads the playoffs with a plus-15.0 net rating, a sign of his effectiveness on both sides of the ball. He’s a threat to make jump shots on offense, is a solid passer and he’s been surprisingly tough and physical on defense, essentially playing as a backup to both Looney and Draymond.

After signing a veterans’ minimum one-year deal last summer, Porter could be pricing himself out of the Warriors’ plans because they don’t have his Bird rights and therefore are limited in what they can offer him this offseason. But the Warriors couldn’t ask for anything more from Porter than getting crucial production and then watching him get rewarded elsewhere.

Practically, other veterans are watching Porter and Wiggins’ career revitalizations next to Curry, Draymond and Klay. When Myers is seeking new vets on minimum deals next summer, almost everybody he calls will be interested.

Chase Center has arrived

So yes, the crowd can be a bit late arriving, especially for those 6 p.m. starts. Traffic getting into Mission Bay is perpetually hellish at rush hour. Sometimes the suite dwellers forget to come out to their seats to start the third quarter. Or by the middle of the third quarter. Draymond, Curry and Klay seem to spend a little more time every home game to try to get the crowd going than they ever did at Oracle Arena.

However, you can’t argue with the noise level when the Warriors are playing well; the acoustics at Chase are great and the upper-bowl fans remain buoyant, knowledgeable (cheering Looney rebounds!) and loud. And you certainly have to underline the results so far in Chase’s first postseason run.

The Warriors are 9-0 at home so far these playoffs, have clinched all three series at Chase and have seemed to gain energy in the fourth quarter, especially, from their fans in close games. They’re plus-121 in raw points at home in these playoffs. They’re minus-45 on the road. Which all gives the Warriors a large edge going into the Finals because their 53-29 regular-season record gave them home-court advantage over all Eastern Conference teams.

East No. 1 seed Miami also finished with 53 wins but lost both games to the Warriors. The Heat were trending toward 54 wins, but then Miami rested Jimmy Butler and others for Game 82 in Orlando, which Miami lost. On the same day, the Warriors were finishing off a five-game winning streak to close the regular season (right after losing four straight).

I’m sure Heat coach Erik Spoelstra doesn’t regret the final-day rest as he squeezes every last bit of energy out of Butler right now. But that Game 82 loss could be a large factor in the Finals, when the Warriors don’t have to travel again until Monday, June 6.

Also, my continuing Chase cash-machine playoff update: Counting the two guaranteed home dates in the Finals, with an estimated gross of more than $15 million per game, the Warriors’ cumulative postseason gross is now over $100 million. (About $7 million per for the six combined home dates in the first two rounds, about $10 million per for the three Western Conference finals home dates then add $30 million or more for the two assured Finals dates.)

After the league and other entities take their share, the Warriors will keep about 30 percent — currently about $30 million — of the box-office revenue.

Each additional home date would add another $15 million-plus of gross revenue. (I’ve been asked a lot about possible additional TV revenue for extra games. But the league’s network deals are not paid out on a per-game basis. They’re general, season-long deals. The NBA and its teams receive no extra money if and when series go long.)

When the Big Three are healthy, the Warriors still rule the Western Conference

The Warriors are now 18-0 in the Western Conference playoffs since Kerr’s arrival in 2014. That is, if you really think about it, an amazing record going up against James Harden, Damian Lillard, Russell Westbrook, Rudy Gobert, Marc Gasol, Chris Paul, Dončić and Durant, among others, over all these years.

Nobody in the West has ever beaten a Kerr-coached team in the playoffs. (Curry, Klay and Draymond went 1-2 in the West tournament in the two playoff runs under Mark Jackson before Kerr’s hiring.)

In fact, the Warriors have gone beyond five games in those series only six times. In the other 12 West series, the Warriors have finished it off in five games or fewer, including against Denver in the first round and Dallas in the conference finals this year.

Basically, if Curry, Klay and Draymond get into the playoffs, they’re getting through the West and into the Finals. And if they’re healthy next season, I imagine that will be a powerful theme once again, whether they finally face Phoenix or get Memphis, Denver and Dallas again.

(Photo of Stephen Curry and Draymond Green: Garrett Ellwood / NBAE via Getty Images)





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