I’m always surprised about the divide among fans and pundits regarding how good the Golden State Warriors are; some think that they are already a serious title threat while others view them just as a entertaining up-and-down team that shoots a lot of threes who are still at least a piece or some internal growth away.
The truth is probably somewhere in between.
Mark Jackson did a great job with the Warriors. Despite the, let’s say, mild disagreements between Jackson and the front office, Jackson really got his players to buy in and compete for him, the value of which can’t be measured by any statistic. Even with Andrew Bogut out with an injury and no rim protection against the Clippers in the first round (and the Clippers really are a team you’d want to have a rim protector against), they pushed that war of a series to a hard-fought seventh game.
The most impressive feat Jackson accomplished with the Warriors was building a championship caliber defense. During his three seasons as head coach the Warriors went from ranking 26th in defensive efficiency to being third last season (from 106 points per 100 possessions to 99.9), better than perennial defensive powerhouses like the San Antonio Spurs and the Oklahoma City Thunder. Obviously personnel has something to do with it but being third in defensive rating is no joke. Jackson is never going to get enough credit for what he accomplished for the Warriors on that end.
Golden State has a fantastic roster. It all starts with Stephen Curry; he’s an insanely valuable offensive player whose presence on the court changes every possession he is a part of. When he runs a pick and roll, you have to aggressively trap every single time; the regular ways of hedging or containing a pick and roll are useless against Curry. A step late and you are done. He will destroy you.
Curry shot over 41 percent on pick and roll threes last season, which is nuts and literally breaks the game. Even if you trap him, Andrew Bogut and David Lee thrive as the roll man and Curry has become an expert in finding them on the roll. Both Bogut and Lee are fantastic passers (passing bigs are always underrated, a-la Boris Diaw and the Spurs) and will make the right play from the resulting 4-on-3 situation after Curry is trapped. Lee obliterated the Clips in the playoffs on rolls like these:
Here the Clippers rotated well to the roll man but if you’re forced to do that you’re already at a horrible disadvantage and the Warriors have so much passing and creativity on the floor they will pick you apart.
Golden State has some questions regarding front line depth and what Harrison Barnes will look like but all in all they have a great group of guys and situation for Steve Kerr to take over as head coach next season.
Rejiggering the Offense
For all the things Mark Jackson did well, where he failed was building a great offense to complement the defense. All of it might not be his fault; he had a young team and there’s always a sort of resource allocation issue when you decide what to focus on. Putting more effort into building a defense is generally pretty smart since it’s much easier to win a title with a so-so offense and a top notch defense than the reverse.
The problem is that the Warriors ranked only 12th in offensive efficiency over the 2013-14 season at 105.6 points per 100 possessions. While that’s not horrible, Golden State has so much talent and offensive prowess that you would think that this team could just waltz into a top-five offense.
Jackson did implement some creative play design in pick and rolls and fun stuff in how Curry and Thompson would come off of screens. My personal favorites were these awesome Bogut lob passes where he would fake setting a screen and cut to the basket for a dunk.
While none of that’s really rocket science it’s definitely genuinely good action.
Where the Warriors got into trouble was when their initial action failed; good teams just have a way of defending your first, second and third options meaning that you have to be disciplined enough to be able get into more sets when you don’t succeed at first. The Spurs are the perfect example of this, that offense never stops and there’s always a next action that starts immediately after the previous one ends. Someone always drives, shoots, passes, screens or does something to keep the motion going.
You have to be ruthlessly precise and disciplined in your offensive execution if you want to get good shots in 24 seconds against elite defenses in the NBA. The angle of screens, timing in running your routes, spacing correctly; If you want to be like the Spurs on offense, these are the little things that have to go correctly.
The Warriors didn’t have that ruthless execution last year, which is why they ranked with the second most isolation possessions (10.7 percent of the time) in the entire NBA last season, per Synergy Sports, only behind the Knicks, who are seemingly allergic to ball movement. Isolations as a whole are low percentage plays. Too often after the initial setup failed, the offense was relegated to just jacking up shots in isolations or lazy pick and rolls with no movement by Curry, Thompson or even Jordan Crawford (yikes!).
It looked like there was a lack of restraint and purpose in the offense and Curry was sometimes allowed to just jack up whatever shot he liked. While that’s not always horrible since Curry is special and can make a lot of those shots, if you play in the Western Conference the margin of error is so minuscule you can’t “skip” executing on possessions. The difference between winning and losing is too small to do that. This is also the reason why the Warriors found themselves in early deficits; you have to show enough control not to believe that you can just shoot your way out of any situation.
This is a bit of a nit-pick but another interesting note about the offense is that the Warriors ranked 24th in free throws made this season. Generally it’s really difficult to have an elite offense doing so (the exception here being the Spurs). The list of top 100 in free throws made per game has only three members of the Warriors, and one of them is Jermaine O’Neal (95th). That’s not great.
Those stats don’t really reflect the aggressiveness of of the Warriors players, but are more a function of the players they have. Curry does tend to opt for tough finishes high off the glass a tad too frequently, and Thompson and Iggy could get to the line a bit more. For Iggy it’s about being more aggressive and being put into better cutting situations (he stood in the corner a bit much for my liking last season). For Thompson, the natural progression of his off the dribble game should improve his free throw rate.
The Role of Steve Kerr and New Coaches
The Warriors want to become a serious title threat next season and there’s no reason to expect Kerr won’t be up for to the challenge. The fact that he’s learned under the tutelage of Gregg Popovich and Phil Jackson helps him for sure, but is probably overrated. You never know if someone will be a good coach or not before they actually start coaching, and you can obviously improve as a coach over the years. Doc Rivers wasn’t always the top notch coach he is now, but had to go through a maturation process which included learning how to build a high quality defensive system when Tom Thibodeau arrived in Boston.
Just a lot of the understanding about X’s and O’s, building team concepts and finally implementing them on both offense and defense is really difficult, and it’s not always the flashy names that do it the best. Both Steve Clifford for the Charlotte Bobcats and Mike Budenholzer for the Atlanta Hawks have built wonderful creative systems on offense and defense that their respective teams fit in well with and will continue to develop in.
Dave Joerger in Memphis actually pushed his offense and some of the flex action a bit too far at the beginning of the season but adapted and simplified some things as the year went along(a wonderful piece of coaching from last year). The flip side of that would be a more flashy hire like Mike Brown, who just got fired again, in Cleveland. He has been a head coach in the NBA for a long time and yet his offense continues to be unimaginative at best, no matter where he goes.
With that being said, there are no red flags for Steve Kerr. From everything we know about Kerr and listening to him on TNT broadcast, Kerr seems like a really smart basketball mind. He’s also a fan of using analytics, which is always a plus (The discussion about what an “analytics” person is and what a “basketball” guy is pretty dumb to me. There’s no such thing as analytics, just more information and then deciding how you value it and what to do with it. Whether it be in the study of numbers or film, you should always look for any edge you can get.).
What you want out of your coach is leadership and a good open mind that will be creative in how to take advantage of your players’ skill sets to the greatest degree possible. In addition, the ability to to get players to execute with effort and precision in whatever you run is usually even more important than deciding what your actual schemes are.
On an episode of The Lowe Post, R.C Buford (the Spurs GM) said this when talking about the Spurs’ open atmosphere where everyone is allowed to throw around ideas and contribute:
“That’s every meeting we walk into.. that’s anytime we’re together. And it’s interns all the way through Pop. He wants everyone to participate”
Steve Kerr comes from that culture which is why, to me at least, he seems like just the man for the Warriors head coaching job.
It seems like an over simplification but being top-seven in both offense and defense (only the Spurs and Thunder hit that mark last year) is basically a massive sign on your head saying: “If we don’t win a title our season is a failure”. The Warriors are already a great defensive team, and with just a few fixes it’s just too easy to imagine them being a top notch offense also.
Watch out for the Warriors next season, they are closer to winning it all than you would think.
*Stats per NBA.com