Warriors Only Showing Flashes
The biggest reason that I have not done much long-form writing on the Golden State Warriors thus far is that there has been little rhyme or reason to what has transpired. The lack of a discernible, diagnosable trend provides a legitimate challenge for fans and media alike because it makes prediction and in-depth analysis incredibly challenging. This season has already featured some of the most meaningful flashes of potential success I have seen in my years covering the team and some of astonishingly disappointing moments as well.
Andrew Bogut’s injury and the inconsistencies surrounding it stand out as the most logical explanation for a shaky season thus far. Some of the brightest moments on both offense and defense have come during his spurts on the floor. The best offense Golden State has played thus far occurred in the first quarter against the Cavs on November 7th. The Warriors finally showed some of the potential that those of us who liked the Bogut trade saw when it occurred thanks to quality ball movement thanks to a lineup on the floor that contained so many strong passers. Both Bogut and David Lee can do a good job setting up teammates and creating their opportunities for their positions. Combining that with Stephen Curry’s ability to play on and off the ball and Klay Thompson’s range made the Warriors a team that could cause problems all over the floor (even though the Cavs had tons of injury problems that day).
In what could be a far more important development long-term, Bogut’s presence on the team has already produced changes on the defensive end. By taking a few early charges, Bogut started a trend that has expanded from there, most notably with Stephen Curry’s game-ending charge taken to win the game in the Staples Center against the Clippers. Curry has attributed his dramatic uptick in this category to Bogut and it looks like it may be spreading through the rest of the team as well. One interesting stat so far this season is that while the Warriors have the same 1.3 charges taken per game average (through 11/9 via Hoopdata) that they had last season, that number has moved them up from tied for last in the league to a tie for 17th in the NBA in 2012-13. Considering we are early in the season and the Warriors appear to be taking more since the season began, it could be the beginning of a positive trend as long as the team keeps doing it properly.
The other major bright spot has been the outstanding play of Carl Landry. While other players have had their issues (more on this later), Landry has produced whenever the opportunity has presented itself and has shown why his acquisition stood out as the shrewdest move in a strong offseason by Bob Myers and the Warriors’ front office. Despite being a strange fit with David Lee and having that combination play more minutes together due to Bogut’s limitations, Landry leads the Warriors in PER while also posting the best per minute rates in scoring, rebounding, and assists of his entire career. Beyond the stats, Landry gets buckets at times that the team desperately needs it (except the two free throws at the end of the Nuggets game) and has provided good effort on the defensive end. His chemistry with Jarrett Jack has also given the Warriors a strange form of continuity on the second unit that has helped bridge some key gaps with the current makeshift rotation.
With all of those meaningful positives already happening thus far, it would stand to reason that the Warriors would be better than 3-4 on the season. Unfortunately, there have been a few major problem areas that need to be address over the rest of the year. The quickest to explain has to be Bogut’s injury issues. As one of the key pieces on the squad, his non-existent or inconsistent minutes have made it incredibly hard for the team to get in a rhythm. After the Cleveland game, Bogut expressed significant frustration with his current predicament. Part of that cannot be corrected with time and I am encouraged by the proactive step of keeping Bogut out of more games fully before he gets closer to 100%. I had an idea a week or so ago that the smaller amount of minutes could potentially help the Warriors ease Bogut (a dramatically different center piece than the members of this team have had) into their system more gradually. After pitching the idea to Curry, he immediately responded that it was hard on the team and hard on the big man as well, something Bogut has attested to at numerous points.
The next meaningful problem has been the play of Lee. I do not know who brought up this identification of the problem (I will amend when someone takes credit), but the idea is that Lee has a series of bad habits that stem from being the best offensive player on bad teams at other points in his career. There was a stretch of at least two quarters in Saturday’s game against the Nuggets where once Lee got the ball inside the three-point line, no other Warrior touched the ball. On a team that has been properly built, Lee needs to understand that playing like that makes him and the rest of the team significantly easier to defend. The coaching staff needs to take the lead here and Lee is someone who has taken advice well in the past so it should be correctable.
One final issue with the team thus far has centered on coaching. The bigger picture problem is that the Warriors do not appear to have a discernible offensive scheme. Mark Jackson’s recent thoughts on shot selection echo Nellieball more than what he said earlier in his tenure and the lack of a system bears that out. Golden State has a relatively well put-together team but bears the blessing and curse of having players who thrive offensively in more specific circumstances. Klay Thompson’s shaky shot selection and smooth stroke can be remedied by keeping him as more of a spot-up shooter who works through screens to get open a la Ray Allen or Richard Hamilton. David Lee can do some creation for himself yet needs to focus more on positioning and generating looks by movement than taking the ball from outside the paint and trying to create off the dribble. One of the nice lessons this season has been how well Stephen Curry can play off the ball when the player who handles the rock has competence as a distributor- after all, Steph was the best set shooter in the entire league his rookie year. Even though Curry presumably got his extension due to his potential as a primary ballhandler, it is important to remember that he can and should play on and off the ball effectively on offense.
While the general scheme plays out as one issue, the other one reared its head a few different times in the Denver game: it does not appear that the coaching staff has a cohesive and logical plan for crunch time situations. While Thompson's misses got some of the headlines, the decisions that led to it proved even more problematic. On that play, the ball originally went to Richard Jefferson (an even worse free throw shooter) before he eked it out to Thompson right before he would have been fouled. During that whole time, Curry, the best free throw shooter on the team who was #1 in the entire league his last full season while also having a strong game on Saturday, did not get a chance to possess it or take the free throws. What made the situation even more egregious was that immediately before that situation, the Warriors gave the ball to Steph to draw the first foul in the last two minutes before freezing him out on the pivotal possession. That play, the Jarrett Jack one to end regulation where he did not get a quality screen to spring open, and the awkward play to Landry all displayed a staff that does not grasp how their team can beat opponents in the closing seconds. Systemic problems like that can dwarf issues like injuries if they are not corrected in time.
The other major issue has been one of messaging. At various points during both this season and last, Jackson has expressed a willingness to put his best five players on the floor to close out games. Thus far, that talk has not manifested itself into action as it pertains to David Lee. In the early part of the season, there were pivotal moments where Landry sat on the bench despite substantially outplaying his higher profile counterpart. More recently, we have seen Lee and Landry together with Bogut out, which has some upsides in terms of spacing and some downsides on defense and rebounding. The big talk of being a merit system in crunch time has not borne itself out in reality and the persistence of that double standard could yield negative returns both on and off the floor.
Even with all that dour stuff at the end of the piece, I am largely encouraged by what the team has shown thus far. This Warriors team has substantially more talent and depth than any squad since the 2007-08 unit that finished with the best record of any team not to make the postseason. Getting a legitimate center like Bogut in the lineup for a full slate of minutes could end up correcting many of the flaws that have shown up in the first batch of games.
That said, the first quarter against Cleveland cannot stand as the only strong bright light for this offense for too much longer on a team with this much talent on that side of the ball. Personal and skill chemistry between the players is a nice start that necessitates a system and coaching to even scratch the surface of the team’s full potential on both ends of the court. Here’s hoping the flashes we have seen thus far start coming closer together and becoming legitimate stretches of play- the Western Conference has an opening for teams to take control and the Warriors need to seize the moment before Minnesota and Dallas get their full complements of talent back if they want to be relevant for anything other than ping pong balls in May.