The Golden State Warriors fell to the Los Angeles Clippers in Game 7 last night and are heading home early after a tough, hard-fought 126-121 road loss. Stephen Curry played the part of superstar with 33 points, nine assists and five rebounds while Draymond Green had the game of his life with 24 points (9-of-13 shooting), seven boards, three assists, two steals and two blocks, but it wasn’t enough for a team many considered to be a Western Conference dark horse. Now that the 2013-14 season is in the books, we have to ask: what’s the verdict for a season that ended in a first round playoff exit?
Despite the temptation to declare the 2013-14 season a disappointment, there are plenty of indicators that it was anything but. I’ve argued at length that firing Mark Jackson would be a premature decision and ultimately, a mistake, and that’s kind of the crux of the issue here. If you think the Warriors failing to advance to the second round in the postseason is a colossal letdown, then letting Jackson go might be the best course of action. But when you take a look at the facts, and the Western Conference landscape in general, it’d be close-minded to think that way.
For one thing, we shouldn’t ignore the fact that the Warriors performed admirably in a seven-game series against a championship-caliber team. Not only do the Clippers have two of the best ten players in the NBA right now in Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, but they also have a head coach with championship experience, a deep bench and a bevy of long-range snipers that would make the KGB jealous. There’s no shame in losing to a team like that without home court advantage.
Then you have to consider that Mark Jackson was able to coach his team to a Game 7 without Andrew Bogut in the middle. Bogut’s offensive contributions are limited as far as scoring goes, but in addition to being the team’s best defensive player, the Aussie is also an excellent passer and sets screens that probably feel a little bit like being dropkicked by a kangaroo. Bogut trailed only DeMarcus Cousins in defensive rebounding percentage this season (29.7 percent) and posted a better defensive rating (96.3) than everyone in the league exceptJoakim Noah. The fact that the Warriors were able to somewhat keep Griffin and DeAndre Jordan in check for a full seven-game series without their defensive anchor is pretty impressive.
It’s also a testament to Golden State’s second round draft pick from 2012, Draymond Green, who may end up being a better pick than their first round pick from the same draft (Harrison Barnes). Green was absolutely sensational in this series, especially after Jackson moved him into the starting lineup. Green averaged 16 points, 10.7 rebounds, 2.3 steals and 1.0 blocks per game in his last three games and his defense on Griffin in the Warriors’ small ball lineups was the main reason the Dubs even had a shot in the series. His development alone is a sign this season wasn’t a waste, but possibly the start of something special, especially if Jackson gets to keep his job.
It’s not even just about this series; we simply can’t ignore how much the Western Conference improved in the past year. Critics calling for Jackson’s head will point to the Warriors finishing with the same seed as they did last year and a first round playoff exit despite adding defensive stalwart Andre Iguodala, but they’ll selectively overlook the fact that the Warriors won 51 games, four more than their win total from 2012-13.
They’ll also probably forget that the win percentage of the top nine teams in the conference, who were all neck-in-neck contenders for playoff spots, was .657. In 2012-13? That win percentage was only .632. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but for nine teams to improve their collective win percentage that much in an already loaded Western Conference is nothing to scoff at. Had the Warriors played in the Eastern Conference, they would’ve won 55 games and we’d be talking about them as a possible NBA Finals team.
Does it feel unnatural to say a season ending in a first round playoff loss was still a good season? Sure. But Steph Curry is only 26 years old. Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes and Draymond Green have only been in the league for a couple of seasons. Andre Iguodala has only just finished his first season with the Dubs. This is a young team that’s only going to get better, which is why keeping a player’s coach like Jackson around is so important. This isn’t like the 80s Chicago Bulls who had to upgrade from Doug Collins to Phil Jackson to finally break through and win their inevitable first championship. While the Warriors are a good team and Steph Curry remains the league’s most lovable heat check, they’re no championship-caliber team and Curry is no Michael Jordan. Although it’s not what Dubs fans want to hear, managing expectations for a good team, much like getting over a first round playoff exit, is all about having the right, realistic perspective.