While we still have a little more than half of the regular season remaining, it feels like a few of the major pieces in the Western Conference playoff picture are already establishing themselves. Both the top four teams (Clippers, Thunder, Spurs and Grizzlies) and the bottom four teams (Suns, Hornets, Kings and Mavericks) have solidified their place in this year’s hierarchy by a combination of play and projection moving forward. Naturally, other teams can and will join them as firmly inside or outside the playoff discussion while major injuries can shift the balance of power as they often do.
I am particularly compelled this season because it feels like the identity of the top four seeds in the conference have already started separating and clarifying. While it could be argued that the Golden State Warriors are close enough record-wise to make it into this group, there has been a meaningful gulf in quality of play between the top four and everyone else in the conference that can only be bridged by some players getting hurt or players like Andrew Bogut returning from injury and improving his team quickly and potently.
Furthermore, the jockeying for seeding and its effects on future rounds will likely keep the Thunder, Clippers, Spurs, and Grizzlies playing hard the entire rest of the season since each has been incredibly strong at home thus far - Memphis has the worst home record of the four at 13-4. In some ways, this can be seen as some form of a disappointment for Golden State since the team has played a strong season thus far and feel at points to be on the cusp of something bigger.
However, the additional component of the bottom half of the Western Conference playoff picture clarifying helps them a great deal especially when we consider the fact that the Warriors have made the postseason just once in the last 19 seasons. After all, Minnesota has played a strong season despite injuries but will have Kevin Love out for another 8-10 weeks, the Lakers are a mess, and Utah, Portland, and Houston are all solid teams that would each have to do incredibly well the rest of the way for the Warriors to miss the playoffs. Keeping all of this in mind, it feels incredibly likely that Golden State will make the playoffs somewhere between the fifth and eighth seed in the Western Conference.
In my eyes, settling in around this area would make the season a fabulous success, particularly when adjusting for the youth on the team and the two major injuries to top-6 players in the rotation that have had a major effect on this season. However, the one additional component that will affect the feeling at the end is that the last week or so has also showed us that the Warriors have major matchup problems against each of the four teams they are likely to face in the playoffs.
As is the case with nearly every NBA team of their quality, there are a few different ways to beat the Warriors and each of the top four squads possesses a material advantage to accomplish at least one of them. Defensive rebounding has been a pivotal component of Golden State’s rise this season. After being the worst all-around team on the boards last season, the Warriors have used their excellence on the defensive boards (#2 in the league, grabbing 75.3% of available boards when on D) to propel them into the top five in overall rebounding rate. Some of this stems from Mark Jackson’s team-wide effort to try and get boards coupled with the fact that most opponents take longer shots against them than most other teams. Since second-chance opportunities are also much better looks, it also prevents many of the more vulnerable defensive possessions and has majorly helped their defensive efficiency this season.
Against Memphis, the Warriors kept their heads above water in the first half despite trailing by nine at the break: the Grizzlies had one more offensive board and the teams each had six second chance points at that juncture. In the second half, the Warriors corrected many of their other mistakes but got swamped by Memphis’ offensive rebounding, where Memphis fought out eight offensive rebounds and ten second chance points compared to Golden State’s two boards and one second chance point. That discrepancy allowed the Grizzlies to overcome an 0-for-9 half from three and getting outshot at the free throw line to hold their lead and win the game. Fortunately for the Warriors, Memphis stands as the only top-level team in the West to be in the top 10 in offensive rebound rate though the Clippers could be there soon.
The next major way to beat the Warriors comes at the defensive end as well. While statistics show that opponents are shooting dreadfully from three point land against Golden State, the eye test reveals that a meaningful proportion of these come from missed open looks as was the case with Memphis on Wednesday. The three-point looks are a symptom of two larger underlying causes: the Warriors are susceptible to overhelping on defense (particularly on the weak side where the helper does not affect the play and just moves towards the ball) and penetration by crafty and speedy ballhandlers. Players like Russell Westbrook and Chris Paul have had strong games because they can hit the second level of defense and either create for themselves or others.
Additionally, the overhelping can be exploited by teams that shoot well from distance since the looks are generated as long as they fall into the right hands. While only one potential first-round opponent has great offensive rebounding chops, the other three all have ballhandlers that can bust through the holes in the Warriors’ D while both Oklahoma City (#1 in three point shooting %) and San Antonio (#4) have the gunners on the perimeter and the passing to exploit the kinks in Golden State’s rotations.
Despite all that, the Warriors do have a major potential weapon to change those negative factors in the form of Andrew Bogut. If they can get him back at full strength this season while adjusting to his different abilities, the Warriors would become much harder to defend thanks to adding another capable offensive player while also getting more stout on defense by giving the guards less reason to freak out and overhelp on penetration. As of now, we have no way of knowing if and when this will happen so it remains a fun mystery in a second half that does not appear to have too many of them as far as the Western Conference is concerned.
It appears that the Warriors are settling in to a playoff berth in the bottom half of the bracket, which should be construed as a positive and uplifting building block moving forward even if it feels strangely stable at this point in the season.