It’s no surprise the Golden State Warriors eventually snapped and started giving slick comments to the media when people have been calling them lucky for the last six months. Why put asterisks on a team with a 67-15 record and a +10.1 point differential that went 16-5 through the postseason? The Warriors were uncommonly healthy in comparison to their opponents, but health is a factor every season, and it’s a lot easier to be 100 percent in the playoffs when none of your players average more than 32 minutes a game in the regular season.
Most of the critiques that are floating around out there don’t hold a lot of water. The San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Clippers were forced to play in the first round due to a quirk in the seeding that has since been fixed, but the Spurs (particularly Tony Parker) showed their age in that series and they made wholesale changes this offseason, while the Clippers have no one to blame but themselves for being unable to close the deal on the Houston Rockets.
Golden State matched up really well with the Clippers - they took them to seven games in 2014 with David Lee in, Andrew Bogut out and Draymond Green not starting until Game 4. It was the same thing with Houston. Would Patrick Beverley and Donatas Motiejunas really have made the difference when they swept them in the regular season?
And while the Cleveland Cavaliers were down to a skeleton outfit by the end of the NBA Finals, it was a skeleton unit that had made mincemeat of the Eastern Conference and had found a new identity without Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving. The Cavs played much better defense without two members of their Big Three and there’s no guarantee a team with two glaring defensive liabilities in their starting line-up would have been any better equipped to defeat a Warriors team that could put scoring threats at all five positions on the floor.
If there’s anything the Warriors should be grateful for last season, it’s what happened to the Oklahoma City Thunder. There was a lot of craziness surrounding the Thunder and they ended up firing their coach and missing the playoffs, but any team with Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant has to be taken seriously. Of all the potential challengers to Golden State, Oklahoma City is easily the team I most want them to face in the postseason.
The Thunder have to answer questions about their supporting cast and their new coach before we get there but everything in Oklahoma City still ultimately comes down to Durant and Westbrook. There’s no one in the NBA who can guard Durant, and there’s no one in the NBA who can guard Westbrook, and those two can take turns scoring at will and creating plays for everyone else on the floor. They are nuclear weapons that can go off at any point in a series and the other team has to play near perfect basketball to beat them. In their five trips to the post-season, they lost to the eventual champions four times - the Lakers (2010), the Mavs (2011), the Heat (2012) and the Spurs (2014).
All that happened with them playing with at least one hand tied behind their back in terms of an aging and depleted supporting cast and a coach who steadfastly refused to make adjustments to their line-ups.
I first became suspicious of Scott Brooks all the way back in 2011, when they lost to Dallas in the 2011 Western Conference Finals. It was pretty obvious the Mavs had no answer for James Harden and I kept waiting for a move that never happened - taking Kendrick Perkins out of the starting line-up and putting Harden in. The Thunder didn’t need to have a low-post defender to match up with Tyson Chandler and there was no way the aging Mavs line-up could have guarded Durant, Westbrook and Harden in a spread floor for 48 minutes. At the very least, it was a gamble worth taking when the Thunder went down 2-1 or 3-1. You don’t want to lose a series in five games and leave some bullets in your holster.
What was subtext in 2011 came to the fore in 2012, Oklahoma City’s only trip to the NBA Finals. After getting out to a 1-0 lead against the Heat, Erik Spoelstra went small with only one big man (Chris Bosh) on the floor and put Shane Battier on Perkins. Miami won the next four games, repeatedly taking advantage of Perkins on both sides of the ball. It was the same thing that happened with Dallas - why not change something when Plan A clearly isn’t working?
Brooks eventually started making adjustments to his line-ups as the years went on, but he was always a step slow and it was always more reactive than proactive. It took him three years to fully trust Reggie Jackson over Derek Fisher, which is inexcusable no matter how you want to spin it. Just as important, he never had a fully healthy roster again, highlighting the importance of a team being able to take advantage of opportunities when they present themselves. When I look at how Steve Kerr coached the Warriors in last season’s playoffs, I can’t help but wonder how many points the Thunder left on the board by sticking with Brooks for so long.
After going down 2-1 to the Memphis Grizzlies in the second round, Kerr made wholesale changes. He took Draymond Green off Zach Randolph, who had been killing his fellow Michigan State big men, and put him on Marc Gasol and he moved Harrison Barnes from the perimeter to Z-Bo. That left Andrew Bogut free to roam the paint, as Kerr figured he would live with Tony Allen taking open shots. The Grizzlies' offense became stuck in the mud and the Warriors won the next three games going away.
When the Cavs got out to a surprise 2-1 start in the NBA Finals, Kerr once again altered the dynamic of the series with line-up switch. He went small by replacing Bogut in the starting line-up with Andre Iguodala, which accomplished two key things. It allowed the Warriors to play in more space on offense and forced Cleveland to take one of their big men off the floor and it ensured that Iguodala guarded LeBron James for the full 48 minutes as opposed to letting him get easy points and free runs at the basket with Barnes on him.
Even for a team as accomplished as last season’s Warriors, the margin between winning and losing at the highest levels of the NBA are razor thin. Maybe Golden State would have pulled out the series against Memphis and Cleveland without changing anything and certainly no one would have blamed Kerr for sticking with what had worked all season. And maybe Oklahoma City was bound to lose to Dallas and Miami no matter what Brooks did. Either way, to maximize your chances of winning a seven-game series, your coach has to be able to identify the pivotal match-ups, make the right adjustments and alter the identity of your team on the fly.
That’s what I’ll be watching with Billy Donovan. No matter what he does with the Thunder’s offensive sets or defensive schemes, they are going to win an awful lot of games as long as they stay healthy and they will have a pretty high seed in the playoffs. From there, it’s going to come down to how they match-up with the other elite teams in the Western Conference. I didn’t follow Donovan’s career at Florida all that closely but the one thing I wonder with him is whether his two championship teams, with Al Horford, Joakim Noah and Corey Brewer, pretty much coached themselves in terms of getting through the NCAA Tournament gauntlet. When you have three NBA lottery picks upfront, you don’t need to make a lot of adjustments. I remember watching him get pretty badly out-coached by Kevin Ollie in the 2014 Final Four and I wonder.
If you break down a potential series between the Thunder and the Warriors, you can see a pretty clear pattern of initial adjustments.
PG: Westbrook vs. Curry
SG: Roberson vs. Thompson
SF: Durant vs. Barnes
PF: Ibaka vs. Green
C: Adams vs. Bogut
Golden State likes to play smaller than their opponents and they like to shrink the floor against guys who can’t shoot 3’s. They are going to try and expose the weak links in the opposing team, which means leaving Roberson open and daring Ibaka and Adams to create their own offense. Barnes isn’t a great perimeter defender and Thompson is going to have his hands full with Westbrook so they are going to want to have Iguodala on Durant as much as possible. Kerr can bench Bogut, put Green on Adams, Barnes on Ibaka and Iguodala on Durant. With so much speed and shooting on the floor for Golden State, it will be difficult for Oklahoma City to play all their big men.
What does Donovan do from there? He doesn’t have a lot of easy answers because the Thunder don’t have any complete players in their supporting cast. All of his available options have holes in their game. He could stay big with Enes Kanter but there’s no way Kanter can defend in space against the Warriors and they shouldn’t really need his offense in this series. Mitch McGary is a more active defender but he’s not a great shooter and Golden State would shrink the floor against him. Brooks might have gone with Nick Collison but he’s more moral support at this point.
The more likely option is for Oklahoma City to go small with Ibaka at the 5 and Durant at the 4, which is their max speed + spacing alignment. Then the question becomes which wing comes in the game and whether they can stick with a non-shooter like Roberson. Donovan can go with DJ Augustin, Kyle Singler, Dion Waiters, Anthony Morrow or Cameron Payne. Augustin’s lack of size would be a huge problem against the Warriors and I don’t trust Waiters. Maybe Payne is ready to play big minutes as a rookie but there’s no way to know at this point. I like Singler and Morrow for their combination of shooting, size and experience but Donovan will need to figure out how to get Singler playing like he did in Detroit and how to hide Morrow’s defense.
That’s where Durant and Westbrook’s growth as players would come in. When they faced Miami in 2012, LeBron and Wade took the lead on defense and allowed the Heat to get away with giving big minutes to shooting specialists like Mike Miller. To win a championship, Durant is going to have to be able to guard someone like Thompson and Westbrook is going to have to take the challenge of guarding a guy like Curry. That’s what would allow them to play with max spacing on the other end of the floor because then they could stash Singler on Barnes and Morrow on Iguodala. If those match-ups start going the other way, they might need to go back to Roberson. If he could improve his shot it would really improve the team, which is why I didn’t want them to give up on Perry Jones III so quickly. He’s 6’11, he can shoot 3’s and he can guard multiple positions and that becomes really important when playing the match-up game.
There’s so many compelling storylines in a possible Oklahoma City vs. Golden State series it’s hard to know where to begin. Three of the top five players in the NBA, all in the prime of their career, all playing in max space and all gunning for 30+ points on a nightly basis. The match-up of Westbrook and Curry, the two top PG’s in the NBA, both of whom are incredibly compelling to watch and who have incredibly unique styles. Elite athletes at every spot in the floor with just about every guy in each team’s rotation is in the prime of their career.
From a big picture perspective, there’s one team playing to be a dynasty against a team that should have been one. That’s before we even get into Durant’s free agency in 2016 and the very real possibility that he could sign with Golden State. If OKC stays together, that series could be the start of a rivalry that defines the NBA in the second half of the decade. If the Warriors can break up Durant and Westbrook, they could take out their biggest threat in the Western Conference in one blow.
There’s a lot of juicy rivalry stuff between the Warriors and the Clippers and the Rockets and the contrast in styles between the Warriors and the Spurs would be compelling as well. However, if I was Golden State, Oklahoma City would scare me more than any of the other teams out West and even a healthy Cleveland team. For as great a player as LeBron is, Durant’s a better all-around scorer and shooter and I don’t think Iguodala would be able to hold him in check as much. LeBron can’t just face-up and stroke jumpers over the top of smaller guys like they were chairs. KD, with his 7’4 wingspan, has that in his game.
If I was trying to sell basketball to someone who didn’t know anything about the sport, those are the two teams I would want out there. I’d follow the Thunder and the Warriors around the country like they were the Grateful Dead and start an exhibition series about the wonders of this great game. If Golden State doesn’t end up playing Oklahoma City in next season’s playoffs, I wouldn’t say they were lucky as much as basketball fans everywhere would be unlucky. In terms of things I’m looking forward to this season, this series is No. 1 on the list and it isn’t even close.