As of January 1st they had realistic ambitions of home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. Six weeks later they were clinging to postseason hopes for dear life. David Lee was the team’s lone All-Star, but Steph Curry deserves and will receive several bottom-of-the-ballot MVP votes. The perpetually injured, seemingly always ‘game-time decision’ Andrew Bogut’s impact has been felt more on offense than defense. Jarrett Jack is a surefire Sixth Man of the Year candidate one possession and the worst version of Nate Robinson the next. Klay Thompson and Harrison Barnes can bomb from deep, dunk on your head and play near lock-down defense – but there’s no telling whether or not they will.
So there are questions. Many and more. But there are clear answers to some of them, too.
Curry’s emerged as one of the league’s scariest and most efficient scorers. Golden State relies on Lee and Carl Landry post-ups more than anything but die-hards would expect. Their pick-and-roll coverage is stubbornly and cripplingly consistent. The Warriors are absolute beasts on the defensive glass. Their best offensive lineups feature three guards and two undersized bigs; those units are similarly poor on the other end. Lee and Bogut are rare interior playmaking threats as passers. Golden State’s late-game offense is without rhyme or reason. Their oft-used 2-3 zone is routinely shredded to pieces. Curry is a scary scorer – that bears repeating.
And most importantly, the Warriors are decidedly above-average and nothing more when playing near their mean.
The thing, though, is that Golden State only plays its ‘B’ or ‘C’ game every so often. They frequently struggled with teams they shouldn’t and beat teams they shouldn’t this season, so any playoff outcome wouldn’t necessarily surprise. They could push a San Antonio series back to Oracle Arena, lose in five to Denver or flat out beat the Clippers – the Warriors’ swinging seismic variations suggest it all. But things so slow down, the cream rises and teams play like the one they actually are in the playoffs. Given all that and the team’s lack of home-court advantage, the safe Golden State bet is a first round exit. The meaning of ‘safe’ in context with the Warriors, though, is actually anything but.
Nevertheless, Golden State is playoff bound for just the second time in 19 years; this season was a success. The following will go a long way in dictating how far they’ll extend it into spring.
Offense (efficiency: 104.3, 10th)
- To the right and below is Curry’s shot-chart since February 1st, a period in which he’s averaged 25.5 points per game with a 60.6 TS%. He’s a good shooter, this guy.
- Given that Curry and Thompson have set the single-season record for most three-pointers made by a pair of teammates, you’d assume Golden State lives and dies by the three. That’s not necessarily true; impressively, they were eighth in total three-point makes this season despite ranking 14th in attempts. Quality not quantity is the Warriors hallmark from long-range, and the mere threat Curry/Thompson present is key in spacing the floor for Lee/Landry post-ups and isolations.
- Having said that, beware of The Elevator.
- Don’t sleep on Curry as a creator. He’s a fantastic ballhandler and can make every pass in the book with either hand out of pick-and-roll situations or any other: pocket, skip, whip, wrap, behind-the-back and the rest. Curry is averaging 7.5 assists per game since February 1st; he’s a great passer whether reputation suggests it or not.
- Thompson, too, has picked up his off-the-dribble game of late. He’s a good ballhandler and a fluid athlete, capable of finishing with touch or authority at the rim. But where’s been most effective recently is as a passer as he catches coming off a down-screen. He sees the entire floor and knows when and what to do with the ball as he draws defenses.
- Barnes isn’t the finisher this, this or other dunks like it suggest. He shoots a stellar 72.2% at the rim, but gets there so seldom – just 2.5 attempts per game – it’s not a threat Golden State can rely on. Barnes is passive offensively despite rare, bright flashes of brilliance; that won’t change in the playoffs.
- Jack’s presence – whether he’s ‘on’ or not – is hugely influential. When on the floor with Curry and Thompson he’s the primary facilitator, as the two sharpshooters whirl and curl around a series of screens. The Warriors, unsurprisingly, are at their best offensively with this trio; they’re all threats, and it allows Curry freedom as shot-taker he can otherwise miss.
- Playing with Festus Ezeli or Andris Biedrins at center is akin to going 4-on-5. The former has hands of stone and lacks any coordination with the ball, and the latter’s terrified of being fouled. If the Warriors don’t need them to curb a major size disadvantage, their playoff minutes should be few and far between.
- Bogut isn’t close to his offensive self. He’s still a crafty passer and a very good screener, but is hardly the post-up option or finisher of healthy yore. We won’t see any 20-10 games in the playoffs, basically.
- Lee might have the best off-hand in the league. He’s truly ambidextrous within 6-feet of the basket, utilizing hooks, pushes and spinning layups with equal effectiveness, his natural left hand or the other. This applies to the dribble, too; he doesn’t get much credit for it, but Lee’s a threat from 20-feet and in as shooter, driver, or passer.
- If Draymond Green is in the game, let him shoot. It’s that simple.
- The Warriors are quietly deadly in secondary transition. If the defense isn’t set or Curry thinks he has numbers, he’ll call for a high screen from a big and work from there. There isn’t any set action thereafter, but the shooting/passing abilities of the screener loom large for the defense.
- Speaking of transition, find Curry at all costs. He loves waiting an extra beat to let the defense forget about him, that sprint behind the ballhandler and spot up on the wing for an open three-pointer. He doesn’t mind the PU3IT, either.
- Video of common actions/sets:
Defense (efficiency: 102.7, 13th)
- Golden State’s February defensive rating was 110.7, almost two full points more than Charlotte’s league-worst mark. In 15 games this season they’ve allowed at least 110 points. So there’s that stuff to consider.
- After ranking dead last in defensive rebounding rate in 2012, the Warriors made a full 180-degree turn this season – they lead the league in DRR%. Lee, Landry, Bogut and Ezeli are very good rebounders, but this is a team-wide effort. Curry, Thompson and Jack get in on the act, too; Barnes, surprisingly or the opposite given his physical gifts but passive nature, is the only player not pulling his weight.
- The Warriors defend pick-and-rolls with maddening consistency. They drop the awaiting big to the elbow or sideline extended, hoping to force the ballhandler into a pocket some 16-feet plus from the basket. It’s a good strategy and one that’s increasingly popular around the league, but Golden State refuses to deviate from it even as teams adjust and begin to pick it apart.
- The man defending the ball is essential to this defensive plan. Curry, Jack and Golden State’s other perimeter defenders are to force the dribbler to one side of the screen or the other by overplaying one direction – this often means being extremely physical with the big man trying to set the pick. Jackson has lauded Curry for that in particular recently, but it’s a task easier said than well completed.
- Bogut isn’t the difference-maker he used to be. He’s still an effective back-line quarterback and very good shot-blocker, but the DPOY-caliber stuff he showed when healthy in Milwaukee has been noticeably absent this season. The rare quickness and explosion for a player his size just isn’t there right now. He’s still a better center option defensively than Ezeli or Biedrins and certainly a downsized frontcourt with Lee/Landry, just not the force he used to be.
- Without the injured Brandon Rush, Golden State doesn’t have a true ‘stopper’ on the wing. It’s Barnes in theory and it certainly should be, but he’s often foul-prone and his impact here may not be enough to offset his lack of one on the other end. More frequently Thompson has been checking the opponent’s top perimeter threat, then, and he’s performed admirably in that role against players like Kevin Durant and Kobe Bryant. But he can be too physical as well, and hardly has the physical or mental chops of the league’s best defenders. In time, perhaps, but not now. They miss Rush.
- Lee’s defensive effort is seemingly never better; he’s always barking directions on the pick-and-roll, for instance. But that doesn’t mean he’s had much more of a positive impact here this season than in ones past. Lee isn’t a rim-protector, is frequently out of position and often the victim of simple, successful post-ups. Landry isn’t far superior, either, but he’s stronger and less averse to allowing uncontested shots in the paint. The opponent scores just an additional 1.7 points per 100 possessions when they take the floor together, a shockingly low number given their individual deficiencies. And as previously stated, they help make up for that on the other end.
- When Green checks in it’s for defensive purposes only. He’s the only player on the roster Jackson trusts to guard smalls and bigs, so he frequently switches onto the former in pick-and-rolls late in games. Green is a solid defender (perhaps the team’s best), but doesn’t have elite tools and is easily fooled.
- That 2-3 zone is a mess. The Warriors need to avoid it, but foul trouble may mean they won’t be able to.
Statistical support for this piece provided by NBA.com.
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