Stop me if you’ve heard this one. But the Golden State Warriors benefitted from a move that had nothing to do with them.
In a summer when Houston lost Trevor Ariza and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute — two big, switchable wings who could shoot from the outside — the Thunder remain cap-strapped without many paths to improvement and LeBron James joined a young 35-win team with no second superstar, Golden State caught another break. Wednesday, the Spurs traded Kawhi Leonard not to LA to join LeBron, but instead to the Raptors in the Eastern Conference.
Leonard leaving the West doesn’t make up for James joining it, but it certainly helps. The Warriors know LeBron at this point. They’ve faced him in four playoff series. They know how to scheme against him, and he’s not getting any more invested in defense. Maybe that changes with his move to the Lakers, but at 33 years old, LeBron has only so much in the tank. Meanwhile, Leonard specifically gave the Warriors issues.
Very few players are capable of making Steph Curry as uncomfortable as Leonard does, when healthy. He crowds Curry and stays on his handle. He’s big enough, long enough and quick enough to keep a hand up to crowd Curry while contesting, and fast enough to move to intercept if Curry drives. Meanwhile, even with the addition of Kevin Durant, it’s hard for the Warriors to find a cover for Leonard on offense. He sneaks in between screens, and is constantly finding the gap for scoring opportunities.
The Warriors weren’t afraid of Leonard, to be fair. Even when Golden State was down 20 in Game 1 of the 2017 Western Conference Finals, the most likely outcome was a Warriors victory. However, San Antonio is a team that’s disciplined and tough and was specifically built to counter Golden State.
With drudging, tiresome, mid-range 2’s and grinding defense, the Spurs dragged the pace down. With DeMar DeRozan, sure, the Spurs can still play the mid-range game, but DeRozan just isn’t as good in any aspect as Leonard, and he’s a sieve defensively.
The Spurs were also one of the few organizations with the system, discipline and approach to construct a plan that could beat the Warriors, if such a thing is possible anymore. Leonard’s situation takes another would-be contender away and relegates it to also-ran.
The Spurs will still be a good team; they’ll beat up on the Orlandos and Sacramentos, win close to 50 games and be a pain for whoever they face in the first round. But the Spurs are no longer scary. They’re no longer a team that demands respect.
Golden State remains the heavy NBA title favorite at 4-7 at Westgate. If you were looking for one more indicator to get in before this pushes to -200 or higher, this would be the one.
There are a handful of players in the world who give the Warriors legitimate fits, and one of them just went all the way to the Atlantic Division, to what is arguably a worse team. It’s one less thing standing in the way of the Warriors’ insurmountable juggernaut.