In my four seasons covering the Golden State Warriors, I have been asked a ton of questions by various people about the team. The question that has been asked with the most intensity (and the one asked most frequently recently) is whether the Warriors are “for real.” For a long time, I hedged by acknowledging the Warriors’ history and propensity for injuries.
Now, I will make a definitive answer: If you define “for real” as being a playoff team in the West with a chance to win a playoff series, the Warriors are for real.
What made that take so long to decide has been the question of whether the way the Warriors have been winning games can be sustainable over the entire season. As such, the worthy exercise here has to be an analysis of how and why Golden State has risen so surprisingly as well as what keeps them from the absolute elite and whether those factors are sustainable moving forward.
Key reason #1 the Warriors have succeeded this season: Rebounding
By far the biggest factor in Golden State’s big start has been the boards. After languishing as the bottom team in the league in Rebounding Rate the past three seasons, the Warriors sit at second in the whole NBA so far in 12-13. I wrote about some of the root causes of their strong defensive rebounding a few weeks ago and they have persisted on that side of the ball by sitting in third place behind Omer Asik’s Rockets and the insane front line of the Timberwolves. Opponents shooting so many longer shots against the Warriors leaves more long rebounds which fits right into Mark Jackson’s philosophy of team effort on the boards.
On offense, the Warriors slide down the totem pole a little to 12th in the league at about four percent worse than the NBA leaders. Here the Warriors feel the lack of a reliable interior scorer more for the exact same reason they rebound well on defense. Since most of Golden State’s current weapons score very well outside the paint (often outside the three-point line), the team sometimes has to make a choice between trying for boards or getting back on defense after misses. Considering their improved defensive success this year, it appears they are making the right choice for now.
Can their rebounding be sustained this season? Yes, especially if/when Andrew Bogut comes back. The same defensive concept that has led the Warriors this far should continue moving forward and may actually amplify when the team has more minutes going to shot-changing impact defenders on the interior by replacing some other players with more Bogut minutes. He also should give the team more looks in the paint and more close rebounding chances on that end.
Key reason #2 the Warriors have succeeded this season: Defense
Attributing a potentially playoff-bound Warriors team’s success to rebounding and defense makes me feel like I am in a bizarre world. That said, the team has done a strong job thus far on that end and both the stats and the naked eye bear it out: Golden State sits at ninth in Defensive Efficiency (tied for 26th last season) and second in opponent field goal percentage (20th last year), and third in opponent three point shooting percentage (tied for 27th last season).
Can their defense be sustained this season? Considering many of the key cogs have not changed that dramatically from most of last season, some could say that the team has been outperforming their talent on this end and should regress to the mean of being an alright defensive squad. I disagree with that on the grounds that the massive improvement in rebounding gives opponents less chances to score while the offseason effort to make the team deeper has allowed players to use more intensity on that side. Adding in defensively capable players like the three rookies has helped a ton as well. While factors like opponents missing far more threes against the Warriors should fall back to earth somewhat, the addition of Bogut whenever he comes back should more than offset those changes. He has been an incredibly strong player there for the past few seasons and fills some of the gaps in Golden State’s defense thus far.
Key reason #3 the Warriors have succeeded this season: Relative health
This one gets a little bit weird because of the obvious injuries to Brandon Rush and Andrew Bogut that have played a major factor in the season so far. While Bogut seems likely to return, we know that Rush will be out for the remainder of the season so his loss just factors into the season at large without fitting the questions of sustainability. Beyond those two, the core members of the Golden State rotation have missed zero games so far- Stephen Curry, David Lee, Klay Thompson, Carl Landry, Jarrett Jack, Harrison Barnes, and Draymond Green all have 32 games played. Festus Ezeli and Andris Biedrins have each missed some time yet are not massive components of the team’s success even without Bogut. The consistency of health for the guys who have played (especially in the case of Stephen Curry) has made it much easier for the team to stay at a high level and maintain their cohesion on the court.
Can their (relative) health be sustained this season? Most of my brain is screaming “It’s the Warriors! Of course not!” but it proves hard to know since basketball injuries are often so unpredictable. It seems reasonable under the law of averages that at least a few different rotation players will miss a few games the rest of the way, especially considering the injury history for guys like Curry. We will have to see here.
The last question has to be whether the Warriors can be more than just a playoff team this season.
On talent, intelligent people could make an argument that the Warriors can hang with just about everyone in the league if they were at full strength. However, this runs against a major truism in the NBA for a long, long time now: it is exceedingly rare for a core to advance more than one round beyond their previous best performance (i.e. teams do not usually win titles who have never played together in the Conference Finals before that season).
The exceptions to this concept like the Big Three Celtics often prove the rule and even squads like the Thunder have never made the jump a Warriors team would need to do in order to be a true contender.
Keeping that in mind, it seems inherently possible for the team to make a run because Golden State has the horses and home court advantage to give any team a tough series even though it does not stand as the most likely outcome for this season. Let’s just enjoy the longer than expected ride and see where it takes us, at least for now.