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Constructing Better Golden State Rotations

Over the course of the season, I have written a few times and tweeted plenty about the flawed rotations of the Golden State Warriors. After various comments on the subject, I decided that in lieu of criticism, what makes more sense would be to lay out how it could and should be done differently.

Before getting into the nuts and bolts of it, a few basic clarifications:

1. I believe that no one should average more than 35 minutes per game with this crazy NBA scheduling, but remember that it works as an average- key players should be prepared for much heavier minutes in key games and moments and plenty of rest when they are not needed.

2. Each game is different and a good coach must adjust based on health and quality of play on the floor.

3. Minute distribution and placing five players on the floor at each time are separate but connected processes.

4. The person guarding the opposing point guard does not need to be the primary ballhandler, and in the case of Kent Bazemore should never be.

Instead of giving some sort of rigid chart of how things should work out (also since it must be more organic than that), this will turn out more like guidelines and philosophies than orders.

In terms of conceiving of a rotation, some parameters should guide each and every team.

First, you start at the best players and move out. For the Warriors, this means building around Stephen Curry first and foremost. Determining his optimal breaks dictates the rest of the rotations but not the minutes distribution since that should be unaffected. Using Curry as the foundation, we can look at what players are most and least affected by sharing the court with him. This season, the guy with the single biggest drop off playing without Curry is someone who does it somewhat often: Andre Iguodala. Some of this stems from him taking on extra offensive responsibilities when Curry is off the floor, which cannot be helped entirely but can be remedied differently. However, the meaningful change in his Scoring Index (from positive 0.222 to negative 0.728) nearly doubles the next-largest decrease on the team. Beyond Iguodala, the players most hurt by playing without Curry are two guys who do so far too often: Harrison Barnes and Draymond Green. Both players’ Points Per Possession and Points Per Shot sink precipitously in these situations and both were among the highest in that margin over the last two seasons combined as well.

In fact, only one Warrior has been demonstrably better offensively without Stephen Curry this season: David Lee. Despite playing the second-highest proportion of his minutes with the All-Star starter, Lee stands out as the only Warrior with a better PPP and PPS among the key rotation players when playing without Curry. Furthermore, his comparatively small difference over the last two seasons combined shows a trend rather than noise in a small sample. This also makes sense because Lee’s offense does not depend on Curry’s playmaking as much as the perimeter guys and Andrew Bogut. He does what he does well and it continues to be more independent of the surrounding talent than any other guy on the team.

In fact, the Warriors’ offense that has been so putrid without Curry on the floor (89.6 points per 100 possessions, six points lower than the worst in the NBA) goes up almost ten points per 100 possessions with Lee out there and not Curry, improving to a survivable 98.4. I wrote when the Warriors traded for Jordan Crawford that just having him play Iso ball was better offensively than the lineup Jackson played when Curry sits- David Lee would be much better than that and have a leadership role on top of it. As such, one of the key tenets of any Golden State minutes system should be that David Lee needs to play any non-garbage minutes when Curry is off the floor. Excluding the games Curry missed in full, this has only been the case a total of 90 minutes the entire season- 20.5% of the time. Even just that change could be a huge help to the balance of the team.

Furthermore, a shift of a portion of David Lee’s minutes would open up a little bit of time at Power Forward with more of the starters on the court. These opportunities are the best way to jumpstart Harrison Barnes. My friend Marcus Thompson wrote on Monday about how it will be difficult to get HB back on track, but Jackson has not tried recreating the circumstances that made Harrison do so well in the playoffs against the Nuggets at all this year.

According to 82games.com, Barnes has played only 4% of Golden State’s PF minutes and a large portion of Harrison’s minutes have come with two of Lee, Bogut, O’Neal, and Speights on the floor. In fact, the Golden State five man unit tied for the best offensive rating is Curry, Thompson, Iguodala, Barnes and Bogut, which has concerns of small sample size because they have only played 19 minutes together all season, a disturbingly small number. While some opponents and matchups should not be tried, giving Barnes minutes as a stretch four allows him to take opposing bigs out of their comfort zone as we saw in the playoffs with Kenneth Faried and the Nuggets. It also takes his biggest negative (lack of aggressiveness / settling) and turns it into a strength by having him pull defenders out of the paint and having the players guarding him be those less comfortable handling dribble penetration so Harrison can be more comfortable keeping them off-balance. Barnes as a stretch four will never be a cure all for everything but could help and also provide a wrinkle other teams must plan for.

In a way, the team would be better served thinking of Draymond Green as the Iguodala sub at the three and Barnes as the Lee sub at the four. While I would love to see Green and Iguodala play much more together (which is not mutually exclusive if the team distributes minutes properly), Green comes much closer to duplicating Iguodala’s skills out there when trying to replicate the #FullSquad without him. While Harrison may be closer in terms of physical profile, Green’s defense and underrated playmaking fit more naturally as the Small Forward in these circumstances. Plus, it gives Green more minutes with Curry which could help his offense since Draymond’s Points Per Possession drops more than 26% with Curry off the floor, the second highest discrepancy on the team.

Additionally, the Warriors are completely ignoring an easy solution to the problem of Bogut’s free throw shooting. Even though Coach Jackson has been overly cautious of this downside risk coupled with a strange fear of opponents playing too small against the Warriors, I understand the core idea of not wanting Bogut on the floor when opponents are in the bonus and can foul the Aussie off the ball without additional punishment. Working within those parameters, the minutes from the start of every quarter until the opponent has committed four fouls are a golden time to play Bogut. Planning on giving him the first seven or so minutes in each quarter would leave Bogut enough energy to close out the game and play longer when the situation warrants. It can also be used as a factor when placing Curry’s minutes since playing them together can be useful on both offense and defense.

To summarize, here are the core concepts that should be in play:

- David Lee should be on the court each and every non-garbage time minute Curry sits without exception.

- Andrew Bogut should start every quarter but have enough juice to come back at the end of the fourth (and other quarters as appropriate).

- Try Harrison Barnes as a stretch four in lineups that have one true big (ideally Bogut, O’Neal or Ezeli) and the right opposing power forward.

-Never plan on Kent Bazemore serving as the primary ballhandler but have him guard opposing PG’s by playing him exclusively with David Lee and either Jordan Crawford or Andre Iguodala. Amazingly enough, Bazemore makes the most sense defending ones when Curry sits for the time being, though Crawford can handle it some of the time.

-Sit starters when the game is out of hand either direction. The Warriors had a lead of 16 or more from 9:45 to 4:28 remaining against Portland yet Curry, Thompson and Iguodala did not sit until 1:21 left when they led by fifteen. The worst case scenario is that they have to come back in late and that is much better than tiring out or potentially losing a key player by keeping him out there in resolved games.

Finally, there are more than enough minutes for the key players if managed correctly. Taking point guard and center off the table, there are 144 minutes per game excluding overtime for SG’s, SF’s, and PF’s. Reducing Thompson’s minutes a little to a more sustainable number and sliding Lee over to Center for short stretches while the other Centers recover from injury would leave more than enough for Iguodala, Lee, Green and Barnes to play and Crawford to fit in when Curry sits if desired. Thinking of that as a more full fledged group instead of starters and backups benefits the players by giving the more dependent talents additional minutes with the best creators and the team by removing some of the lead killing lineups Coach Jackson has become far too comfortable playing recently. It also allows the team to more effectively and fairly evaluate their talent in terms of long-term fit. After all, we cannot know how good Barnes can be without seeing if his success in the playoffs can be replicated more regularly.

The Warriors have a championship caliber core of players and a deeper rotation than we have seen because of how players have been used. A more cohesive and logical series of substitutions would make the team even more dangerous both now and in the playoffs.

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