The Warriors are begging for scrutiny. Whether it’s the in-game swagger, the messy trade rumours, or the trendy “super villain” balloons, Oakland’s finest have earned the spotlight on them right now. They’re so attractive too, for us onlookers. With so many stars, so many enigmas on one team, Golden State will carry the league’s mantle throughout the season, whether you tire of them or not.
What about the basketball side of it, though? The Warriors offense is living up to its headliner billing. Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry are both averaging over 27 points per game. Durant is shooting 62% on two-pointers, a number so good I had to do a triple-take before including it. Klay Thompson is fresh off his first 30-point outing of the campaign. Things are running smoothly when the Warriors are in your end of the court.
Yet, for a team coming off 73 wins and the addition of Kevin Durant, there’s a desire to hold them to higher account. Things haven’t looked as easy as they were supposed to, especially during the 29-point shellacking by the Spurs on opening night. Since then, the Warriors have been winning enough — they’re now 8-2 headed into tonight’s matchup with the Raptors — but the success has come in fits and starts.
Golden State, for all their phenomenal offensive talent, have shown flaws early in wins and losses. This reassures us that they have competition for the title, namely the Cavaliers and Clippers, and shows that it’s impossible to make perfect predictions in the NBA. They’re not champions, not yet at least, and the blueprint to beat them is being printed as we speak.
Preseason murmurs have turned into genuine talking points. The Warriors aren’t running through teams like they were in 2015-16, and here are three major reasons why.
Lack of a quality big
In their first ten games, the Warriors have looked their weakest on the interior. When Death Lineup 2.0 isn’t out there (Curry-Thompson-Durant-Iguodala-Green), most of the minutes are going to Zaza Pachulia or David West at the five.
To generalize, this means Golden State lineups are either too small or too untalented to grab rebounds at a high rate. They’re getting creamed on the offensive glass so far, giving up 12.8 offensive boards per game and grabbing just 72.4% of available defensive rebounds. Only the Boston Celtics can statistically say they’re doing a worse job on the glass.
Against teams with tenacious rebounders, such as the Spurs and Thunder, this has led to helpless sequences like this.
These rebounding struggles are exacerbated by a lack of rim protection among Steve Kerr’s preferred centres: Pachulia, West, and Draymond Green. When these guys come to help on penetration, Golden State is left scrambling with even smaller players on cleanup duty. As a result, they’re giving up 47 points in the paint per game, which is seventh-worst in the league.
That said, the Warriors have come up with a solution in recent games: effort. They’ve offset a lack of rim protection with incredibly active hands on defense. Their 10.1 steals per game trail just the Atlanta Hawks, and with the handsy defense of Curry and Green leading the way, they’re slapping at the ball in passing lanes before teams even get a shot up.
With sequences like this, they’re forcing 15 turnovers a game and scoring 17.3 points per game off those cough-ups — both top ten numbers.
It’s worrisome for a team with championship aspirations to rely on active hands, though. In the Western Conference Finals and NBA Finals last year, the Warriors’ main weakness was their inability to keep tenacious rebounders off the glass. For the Thunder, Steven Adams averaged 3.1 offensive boards a game, up from his regular season average of 2.0. For the Cavaliers, Tristan Thompson grabbed an awesome 3.9 offensive boards while shooting 64% in the Finals.
In the playoffs, when the quality of opponent goes up, turnovers will be harder to come by. Just as an example, the Cavs averaged 13.6 turnovers in the regular season, and whittled that down to 12.5 in the playoffs. In response, the Warriors can get as handsy as they want, but they’ll still struggle to beat teams in the playoffs if they’re being outshot by ridiculous amounts.
Just look at opening night. By out-rebounding the Warriors 55 to 35, the Spurs ended up with 13 more shot attempts (98 to 85). That kind of discrepancy is how a non-super team stays in the ring with a super team.
Continuity is important
You also don’t need to be a super team to get along with each other, and friendship counts. Continuity is so important in the NBA, and the Warriors have hit a partial reset to start the season.
In order to free up the cap space to sign Durant, they had to bid sayonara to three vital pieces of their 2015-16 run: Harrison Barnes, Andrew Bogut, and Festus Ezeli.
This left the Warriors with six returning rotation players, and a whole lot of roster to fill with limited cap room. The result? Pachulia is your starting centre, with David West joining Shaun Livingston and Andre Iguodala as the first guys off the bench.
This has led to a brief interruption in the Warriors’ flow. On a team that thrives on pace and a zen-like understanding of where each body is going to be as movement speeds up, Pachulia and West are still catching up.
As a starting centre, Pachula isn’t quite the passer that Bogut was, unable to make plays like this one where the centre is the crux of ball movement, and not a distraction from it.
This issue, though, will probably diminish as the season progresses. In most NBA seasons, it’s the teams with continuity that prove surprisingly bulletproof early on. The 10-1 Clippers have proven that: by bringing back the Paul-Griffin-Jordan core and making small upgrades on the fringes, they’ve been able to dominate without missing a step.
The Warriors, meanwhile, still have all the time in the world to work in these new faces. Steve Kerr has never been one to hold back his stars in Curry, Thompson and Green, and it’s hard to expect anyone with less talent than Durant to jump in and play at their speed right from the get-go.
Under the microscope
The adjustments on the basketball court, though, could end up paling in comparison to those off the court.
If Kerr and the Warriors players weren’t ready for the media spotlight coming in, they certainly got a wakeup call before the season started. Before they even got on the floor, ESPN’s Ethan Strauss wrote a damning, popular Draymond Green article, detailing how the 26-year-old’s attitude could fester and implode the Warriors’ locker room. There were many stand-out anecdotes in the story, including Green’s emotional locker room breakdown and his continuing tug-of-war with Kerr over usage.
Green isn’t the only problem, though. With the aforementioned weaknesses popping up, there’s been trade rumours surrounding Klay Thompson. We always have to consider our sources on these things — sorry, Brian Scalabrine — but these calls aren’t happening in a vacuum. If Golden State management is even picking up the phone and breathing Klay’s name to other general managers, that in itself says a lot about the state of their roster.
The more teams take advantage of the Warriors’ weakness, the more scrutiny they’ll be under — and that talk is a problem in itself.
After giving up a 3-1 lead in the NBA Finals and birthing a thousand memes, there’s no questioning the perception around the league that the Warriors can be mentally broken. They were angry in June at Draymond risking a Game 5 suspension when he waved at LeBron James’ genitals. They were ready and willing to excuse Curry’s poor playoff shooting on injuries. Their new star in Durant has opened a shade war with former teammate Russell Westbrook.
All these subplots leak and become instant headlines. In doing this, the Warriors have become the Kanye West of the sports world — talented, sure, but never able to say the right thing.
It was these very same subplots that fueled the Warriors in 2015. Even after winning the title, they came out hungrier than anyone. They let headlines drive them to the best regular season in NBA history.
To put it bluntly, we haven’t seen that mental fortitude yet this year. Now, in the face of even more scrutiny, they’re having a harder time.
Up here in the middle of Canada, TSN (the softer ESPN, with 500% more Auston Matthews content) has started running a new commercial. It touts the network as the home for the Golden State Warriors, a team 940 miles removed from any Canadian border. It sells us on Curry, on Durant, on this team that’s so impossibly entertaining, it’s deserving of its own billing, above the rest of the NBA.
That’s what the Warriors are. They’re an All-Star team in one city, a manifestation of talent that will change how the league governs its cap, and how we benchmark super teams in the future.
When that’s the bar set for us, yeah, 8-2 doesn’t seem so hot. However much Golden State’s negatives have been offset by the sheer talent of Curry and Durant, digging deeper reveals fascinating trends, both statistical and not.
Whether those struggles are a question of continuity, a lack of big men, or the microscope focusing in, the cracks in the armour make Golden State all the more fascinating to watch. We all want flaws in our heroes, and the Warriors are shaping up to be dramatic in a way we haven’t seen in the modern NBA.