The Warriors Wow
- Updated: January 22, 2015
“[The Warriors] ain’t even that good,” declared James Harden, the NBA’s leading scorer a few days ago. That was before the Warriors swept the season series with Houston and handed the Rockets their third loss when Harden scores 30+ points (the Warriors are responsible for two of those losses). Maybe James “Mean Beard” Harden is right, poor grammar notwithstanding. So it’s okay Warriors fans, if you’re still holding your breath about this season. It is hard to imagine any of you actually holding your breath considering the roars of the sell-out crowds at Oracle Arena (102 consecutive sell-outs and counting), but metaphorically, I feel you. At the NBA season’s halfway point, the Warriors are the best team in the league. That’s fun to write, fun to hear on ESPN and radio, fun to say, and fun to read. However, given that the chronological midpoint of the season is a standard time for reflection and prediction, let us do just that.
Even a Mark Jackson detractor, such as me, could not have predicted the team would transition so smoothly to Steve Kerr. From a pure fan standpoint, I imagined Kerr would be more businesslike, less player-friendly, and more likely to draw a play on the sideline than Pastor Jackson. All of these have been true and, surprisingly, all of these have been to the benefit of the team. I was worried Mark Jackson had made the team uncoachable with his “trickle-down inspiration” theory, but clearly that is not the case. Draymond Green, Marreese Speights, Harrison Barnes, Andrew Bogut, André Igoudala, and David Lee all suffered from Mark Jackson’s mismanagement of playing time and lack of offensive game planning. That same group has flourished under Steve Kerr’s watch into consistently awesome players. I could fill two pages lauding Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, but that would be duplicitous of the dozen other Warrior articles which fill your newsfeed every day. Suffice to say Curry has rounded-out his game, even if his 3-point shooting is no longer the carnival freak side-show quality that it was two seasons ago. Thompson is playing with the confidence one gains from playing for Team USA and realizing you’re one of the best two guards the United States has to offer. The team has benefitted from the introductions of Shaun Livingston, Justin Holliday, and too-soon-to-tell James McAdoo (yes he’s related to Bob McAdoo, but just a second-cousin). The Warriors have a mostly complete rotation; maybe packaging Rush and Barbosa for a big man or a backup-backup point guard will trim the edges, but that’s just being picky.
While the team’s offense outscores opponents at will, it’s the team’s defense that truly puts them in the Championship conversation. Before Wednesday’s game, the Warriors were outscoring opponents at a clip of 10.9 points per game, which is good for best since the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls. John Hollinger of ESPN uses a mathematical formula to measure defensive efficiency, represented by a “points per game”-like number. Most teams are separated from each other by fractions of a point, yet the Warriors defense is a full 2.4 points per game better than the next best defense. From sixth-best San Antonio (99.8) to second-best Houston (99.1), the numbers don’t change much until you see the Warriors (96.7). Mark Jackson will try to take credit for the defense (he deserves some), but unlike previous seasons, the Warriors are committed to TEAM DEFENSE. Thompson, Green, and Igoudala are the keys to that defense. Having Bogut in the back blocking shots like Saratogan Kerri Walsh spiking volleyballs helps, but those three make it possible for the Warriors to pull seamless defensive switches. This is really important in the day of the one-on-one NBA. Even with a dearth of true isolations (remember when the Bulls would stand on the sideline and let Michael do his thing?), the NBA is still geared towards one-on-one matchups. In previous years, teams would go after a Warriors’ perceived defensive inabilities (see Lee and Curry), but that is something they simply cannot do this year. As an opponent may beat one Warrior off a screen, he is likely to meet an even better defender on the switch. Case in point: people say Curry is playing better defense this season, but I don’t think his defense is that much better. His steals have gone up, that’s a statistical fact, but it’s not like he became Scottie Pippen during the off season. Curry is just playing smarter defense and has more energy because he’s not getting beat up running around every single screen. He has confidence that Klay, André, Draymond, or maybe even Justin Holliday, will pick up his man and defend them as well or better than he would. Once the switch is made, it would stand to reason that Curry would be exposed guarding anyone besides an opposing point guard. Teams have yet to do this, because the aforementioned team defense clamps down too hard, too quickly, too effectively. It’s beautiful to watch if you can train your eyes to follow the players and not the ball.
Another improvement from Jackson to Kerr has been player development via proper utilization. Even if you attribute Klay’s surge to his summer on Team USA, almost every other player on the team is playing better than they did last season. Draymond Green, Harrison Barnes, and Marreese Speights often looked lost last season, unable to sustain their brilliance due to inconsistent playing time and playing situations. David Lee has accepted a bench role, a move that is much easier to swallow when it comes from one of the game’s all-time bench warmers: Steve Kerr. The same can be said for André Igoudala. Another point of player development is the emergence of Justin Holliday. The Warriors have been acting like the Oakland Athletics the past few seasons and finding gem after gem in the NBA Development league. Whether it’s Kent Bazemore, Jeremy Lin, Justin Holliday, or James McAdoo, the Santa Cruz Warriors do a great job developing players who fit the Golden State scheme and team chemistry and are able to make an immediate, meaningful impact.
Don’t stop holding your breath yet Warrior fans, there are still a few unanswered questions about this Warriors team. They do have six games left against the combined terror of San Antonio, Memphis, and Portland. Memphis and Portland have been playing excellent ball this year and will likely continue. Portland doesn’t scare me on the court, but they do scare me in the standings (they’re 31-11, 2nd in the West). Memphis (29-12, 3rd) is scary and has plenty of big men to wear down Bogut, Festus Ezeli (what a great first name), and the rest. But the truly scary team, like shit-your-pants scary, is the San Antonio Spurs. Their season may be unremarkable, but they straight OWN the Warriors. The Warriors are 8-53 in their last 61 games against the BootHeels. Don’t think I missed that part when the Warriors hired Steve Kerr, the man who would be Gregg Popovich. We’ll get an early look at what may come on February 20th when the Spurs come back to Oakland for game 2 of the season series. You can say (and I will) that the Warriors had yet to blossom when they played the Spurs on Veteran’s Day. That excuse won’t apply for meeting #2, a game the Warriors have to win on their home court. Even more important is the all elusive win at San Antonio. Steve Kerr’s only regular season chance will come on April 5th at the Alamodome (yeah it’s one word, crazy Texas). In fact, that April 5th game in San Antonio is the start of a five-game stretch during which the Warriors will play at San Antonio and at home against Portland (4/9) and Memphis (4/13). Those three games will have a huge impact on the Warriors postseason confidence. And just in case you weren’t somewhat apprehensive, given the Spurs season, its highly likely they’ll be the 7th or 8th seed, which means if the Warriors maintain, they would have to face them in the first or second round. Ugh.
“[Harden’s] right. We’re nowhere near where we’re going to be end of this year,” Draymond Green responded after Wednesday night’s game. “We’re going to have to continue to get better and stay healthy. And then we’ll look back at this point of this season and say, ‘Man, we weren’t that good.’ So, [Harden is] right.” Scary, scary, scary. This season is so spectacular, yet the Warriors are still trying to improve. They know it all comes down to San Antonio and the playoffs. If the Warriors cannot come away with a couple of regular season wins against the ailing Spurs, the playoffs will be pointless and likely fruitless. That doesn’t mean I will stop enjoying the thorough thrashing of the league that this regular season has been, it just means I’m still holding my breath… between outbursts of emotional joy from the nosebleeds.