By Matt Youmans
VSiN senior editor
After a summer breakup, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are getting together again, suiting up Sunday as teammates in the NBA All-Star Game. When they go separate ways after the game, Durant will not be looking back.
His free-agent decision — announced without Jim Gray lobbing softball questions on a corny TV special — was all about winning a championship with the Golden State Warriors. His decision will be defined by what lies ahead in April, May and especially June.
So far, the Warriors are about what we thought they were … the NBA’s top team, unconcerned with chasing regular-season records and winning 70-some games.
“This is all preseason to the Warriors,” Westgate sports book manager Jeff Sherman said.
Golden State goes into the break with the league’s best record (47-9) and a four-game lead on San Antonio in the Western Conference.
The Warriors lost a total of nine games in the 2015-16 regular season, but charging hard for 73 wins came with a steep price. Golden State ran out of gas and collapsed in a seven-game Finals loss to Cleveland.
Durant’s addition has eased some of the burden on Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. Curry was the league scoring champion last season at 30.1 points per game. Now, his 24.7 average ranks 11th. The Cavaliers’ LeBron James has played four minutes per game more than Curry in the season’s first half.
“The Warriors understand there is a bigger picture,” Sunset Station sports book director Chuck Esposito said. “I think they did learn something last year, and they are building for the postseason.”
Durant has stepped in to lead Golden State in scoring (25.8). Meanwhile, his former team, Oklahoma City, has become a one-man highlight show. Westbrook is the NBA’s top scorer (31.1) for a Thunder team that is 32-25 and unlikely to make much noise in the playoffs.
The Warriors might not coast through the West. San Antonio, Houston and the Los Angeles Clippers are no pushovers.
The Spurs feature Kawhi Leonard, arguably the league’s best all-around player, and a coach, Gregg Popovich, who likes to talk politics and knows how to rest his stars for the postseason.
Opinions differ on San Antonio’s potential. But remember the Oct. 25 season opener? Leonard scored 35 points as the Spurs put a 129-100 beating on the Warriors in Oakland. That’s ancient history in what seems to be a never-ending season, but it counted for something.
“You can’t rule out the Spurs,” said Erin Rynning, a Las Vegas professional bettor.
Sherman is more of a San Antonio skeptic, posting Golden State as a minus-500 favorite to win the West, with the Spurs at plus-450.
“It’s going to be a tough run for San Antonio, in my opinion,” Sherman said. “This is still an aging team. When the Spurs go up against some young teams that are really athletic, they are going to run into some problems.”
The Rockets (40-18) are athletic, young and love to fire 3-pointers. James Harden is more than a cartoon character with a bushy beard. He has developed into an elite point guard who distributes instead of just scores. On Dec. 1 in Oakland, Harden recorded a triple-double in Houston’s 132-127 double-overtime win over the Warriors.
“The Rockets are interesting,” Rynning said. “Maybe they can make it a seven-game series and put a little pressure on the Warriors, but that’s up for debate. You certainly have to give San Antonio a shot, and Houston has a puncher’s chance.”
The Clippers are missing something — sometimes it’s Blake Griffin and other times Chris Paul. Griffin is back from a knee injury and playing well. Paul is out with a torn ligament in his left thumb.
The Warriors (27-27-2 against the spread) have not been a cash machine for bettors, and they are on pace to narrowly surpass their regular-season win total that closed at 66½.
In the big picture, not much has changed since October. Golden State is holding steady as an odds-on favorite (1-2) to win the NBA championship.
“I don’t see a team beating the Warriors four times,” Sherman said.