The first half of the Golden State Warriors game against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Saturday played out exactly like the Warriors recent games with the San Antonio Spurs and the Cleveland Cavaliers. The defending NBA champions took the best shot from one of their main rivals and it bounced off them like it hadn’t even happened. The Thunder raced out to an early 9-0 lead before the Warriors relentlessly whittled it down to nothing and ground them into the dust - they were up 20 points in the middle of the second quarter and they were up 13 at the half.
The game went from a coronation to a championship preview in the second half, when Billy Donovan abandoned OKC’s two big man line-ups and went small, sliding Kevin Durant to the PF position and playing pure 4-out basketball. Instead of running rings around bigger and slower opponents, the Warriors were suddenly playing against a team who was just as quick and just as skilled as they were. Oklahoma City has all this money invested in one of the biggest frontlines in the NBA and they can’t play them against the biggest roadblock in their pursuit of a championship. Steven Adams, Serge Ibaka and Enes Kanter all had their moments on Saturday, but they rarely happened when they were playing together.
The Thunder have been around so long that it’s easy to forget that they were built to dethrone the Los Angeles Lakers. Their first loss in the playoffs came at the hands of the Lakers in 2010, who went on to win their second consecutive title after dispatching Oklahoma City in the first round. Kobe Bryant got most of the attention but what made that team so difficult was their overwhelming size. They started two 7’0 C who could play together (Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol) and they brought in another long-limbed 6’10+ monster (Lamar Odom) who could kill you inside and out.
The Lakers won three straight conference championships from 2008-2010 and they seemed poised to rule the Western Conference indefinitely. Five years later, Kobe and Pau are shells of themselves while Bynum and Odom are out of the game entirely. Instead of a vision of the future, their Twin Towers frontcourt seems like a spectre of the past, an outmoded relic in an era where the most dominant team in the league closes out games with a Line-up of Death that doesn’t feature anyone taller than 6’8. The NBA went from a big man’s league to a small man’s league in a blink of an eye and no team got caught in the transition more than Oklahoma City.
When the Thunder were trying to build a team around Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, they were trying to put enough size around them so that they could match up with the biggest teams in the league and prevent their stars from taking too much of a physical pounding. They traded for Kendrick Perkins and they spent first-round pick after first-round pick - Cole Aldrich, Byron Mullens, Steven Adams - on guys with the size to defend the post and control the defensive glass.
When they drafted Serge Ibaka in 2008, he seemed like the archetypal stretch 4, a guy with the size to defend in the post, the shot-blocking ability to protect the rim and the shooting ability to open up the floor. If he had been drafted today, he would be the archetypal stretch 5. It seems almost crazy to think about in retrospect, but a 6’11 240 guy like Ibaka would have been considered small going up against Mastodons like Bynum (7’0 285). These days, with guys like Draymond Green (6’6 240) spending a lot of time as small-ball 5’s, Ibaka is almost too big for the center position.
Adams and Kanter are both supremely talented young big men who will have long and productive careers in the league, but it’s unclear whether a team in the modern NBA needs both of them. The least productive stretch of the game for the Thunder on Saturday came when they were playing Adams and Kanter together. There wasn’t a lot of space on the floor on offense and they didn’t have enough speed on defense. The modern game is all about space and speed and pairing a traditional big man like Adams with a slow-footed Goliath like Kanter, neither of whom is comfortable outside of 15+ feet, is the farthest thing from that paradigm.
The line-up that gives the Thunder the best combination of speed and spacing upfront is Ibaka at the 5 and Durant at the 4. The problem with using it too often is that Oklahoma City gave a max contract to Kanter and invested a lottery pick in Adams and they are two of the most talented players on their roster. The Thunder are at their best when they are playing big because they built a roster around the idea that the biggest and most physical teams were the ones with the best shot of winning a championship.
Compare that with what is happening in Golden State. While the Warriors have a few 6’10+ big men of their own coming off the bench, they invested lottery picks in perimeter players and they chased wings in free agency. It has gotten to the point where Golden State has more wings - Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes, Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston, Brandon Rush - than they know what to do with. They had to let go of Kent Bazemore and Justin Holiday in the last few seasons because there wasn’t enough playing time available for them and Rush has probably already played his way into a big contract somewhere else after re-emerging as an NBA-caliber rotation player this season.
When Golden State slides Green and Barnes down a position, they have a plethora of options in terms of how they want to fill out the rest of their line-up. They can bring in a Finals MVP (Iguodala) or a 6’7 PG whose lethal in the post (Livingston) or another 6’7+ wing who can shoot 3’s at a 40% clip (Rush). When Oklahoma City slides Ibaka and Durant down a position, they are bringing in guys who can’t shoot (Roberson) or who can’t defend (Morrow) or struggle to make much of an impact on the game (Singler).
The crazy part is that they have so many good big men they can’t play all of them even when they are playing in games where they can stay big for all 48 minutes. After a very promising rookie season where he posted impressive per-minute numbers and made an impact almost every single time he came into the game, Mitch McGary (6’10 250) has been buried so deep on the Thunder bench that there are splinters coming out of his butt. It’s not that he can’t play - it’s that there are no minutes for him behind Kanter, Adams, Ibaka and Nick Collison.
It’s hard to knock a team for finding a good player in the latter half of the first round, but imagine where Oklahoma City would be right now if they had drafted Rodney Hood instead of McGary with the No. 21 pick in 2014. The Thunder value the draft highly and they are pretty careful about investing picks in players whom they think have a long-term role in the rotation. So why would they invest another first-round pick in a big man when Kevin Durant needs to spend 40+ minutes a game at PF to beat the Warriors? Because, like the rest of the league, they didn’t see Golden State coming. The Warriors took the small-ball revolution to its logical conclusion and now the Thunder have to catch up.
The least painful way would be shopping McGary for wing help since he doesn’t play anyway and his salary is so small that just about every team in the league would want him. The guy who would bring the most back in return would be Adams, but it would be hard to walk away from a rapidly improving two-way 7’0, even in the modern NBA. Thanks to his exorbitant contract, the guy who would bring the least is Kanter. Either way, Oklahoma City is going to have to do something.
The bottom line is that the Thunder have too many bigs while the Warriors have too many wings and the latter is going to have the advantage in the modern NBA. Over the last few years, the Warriors stole a march on the Thunder while they were building a team to fight yesterday’s wars. If I was Golden State’s front office, that’s the first thing I would tell Kevin Durant in my meeting with him this summer.