On Wednesday, the defending NBA champions downed the New Orleans Pelicans by the score of 147-140. It was a matchup in which the Warriors were able to extend their meager win streak to six games, which isn’t necessarily impressive for Golden State. We expect them to win, as they are the most talented collection of superstars we’ve seen since the 2012 Miami Heat. It is the manner in which they’ve won these past couple of games. Their wins have featured historic offensive performances that only the Warriors could achieve; they’ve relied on huge outings from their Big 3 and a barrage of three pointers to drown the opposition.
Against the Pelicans, the Warriors found themselves down by 16 with 5 minutes left in the third quarter. They were constantly getting beat by the pick and roll, allowing guard Jrue Holiday and forwards Anthony Davis, Julius Randle, and Nikola Mirotić to pour in buckets from all over the floor. The Warriors have struggled to slow down the opposing offenses, ranking 16th in defensive rating. In order for them to come back from the sizable deficit, it took an absolutely ridiculous performance from Curry. He went ballistic from three point range in the third, draining seven threes, willing the Warriors back into the game (he ended up finishing with 41 points, shooting 9 of 17 from behind the arc).
From that point on, Golden State relied on a balanced attack to steal the game from New Orleans. They received contributions from the entire unit, albeit from some unlikely sources, with double digits scoring performances coming from Draymond Green (17), Shaun Livingston (13), and Andre Iguodala (13). This well-rounded offensive effort, aided by a 30 point output from burner account All-Star Durant, was just the latest reminder of the prowess that this Warriors offense has.
The day before, the NBA had a front row seat to a marquee matchup between the two best teams in the Western Conference. It was meant to be a dogfight, a tough battle. But the Warriors had other plans, dismantling the Denver Nuggets in a brutal manner, bludgeoning them with a barrage of three pointers. In fact, they didn’t just win in a brutal manner: it was a massacre, a snuff film, a beatdown of epic proportions. They treated the #1 seed in the Western Conference (at the time) like a middle of the road DIII program.
The Warriors broke the NBA record for most points in the first quarter (51), dominating the Nuggets from the outset. By the end of the third, the Warriors had scored 112 points, leaving Denver behind in the dust. It was a masterful performance by the Big 3, as Curry put up 31 points, Durant added 27, and Thompson was right up there with Steph, posting 31 points as well. The trio dominated the game, scoring the same number of points as the Nuggets after the third quarter. They barely needed any assistance, as only one other player even got into the double digits (Quinn Cook with 11). The beatdown ended by a score of 142-111, brutally reminding the entire NBA of their ability to dominate.
It’s these performances which make you remember that Golden State has the highest ceiling of the league’s contenders. It’s a natural consequence of being able to have four All-Stars on the court at any time. When everything is going well for the Warriors, they are borderline unstoppable. They can and will shoot the lights out against any team; just ask the poor Chicago Bulls, who they shot 46.2 percent from three against, or the Pelicans, who they drained 24 three’s against while shooting above 50 percent. It has not been a matter of if they can be the best team in the NBA, it has been whether or not they can figure out the issues that have plagued them this season.
As mentioned before, as of a couple of days ago, the Warriors were not the #1 seed in the Western Conference. It wasn’t a fluke either: there have been multiple instances where the reigning champions have looked shaky. There have been bad losses to inferior teams (Lakers on Christmas Day, Pistons on 12/1), as well as resounding defeats against top teams in the NBA (multiple losses to the Raptors, 23 point loss to the Bucks). Confident Warriors fans are likely to chalk up these losses to “not caring about the regular season,” whatever that means. I understand not wanting to expend all of their energy throughout the 82 games, but that does not forgive the very real concerns that have appeared in a lot of their performances so far.
The Warriors offense, while always liable to explode in nuclear fashion, has often been held back by one of its most important pieces. Draymond Green, who has been marketed as one of the main distributors in the offense, has been nothing but a liability. He is putting up his lowest offensive plus/minus since the 2013-2014 season (-1.5), as well as the highest turnover percentage of his career, which is an estimate on the number of turnovers he commits per 100 plays. (27.1). When he has been on the floor and controlling the ball, the offense has been hampered. This dip in positive outcomes is partly due to his inability to shoot the ball. He has lost the respect of the entire NBA from behind the arc. A big part of the Warriors offense is being able to shoot the three, which causes the defense to pay attention to each player on the floor, treating them as a threat to score. Green has been abysmal from behind the arc, shooting a sleepy 27 percent from three point land. What’s worse is that he is being left open on the majority of his attempts from three. When a defender is 6+ feet away and he is shooting a three, he is 20/70, making him a non-factor from above the break. His failure to hit the three at a serviceable clip has allowed defenders to back off him, essentially taking him away as a threat on offense. The defense can then key in on the off-ball screens that the Warriors use to get Steph and Klay open, instead of worrying about Draymond contributing to the scoreboard.
It’s important to recognize that Green is not blameless in the Warriors’ issues. It should be noted that Klay Thompson has underperformed this season. I’m not ignoring the amazing performances that he has put up on occasion this season (the 52 points against the Bulls and the 43 points against the Knicks), but it’s fair to say that those have masked the struggles that he has had this season. Klay is shooting at a considerably worse clip than he has in recent years, only hitting 36.9 percent from three. In fact, it should even be said that Thompson has not show well this season. The average player would be thrilled to hit close to 37 percent from behind the arc, but he’s not the average player. He is the second “Splash brother,” a player that consistently has shot above 40 percent from three every season of his career.
It’s very simple: the offense is good when he hits his shots. It is a lot more difficult for defenses to cover three superstars who hit their shots than it is to cover two. When Thompson shoots the lights out, that makes the floor look like the Pacific Ocean, giving Curry and Durant more room to operate. The capabilities that he holds are well known, and it is imperative that he begins to improve his shooting. Through the first six games in January, he his now shooting 46 percent from three. When he is on, there is almost nothing that opponents can do to quell the onslaught of three offensive superstars.
It is very easy to place the source of the Warriors’ shortcomings at the feet of the players. When it comes down to it, they are the ones playing the game. However, Steve Kerr has to continue to put them in the correct position to succeed, and so far this season, he has struggled with creating successful rotations. At times, Kerr has been trying to get too cute with his lineup changes. Around the middle of December, he began to stagger the minutes of Steph and Durant, inserting Curry into the second unit to start the second and fourth quarters. What followed was a disruption of Curry’s rhythm and the neutering of one of the most potent scoring duos in NBA history.
This all stemmed from him trying to figure out what Steph’s “role” is in the rotation. What it translated to was overcomplicating and overthinking the Warriors formula that had succeeded the past couple of years: have the two of the best three players in the world on the court at the same time. The combined brilliance of Curry and Durant is often able offset any failures that come from the second unit. It seems as though Kerr has realized that playing the duo together serves the Warriors best. It has caused the offense to fire on all cylinders, just in time for the return of All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins.
The return of Boogie is the biggest question mark remaining in the Warriors’ quest for a three-peat. The general fear around the NBA is that Golden State will somehow be able to seamlessly add their fifth All-Star into rotation, like Thanos picking up another infinity stone. But, it should be recognized that he is returning from a devastating Achilles injury, one that has had profound effect on former NBA players’ production. It will be difficult for Cousins to merge into the lightning fast pace of the Warriors’ offense, boasting the tenth fastest pace in the league (101.68). In addition to the movement concerns, Cousins is used to being the first or second option in the offense. Moving into the Warriors lineup, he is barely the fourth choice in a unit where there aren’t enough shots to go around. It is difficult to predict how he will adjust to not getting the normal rate of usage that he is accustomed to.
The issues in the Bay Area are real and pertinent. Golden State has at times looked exposed, even lost this season. This is not even to mention the injuries that have plagued them this season. It’s not to to say that they will not figure out their problems by the time playoffs come. We all know what it looks like when they fix their issues: just ask their last few opponents. Draymond was hitting threes last game, Klay was wet from the arc, and Steph and Durant were pouring in buckets in unison. With this run that they are on, it is a simple reminder that their ceiling is as high as any other team in NBA history. But, as we have seen multiple times this season, there is a floor to their potential, and it is ugly.