Everyone wants to make the Golden State Warriors fantastic start to the season about Mark Jackson and Steve Kerr, but the biggest change for this year’s team has been on the court. After averaging 18 points and 9 rebounds in 33 minutes a game last season, David Lee has played only seven minutes all season as he deals with a hamstring injury. This season and the 2012 Playoffs is about as close to a controlled experiment that you will ever see in the NBA.
It doesn’t matter whether it’s Jackson or Kerr. Without Lee, Golden State turns into a pure 4-out team and they become almost unstoppable. When Lee went down in Game 1 of their first-round series against the Denver Nuggets in 2013, everyone thought the Warriors were finished. They had lost their only All-Star! Instead, they went nova, blitzing a 57-win team in six games and giving the San Antonio Spurs everything they could handle in the second round.
The same exact thing is playing out again. With Draymond Green playing as a small-ball 4, the Warriors have four three-point shooters on the floor at all times. They space the floor really well, they have speed and athleticism at almost every position and Andrew Bogut towering over everything in the middle. A 4-out team with Bogut as the only big man and Steph Curry and Klay Thompson running the show from the perimeter is going to be hard to beat.
Lee gets his numbers - 18 points, 9 rebounds and 2 assists on 53% shooting last season - but he does it in a way that destroys everyone else’s flow. Lee doesn’t play enough defense to be the only big man on the floor, which means Golden State can’t play 4-out with him in the game. When the Warriors have two big men on the floor, they become a much more conventional team which has to slow the ball and play inside-out in order to maximize Lee’s skill-set.
Lee is most effective as the second biggest man on the floor while playing in an era where many of the best teams only play one big man at a time. There are still teams like the Memphis Grizzlies that can succeed with two big men, but they play to their strengths - pounding the ball inside, controlling tempo and playing lock-down defense in the half-court. The fundamental problem with playing Lee is that he gives you all the spacing problems of a two-in team without any of the benefits, as he struggles to score over bigger post defenders like Zach Randolph and he has even more trouble stopping them on defense.
Lee’s exit is like unclogging a drain. All of a sudden, when Golden State is on offense, eight of the ten players on the floor are spread out around the three-point line. All that spacing makes it almost impossible to stick with Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, since they can find the open man when the defense sends help. Golden State is playing the type of pure 4-out basketball that we haven’t seen in the Western Conference since the Seven Seconds or Less Suns.
If you look at the last few champions out West, every winner had a huge PF:
2008-2010 - LA Lakers - Pau Gasol (7’0 250) and Lamar Odom (6’10 240)
2011 - Dallas Mavericks - Dirk Nowitzki (7’0 240)
2012 - Oklahoma City Thunder - Serge Ibaka (6’11 240)
2013-2014 - San Antonio Spurs - Tiago Splitter (6’11 245) and Boris Diaw (6’8 250)
The Heat were able to get to the Finals playing pure 4-out basketball, but they barely survived series against Roy Hibbert and David West, much less some of the monstrous front-lines in the Western Conference. That’s the logic behind the construction of most of the top teams out West. The starting PF on all eight playoff teams last year were all 6’9+ - Tiago Splitter, Serge Ibaka, Blake Griffin, Terrence Jones, LaMarcus Aldridge, David Lee, Zach Randolph and Dirk Nowitzki.
There has been no team willing to take the spread pick-and-roll to its logical conclusion, not since Mike D’Antoni’s glorious revolution in Phoenix could never get past a 7’0 foot roadblock in San Antonio by the name of Tim Duncan. For the most part, teams in the West aren’t trying to play small. That’s why I assumed coming into the season that A) the Warriors would stick with Lee and B) it would ultimately doom their chances for winning the West.
Lee’s injury is really the best thing that could have happened to Kerr, since it took the tough but necessary decision out of his hands. There’s no way they can put him back in the starting line-up after the way they have started the season. In essence, the last three years were a holding action, where David Lee was fighting to hold onto his starting spot while a potentially great team was waiting to burst out at any moment. As soon as he got hurt or had to leave the line-up for any extended amount of time, this was going to happen. He may end up being useful to them as a 10-15 minute guy off the bench, but the days of him being a featured player in Golden State have come and gone.
Without Lee around to get in everyone’s way on offense and get lit up on defense, the Warriors have gotten off to the best start in the NBA, with a 21-3 record and a 16-game winning streak that ended in The Grindhouse on Tuesday. In terms of pure statistics, Golden State is as good a team as there is in the league. However, when you start playing the match-up game in the playoffs, it looks like their chances to win it all will come down to two questions.
1. How will the pure 4-out approach play out against the best PF’s in the West?
It almost ended up working in the 2014 playoffs, when Jackson was forced to go 4-out after Andrew Bogut was injured. After they were down 2-1 to the LA Clippers in the first round, Jackson moved Lee to the 5 and started Draymond Green at the 4. They averaged 101 points in Games 1-3 and 110 points in Games 4-7. However, in the end, though, the lack of rim protection and size on the defensive glass doomed them. Would it have been different with Bogut at the 5 and Green at the 4?
Golden State’s 112-102 victory in Chicago a few weeks ago was the best-case scenario for a 4-out team playing a 2-in one. Pau Gasol and Taj Gibson were able to take advantage of their size upfront, but they had no answer for Green at the three-point line. The floor was spread so wide that the Warriors were able to tear holes through the Bulls defense. When everything goes right, the math becomes overwhelming. Green scored 31 points and hit 7 3’s in that game.
Their 105-98 loss to Memphis was the worst-case scenario. Zach Randolph was able to bully Golden State around the rim, with 17 points on 12 shots. Green, meanwhile, was unable to make him pay on the other end, repeatedly coming up short on jumpers and shooting 2-11 from the field. The worry is that over a seven-game series, his legs are going to be worn down by all the wrestling he will have to do with guys like Blake and Z-Bo.
“Draymond is the heartbeat of the team,” said Steve Kerr after the Warriors win over the Mavs on Saturday. “He has guarded everybody - LaMarcus Aldridge early in the season, Anthony Davis last week. He just guards whoever he needs to, including on switches, when he’s handling PG’s or wings. Draymond is a huge part of our success and I think people are realizing that and he should get plenty of notoriety for his contributions.”
You can only tell so much from the individual match-ups in the regular season, since teams can alter their game-plans to focus on a match-up advantage over the course of a seven-game series. If Golden State ends up playing a team like Memphis (Z-Bo), the Clippers (Blake) or the Blazers (LaMarcus Aldridge) in the playoffs, it’s going to come down to which team can with the contrast of styles at the PF position and dictate the tempo of the game.
In theory, that type of series is where it would nice to have David Lee, but does anyone think he’s winning match-ups with elite PF’s? At least if you play Draymond and Barnes at the 4, you are going down playing your style instead of losing while pretending to be something you are not. And if you look at the way the NBA has been going over the last generation, you have to trust that the math will win and that the spread pick-and-roll will beat the post-up.
Where it gets really interesting is what happens if the Warriors play a team that wants to play 4-out with them.
2) Can someone beat Golden State at their own game?
Over the last three seasons, the Thunder and the Spurs have been the class of the West. They played in the 2012 WCF and the 2014 WCF and the only reason they didn’t play in the 2013 WCF is that Russell Westbrook got injured. Odds are, a team that wins the West this season is going to have to beat Oklahoma City and San Antonio. What makes those teams so dangerous in the playoffs is their versatility - they can play either 4-out or 2-in and still win.
The Thunder start Steven Adams and Serge Ibaka, but their most dangerous line-up is Ibaka at C and Kevin Durant at PF. This is what I mean by Golden State playing “pure” 4-out basketball - Oklahoma City could start Durant at PF all season and score all the points. Instead, they go with a more conservative defensive-minded line-up, with the idea that they can always go 4-out when they need to in the playoffs. The Ibaka/Durant tandem is an absolute nightmare match-up for the Warriors defense, since they don’t want Bogut on the three-point line.
The Spurs start Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter, but they can play 4-out with Boris Diaw at PF and Duncan at C. Two years ago, Diaw was one of the keys to the Spurs getting past the Warriors in the second round, as he had the quickness to play their perimeter game on defense and the skill to punish their lack of size on offense.
Even after winning a ring, Diaw is still one of the most underrated players in the world. In a one-game scenario, he can be as good as anyone. In the last nine months, he played LeBron James to a draw in parts of the NBA Finals and absolutely smoked Marc Gasol in the World Cup. He’s essentially a much bigger version of Draymond Green. If they face San Antonio in the playoffs, Green may find out, in the inimitable words of Lionel Hollins, that there’s always a bigger man in a prison.
Trying to leverage a mismatch on the perimeter against a guy like Zach Randolph is a whole different animal than trying to beat Kevin Durant and Boris Diaw at their own games. It’s not so much that Green has to outplay those guys 1-out-1, but that Golden State is no longer the faster and more skilled team on the floor in that match-up, the advantage they have had over everyone else all season.
As great a start as Golden State is off too, all roads in the West still go through the stretch of I-35 from Oklahoma City to San Antonio.