After last seasons’ somewhat unexpected hot streak that led to the 6th-seeded Golden State Warriors upsetting the 57-win, 3rd-seed Denver Nuggets and taking the 2nd-seeded and eventual Western Conference champion San Antonio Spurs to six games, the Warriors were seen as an up-and-coming team that was on the verge of legitimate title contention.
From the young, inexperienced, charismatic coach (Mark Jackson), to the scintillating, 25+-foot jumper sinking, budding superstar (Stephen Curry), to the new star acquisition (Andre Iguodala), the Warriors were a popular pick to do some serious postseason damage in 2013-14. In the eyes of the casual fan, Golden State seemed to set up quite nicely, even in the stacked Western Conference.
Well, things are touch-and-go in the Bay Area now that we’re on the other side of the All-Star Break, with the Warriors, Dallas Mavericks, and Phoenix Suns all smashed together at the bottom of the playoff picture. One game separates the trio of teams entering play on February 20th. Clearly, Coach Jackson and Co. had much higher designs on this season, and while they can clearly do some damage, you can bet they saw this going a bit differently.
In fact, if I had told you that the Warriors would be clinging to a playoff spot at this point in the season, you would have probably guessed that Stephen Curry and/or Andrew Bogut’s chronic injury issues would have cropped up and put a serious dent in the campaign. Or perhaps David Lee’s injury issues would have continued on a large scale. But to this point, Bogut has only missed six contests while Curry and Lee have sat out three apiece. Not too bad, all things considered.
So what’s the deal? Well, it’s really pretty simple to understand. Let’s break it down.
The superstar bit? Absolutely true. Curry is, without question, one of the top-five players in the NBA. (A discussion for another day, but here it is, in order: LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Chris Paul, Kevin Love, Stephen Curry.) He’s improving dramatically each and every year, and he’s had a spectacular 2013-14. As basketball fans, we are all incredibly fortunate that his serious ankle problems have not plagued him as he’s began his ascent into his prime.
So what comes after Curry? Well, this is where it gets a bit dicey. Andrew Bogut, David Lee, and Andre Iguodala are all borderline stars. I would argue that Bogut is one of the top-five defensive players in the entire NBA, and even a 30-year old Iguodala isn’t far off that pace. Lee is a sieve defensively, but provides infinitely more value on offense than either Bogut or Iguodala (give the Warriors credit for understanding this: Iguodala and Bogut each carry the lowest usage rates on the roster, at 13.2% and 13.1%, respectively).
Four out of five starters for the Warriors clearly range from easily above-average/borderline star to superstar. That’s really, really good. But then what?
Well, here come the issues. Klay Thompson rounds out the starting lineup, and he doesn’t add much other than an undeserved reputation. Sure, he’s a sharpshooter, shooting a consistent 40.7% for his career and 40.9% on the season. But despite his NBA body-type, pedigree, and the like, he simply hasn’t produced beyond the long-range shot. And the problem is, he hasn’t come to terms with that role quite yet.
Someday, he’ll accept a Kyle Korver-like role: spot-up in the offense and knock down wide open jumpers. But right now, he’s overextended playing small forward in the Warriors half-court offense. His defense is below-average, and the public perception surrounding Thompson on that end of the floor appears to suffer from a Wes Johnson-like view: he looks like a good defender, ergo, he must be a good defender. Spoiler alert: he isn’t. (Although he is better than Wes, without question.)
And the Warriors bench? Well, there isn’t much to discuss. Draymond Green has been the most consistently productive player off the pine for Golden State, but for whatever reason, he can’t seem to crack the 20-minute per game threshold for Mark Jackson, while Harrison Barnes continues to struggle and sit well below expectations and plays 29+ minutes per game. His offensive inefficiencies and inconsequential defensive performance has made him a generally negative-value player.
Mareese Speights is okay in spurts, and Jermaine O’Neal has only managed to play in 21 games. There is no scoring off the bench (Barnes and in-season acquisition Jordan Crawford don’t count; see: inefficiencies), and the defense struggles mightily if both Bogut and Iguodala are sitting.
But the issue with this team isn’t just personnel. Any team with such a solid top-four players should be more comfortably in the playoff picture, regardless of bench strength. There’s some blame to be placed on coaching, to be sure. All too often, Barnes plays in Iguodala’s stead, and the defense suffers mightily.
Because of the (literal) lack of a backup point guard to this point, he’s played Thompson at what basically amounts to point forward, which only further complicates matters for Thompson and accentuates his short-comings. The refusal to experiment with smaller lineups with Barnes playing at the ‘four’ is a bit baffling, as well. His numbers in the brief amount of time that he’s spent there are intriguing, and a Barnes-Green front court would surely has as much success as any lineup with Speights or O’Neal on the floor.
The Warriors did acquire Steve Blake before the trade deadline on Thursday, which will noticeably help their bench play. While Blake is overall a below-average player, having him spell Curry for 10-12 minutes per game is absolutely preferable to running Thompson at the point or giving those minutes to Jordan Crawford.
Let’s not write the Warriors off just yet, but I don’t think it’s too much to ask to be reasonable about where their expectations should lie. This is a borderline top-ten team in the NBA, and they’ll probably squeak into the Western Conference playoffs. And while they’re certainly a dangerous first round match-up, Jackson’s bunch is not a realistic contender. So let’s not be surprised when they don’t make as much noise in the playoffs as they did a year ago.