The Golden State Warriors and Oklahoma City Thunder share a number of similarities. Some of them exist independent of other machinations and movements in the larger theater of the NBA. Some similarities are more particular to this offseason and the aftermath of NBA free agency. Several of these connections are explored here.
In this piece, however, we’ll delve into the differences between the Dubs and OKC. While they both exist in thin Western Conference divisions and have two particularly dynamic offensive stars, these teams part ways on a number of fronts.
Strictly in terms of rosters, the Warriors possess more depth and versatility than the Thunder. Developing the roster — perhaps to the point of making trade-deadline movements — is something Oklahoma City will have to achieve in some form or fashion if it wants to win the West in 2016.
In some respects, the Warriors simply have better pieces than the Thunder. Consider Andrew Bogut of Australia being a better rim protector and overall defender than Steven Adams of New Zealand.
Both men come from the same part of the world, and they both have a knack for unnerving their opponents, but Bogut is so much more seasoned and vigilant on the court, so much more practiced in the art of handling every specific component of low-post defense. The chess moves of the NBA Finals put him off the floor, but the Warriors had to have his energy and skill on defense in order to handle both Memphis and Houston in the playoffs.
It’s widely known that Enes Kanter is a sieve on defense, so Adams gives Oklahoma City a better defensive option. However, does Adams give OKC enough on defense to justify a maximum amount of minutes?
Lots of Thunder players were injured last year, so minutes-per-game numbers aren’t as easy to decipher as they were for other teams. Yet, with so many minutes available, Adams averaged 25.3 minutes per game. Say what you want about former coach Scott Brooks, but the NBA is a player’s league. Generally, if players are good enough, they’ll get more minutes. Adams didn’t get “tenth-man-in-a-rotation” minutes last season, but he didn’t get Kanter’s 31 minutes or Ibaka’s 33 minutes, either. Adams is clearly an important part of an effective defense for the Thunder, but he has not made himself as essential to his team as Bogut has for the Warriors.
Bogut over Adams is an example of Golden State having a better role player than Oklahoma City at a specific position. However, another part of the “depth and versatility” equation is that the Warriors simply have more pieces than the Thunder. The two players who most centrally affirm this point are Shaun Livingston and Andre Iguodala.
The Warriors certainly were fortunate this past season — lots of opposing players got injured in the playoffs and the NBA Finals, and the Dubs didn’t have to play the Clippers or the Spurs. However, Golden State still had the answer to every problem it encountered. The flexibility Steve Kerr had in tweaking his lineup combinations enabled him to unearth solutions. Enter Livingston and Iggy.
Livingston is particularly effective for a player his size. The occasional post-up and a 10-foot jumper offer some value on offense, but Livingston’s activity on the defensive boards helped the Warriors fend off the Cavs in the Finals. Livingston doesn’t take bad shots, and he plays within his limitations, lending a lot of coherence to a roster.
As valuable as Livingston proved to be for Golden State, Iguodala was even more central to the Warriors’ championship run. He handled LeBron James as well as one could possibly imagine. He hit catch-and-shoot threes off kick-outs when opportunities presented themselves. He offered dimensions of a “3-and-D” player, only with a much larger skill set than that. If you look up and down the Oklahoma City roster, there really isn’t a classic “3-and-D, value added” player such as Iguodala. Golden State possessed so much freedom to shape itself in accordance with in-the-moment needs. Oklahoma City can’t say the same thing, at least not as clearly. This is why the first instinct of most prognosticators is to guess that Warriors-Spurs is the likely Western Conference finals matchup next May.
The next big difference between these teams is that since Golden State has already bagged a championship in the modern (let’s say “live-TV”) era, the Warriors have removed a world of pressure from their backs. Oklahoma City, on the other hand, faces all the pressure in the world to at least win the West this season.
This reality is soaked with urgency and tension, but it doesn’t require much in the way of an explanation. Everyone knows that 2016 free agency is going to be bonkers. If 2010 was the “Summer Of LeBron,” 2016 will be the “Summer Of Durant.” In order for Oklahoma City to retain Kevin Durant long-term, the most important thing is for KD and Westbrook to get along well with Billy Donovan, but if that’s to happen, the two stars must be convinced that Donovan can get them to the promised land. Therefore, Oklahoma City really needs to win the West — making the West finals at a bare minimum — in order to feel reasonably good about its chances of retaining its core for many more years.
Golden State just locked up Draymond Green, and everyone on the Warriors — having won a championship while loving the way Steve Kerr goes about his business — gets along peachy-keen. In this highly uncertain season for Billy Donovan, we don’t yet know how everything’s going to fit together for the Thunder, and what’s more is that if the season is a train-wreck, the Thunder could lose every last ounce of relevance they’ve had over the past five years.
Golden State played this past season with a very liberated mindset. Oklahoma City enters this season bearing a boatload of pressure.
A final difference between these teams is not so much internal to either club, but a reflection of where they stand in their divisions after free agency. Both the Warriors and Thunder inhabit divisions they should clearly win, and they both stayed in place during free agency, as opposed to making huge moves. Yet, the Warriors gained more from staying in place than the Thunder did, for one particular reason: A potential title contender in their division turned into a much-less-threatening team.
The Thunder play in the same division as the Portland Trail Blazers, and while it’s true that Portland has become a noticeably weaker team with the departure of LaMarcus Aldridge, the Blazers never really were a front-level title contender. The Clippers, on the other hand, were right in the middle of the Western Conference title chase this past season. They frankly should have reached the West finals, and would have given the Warriors a tough battle had they done so. When the Clippers brought aboard both Lance Stephenson and Paul Pierce, they had improved their bench to the extent that they would have become an even better team in the event that DeAndre Jordan had stayed.
However, as you know, Jordan left for Dallas. What would have been the Clippers’ best roster to date was suddenly diminished well below the team’s 2014 and 2015 standards. Golden State gained more ground, relative to its division, than Oklahoma City did. Golden State should feel better about its chances of making the West finals next spring after this flurry of free agency; Oklahoma City should feel less confident.