Kevin Durant joining Golden State in the summer of 2016 enraged many NBA fans who felt he upset the league’s balance of power. While there were a few bumps in the road, Durant did win back-to-back Finals MVPs and might have earned a third had he not torn his Achilles tendon against Toronto in 2019. Durant, alongside Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, formed one of the most potent offenses in NBA history.
With a healthy Durant, Golden State dominated almost all its playoffs opponents except the 2018 Houston Rockets. Rockets point guard Chirs Paul hurt his hamstring at the end of Game 5 with his team up 3-2, thus allowing Durant and Warriors to battle back and eventually win another ring.
Had Durant not joined the Warriors, though, fans could have enjoyed some truly competitive Finals series between more evenly matched teams. To ponder what might have been, let’s look at how the 2017, 2018 and 2019 Finals might have gone had Durant not created a superteam. For the sake of this exercise, neither Durant’s Thunder teams nor Curry’s Warriors are included in these potential scenarios.
2017 NBA Finals
San Antonio Spurs defeat Cleveland Cavaliers (4-3)
The Spurs’ initial season of the post-Tim Duncan era was Kawhi Leonard’s first as an NBA superstar. He averaged 25.5 points in 74 games and made the All-NBA and All-Defensive First Teams, leading his team to 61 wins and the league’s best defensive rating (103.5), according to basketball-reference. In Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals against Durant’ Warriors, Leonard had the Spurs up 21 points in the third quarter before Zaza Pachulia slid his foot under the San Antonio forward as he landed from a jumper, injuring him for the rest of the series. San Antonio wasn’t talented enough to beat Golden State with him healthy, but Leonard’s presence would have at least made it somewhat competitive.
Leonard’s Spurs against the reigning NBA champion Cavaliers is a much closer matchup than what fans got in reality. San Antonio was the deepest team in the league with players like LaMarcus Aldridge, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Pau Gasol, Danny Green and Patty Mills supporting the emerging superstar. Even when Parker got injured in the second round, Jonathan Simmons filled his role and averaged over 10 points per game.
The Spurs faced the Cavaliers twice in the regular season, first winning an overtime thriller in Cleveland and later winning by 29 points in San Antonio. Leonard is one of the few players James played in his career who can legitimately limit his impact, so it’s realistic that Leonard would continue playing well against James in the Finals. San Antonio’s depth also matches, if not exceeds, the production of Cleveland’s supporting cast of Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love, J.R. Smith and others, especially defensively.
James and Irving’s greatness would carry the Cavaliers in this hypothetical Finals series, but San Antonio’s depth and favorable matchups could overwhelm them in the end. It’d be a hard-fought seven games and the Spurs would likely celebrate with their home crowd at the final buzzer.
2018 NBA Finals
Houston Rockets defeat Cleveland Cavaliers (4-1)
James Harden and his Rockets were nearly unguardable on offense in 2017-2018. Harden led the league in scoring with 30.4 points per game and earned his lone MVP trophy, carrying Houston to a league-best 65 wins alongside the newly acquired Paul. These Rockets were the only team to push Durant’s Warriors to their limits, and they likely would have gotten to the Finals had Paul stayed healthy for the entire postseason.
In the Finals, Houston would have met a depleted Cavaliers team void of Irving, who demanded a trade the previous summer. James played arguably his best stretch of basketball ever to carry Cleveland to the Finals, but everyone knew that season’s champion would be the team that came out of the West. The Cavaliers had the second-worst defensive rating in the NBA this season (111.9) and went seven games with both the lowly Pacers and a young Celtics group, so Harden and Paul would dominate in this Finals matchup.
Cleveland would win a game, maybe two, due to James’ sheer brilliance and perhaps his teammates getting hot from behind the arc. But there would be simply no stopping the offensive juggernaut that Houston was this year, though, and Harden and Paul’s legacy would be forever changed for the better had they made it out of the West. Harden wins Finals MVP, James has yet another Finals loss and fans continue hoping the East improves.
2019 NBA Finals
Toronto Raptors defeat Houston Rockets (4-2)
When San Antonio traded Leonard to Toronto after he sat out most of the previous season with a thigh injury, no one knew what to expect. Nobody predicted he’d sit out 22 regular-season games for “load management” and nobody thought he’d carry the Raptors to a title while averaging over 30 points per game in the playoffs. It was a remarkable run, and because Durant missed almost all of the Finals, Leonard was able to win Finals MVP and solidify himself as one of the game’s most elite players.
Had Durant’s Warriors not existed, Leonard’s legendary run probably ends the same. The only difference would be his Western opponent, which therefore makes Leonard’s win a more legitimate Finals victory because the Rockets were at full strength, unlike Golden State.
Houston wasn’t nearly as dominant in 2018-2019 as it was the previous season. Several new acquisitions and minor injuries to Paul and Clint Capela caused a significant decline in the team’s defensive play, finishing the season ranked 17th in defensive rating (110.7). The Rockets won 12 fewer games than the season before but were 20-5 after the All-Star break and finally found their footing. Houston would have likely beaten the Trailblazers in the Western Conference Finals and returned to the NBA Finals, this time to face Leonard instead of James.
Toronto, being as deep and disciplined as it was in 2019, would handle a weaker Houston bunch fairly easily. Leonard, Green and Normal Powell are all capable of making Harden work hard for his points, and Kyle Lowry was a statistically comparable player to Paul during these playoffs. Pascal Siakam would be the X-factor in this series since Houston doesn’t have a player as skilled at his position, as well as players like Fred VanVleet, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka who were all better than most of Houston’s rotation. It’d be an interesting series, but Leonard would remain a Toronto legend by its conclusion.