NBA

Golden State Warriors 2016-17 Season Preview

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There’s no mystery or range of expectations whatsoever for the Golden State Warriors this year. A team already in the conversation for best of all time before a few crazy weeks in May and June went out and added one of the best players of a generation squarely in his prime, instantly transforming the letdown of history slipping through their fingers into a whirlwind of excitement at fielding the most dominant on-paper squad ever assembled.

Even if title-or-bust is the obvious mantra surrounding this team, the path toward glory will have plenty of intrigue along the way. Which lessons, if any, should be drawn from last year’s eventual shortcomings? How will a combination of offensive talent never before seen on a single roster coalesce and adjust to the Xs and Os of a virtual All-Star team? Will defense or depth in certain areas be a realistic problem minus a couple key contributors, or will the overall skill level simply overwhelm these kinds of concerns?

With all this and more, Basketball Insiders previews the 2016-17 Golden State Warriors.

FIVE GUYS THINK

The Warriors are super good. What else really needs to be said? They’re basically an All-Star team set to play against a field of proles all season long. Kevin Durant was a huge acquisition, Stephen Curry is so in the zone and Klay Thompson is the best shooting guard in the league. Draymond Green can guard all five positions at an elite level, the bench is still stacked and Steve Kerr is a great coach. We expect big things, but that’s only because big things seem inevitable. Anything can happen (just ask the 2003-2004 L.A. Lakers), but “anything” also can include a championship.

1st Place – Pacific Division

– Joel Brigham

Adversity builds character. The heart of a champion is often determined by how well they respond to challenges that would break normal spirits. The Warriors were within one victory of capping off a historic 73-win regular season with a repeat championship, but the club dropped three straight games in the Finals and watched the Cavaliers celebrate on their own court. In many ways that setback was the first true test for the Warriors who had begun to run roughshod on the league with little resistance. The club was already built to make another trip to the Finals in 2017, but the addition of All-Star Kevin Durant essentially makes this a lock – barring major injury. See you in June.

1st Place – Pacific Division

– Lang Greene

The Golden State Warriors were already elite and then they added Kevin Durant. And this isn’t the same as when LeBron James and Chris Bosh joined Dwyane Wade in Miami. The Warriors already have really good chemistry and Durant is going to fill in the starting position that Harrison Barnes held. The dynamic will have to change on offense somewhat since Durant and Stephen Curry both need the ball in their hands, so it will be up to Warriors head coach Steve Kerr to adjust accordingly. Another scary part about this team is that Durant flashed defensive versatility in the postseason that reminds us of Draymond Green. If Durant can continue defending at that level, this Warriors team will basically be unstoppable. It should be noted that some key contributors from the last few seasons are now gone, but the Warriors did a nice job of plugging in the holes that were left after adding Durant. This team is stacked and should make it back to the NBA Finals this season.

1st Place – Pacific Division

– Jesse Blancarte

Let’s not kid ourselves into thinking that the Warriors aren’t the favorites to win their division, their conference and the 2017 NBA Finals. What I will say, though, is that it’s not every day that you see a team that wins 73 games and take a 3-1 series lead in the NBA Finals radically redesign itself. Of course, adding Kevin Durant to the already big three of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green seems worth it, but let’s take a moment to recognize that Harrison Barnes, Andrew Bogut, Festus Ezeli, Leandro Barbosa, Brandon Rush and Marreese Speights are all gone. Those six guys were among their top 11 rotation players last season, and they have effectively been replaced by Durant, Zaza Pachulia, David West, Phil Pressey and (perhaps) JaVale McGee. I obviously like the Warriors to win the Pacific Division, but for me, there is enough intrigue with the new core in Oakland to keep me watching all season long. I doubt Steve Kerr even entertains the idea of allowing his team to chase down 70 wins again, because losing the Finals last year probably changed the perspective of everyone associated with the team. We’ll spend a lot of time talking about these guys this coming season, so I’ll end this here and just state the obvious: they’re the clear favorite.

1st Place – Pacific Division

– Moke Hamilton

Anything less than a championship will obviously be a disappointment for this Warriors squad. I know a lot of NBA fans were upset about the Kevin Durant addition because they believe the 2016-17 season will now be pretty anticlimactic. However, as we saw in last year’s NBA Finals, nothing is guaranteed in the NBA. Injuries, chemistry issues and more can change the landscape of the NBA in an instant. We’ll see if the Warriors can live up to the ridiculously high expectations. My guess is that they will – mainly because their star-studded squad is full of unselfish players who are versatile and complement each other well. But titles aren’t won in the offseason, so we’ll have to see how they come together.

1st Place – Pacific Division

– Alex Kennedy

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Kevin Durant

Honestly, how is one supposed to support a single candidate here for a team that now boasts two of the five most devastating offensive players in the game? There can be absolutely zero argument against either Kevin Durant or Steph Curry here, but the nod goes to KD primarily for this reason: He’s slightly more matchup-proof.

Don’t fly off the handle, Chef Curry fans – no one’s doubting Steph’s ability to bend physics and break defenses on a night-in, night-out basis. He’d have won this category going away over Durant and any other player on earth last season.

But while some of it was surely due to lingering injury issues and other context, we saw smart defenses poke tiny holes in his preferred methods of dominance in the postseason. In particular, opponents began stationing a wing player on Draymond Green and negating the deadly Curry-Green pick-and-roll by switching it between two guys capable of hanging with Steph off the dribble for a possession at a time. Not everyone has the defensive talent or discipline to pull this off – and Curry at his full powers can often abuse these switches himself – but the theme certainly looked primed to become a blueprint for those with the right personnel.

In comes Durant, and out goes that theory.

Want to switch the Curry-Durant pick-and-roll? Fine with them. Go right ahead and switch a smaller guy onto Durant, who shot an unreal 61 percent in the post last year and was the league’s most efficient per-possession volume player on the block, per Synergy Sports. The opponent is clogging the block and denying the entry? Cool, either they’ll rotate to another knockdown shooter for an open three or simply give Durant the ball in isolation, where he was also a top-10 efficiency player last year among volume guys (in a less spacious offense and more commonly against guys closer to his own size, at that).

None of this even gets into KD’s numerous other prodigious skills, most of which fit like a glove within what was already the league’s most dominant offense. With Durant’s ability to rip up the one meager trump card the league had finally managed to conjure against them, this group could be primed to set records.

Top Defensive Player: Draymond Green

Ah, much easier. Green is already among the most versatile elite defenders in the history of the game – seriously, how many other guys ever have been capable of locking down all five positions on the floor individually, from running with jittery guards to protecting the rim against giants and LeBron James? The list of players who have done so at a consistently elite level while also playing a large role on the other end of the floor is probably limited to one hand, maybe even with a couple fingers to spare. Green will have even more defensive responsibility after the departure of guys like Andrew Bogut and Festus Ezeli in the frontcourt, but he’s proven more than up to the task.

Top Playmaker: Steph Curry

There’s an under-the-radar case to be made here for Green, a fantastic passer who actually averaged more nightly “assist opportunities” (passes which either became an assist or would have if the shooting player had made his resulting shot) than Curry last season, per SportVU data. On a deeper level, though, even Draymond himself would likely admit that many of these were simply a trickle-down result of the way Steph’s magic forces teams to contort themselves. Many of those four-on-three chances where Green is free to rumble down the lane and take his pick of open shooters evaporate with any other ball-handler in the world as his partner.

Curry makes those plays possible while also maintaining his own strong passing numbers. His percentage of passes which led to a positive team event (assists, free-throw assists or secondary “hockey” assists) – a Holy Grail-type category topped consistently by consensus elite creators like Chris Paul, James Harden and Russell Westbrook – fell in the league’s top 10 last season, decimals behind LeBron James and Ricky Rubio. Curry remains the distributing engine that powers this offensive machine, and could even be in for an uptick with another elite offensive player in the lineup next to him.

Top Clutch Player: Steph Curry

This is another category likely to end up in a split of some sort between Curry, Durant and the general sort of team scheme that the Warriors have generally done well at sticking with during rare clutch moments the last couple seasons. Curry took about a third of the team’s regular season shot attempts during these minutes last year, with Durant right in the same neighborhood with OKC, albeit in a far different team context. Curry was more efficient than KD, particularly from deep (he shot 38.1 percent from three compared to 32.4 percent for Durant in the clutch), and who can forget that legendary game-winner on Durant’s own floor?

The Unheralded Player: Andre Iguodala

Iguodala should have won the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year award, but his remarkable importance to his team continued to fly under the radar in favor of more traditional metrics. He doesn’t post flashy box score stats or make many highlight-reel plays, instead contributing in exactly the sort of ways that go overlooked. He was a constant presence in crunch time lineups last season (appearing in nearly 90 percent of all such minutes while healthy), and his on court-off court impact on variations of Golden State’s “Death Lineup” was comparable to or even perhaps greater than any other member besides Curry himself. He’s the most important defensive player outside Green and a vital locker room presence, and shouldn’t be looked past as part of the heart of this team.

Top New Addition: Kevin Durant

Yeah, the contrarian pick might be a bit difficult to sell here. We covered much of Durant’s potential impact, but a couple other summer signings will be meaningful as well.

Zaza Pachulia took a huge pay cut to chase a ring, and should take over for Andrew Bogut in the starting center spot. He’s not the passer, defender or overall basketball savant Bogut is, but he’s a more durable body who brings consistent effort and performance. David West brings another veteran voice to the locker room as a solid backup who can play both big positions, though it’s fair to wonder how much he has left in the tank at 36 years old. Neither are stars, but with so much skill at the top of the roster there’s no need – these guys will provide solid complementary skills and depth.

– Ben Dowsett

WHO WE LIKE

  1. Klay Thompson

Oh yeah, him. It’s a little insane that a truly legitimate case can be made for the second-best shooter in the entire NBA as just the fourth-most important piece of the equation for his team, but here we are.

Concerns about Thompson’s usage and involvement are at least partially valid, but questions about his role aren’t: It’s the same. He’ll use wildly underrated conditioning (almost certainly best on the team and among the tops in the league) to continuously rocket around picks and open up space with his gravity offensively, then spend most of nearly every game locking down the opponent’s top guard defensively. Thompson is prone to the sort of shooting barrages even Curry can’t match, and we should see even more of these with Durant around to draw attention.

If the number of mouths to feed in the offense becomes a problem, the Warriors will cross that bridge when they come to it. For now, they’ll simply plug even more talent into his lineups and turn Klay loose with the exact same mandate as last season. A not-so-bold prediction: He leads the NBA in three-point percentage among volume shooters next season.

  1. Steve Kerr

Whether you do or don’t believe Kerr had his share of correctable errors at various points last season, there’s little doubt the year will serve as a vital learning experience. Even the best of us make our share of mistakes, and failure is necessary before success can truly be attained for most in the NBA. Kerr has had the summer to reflect on his bigger picture (when he’s not fist-pumping at the team’s offseason acquisitions at least), and should have more perspective for a group almost certain to chase some more history. He’s already proven himself times over as one of the most adaptable and player-friendly coaches in the league, with strong tactical chops and a willingness to critique himself. It’s easy to forget he’s only entering his third NBA season at the helm – he’s still likely improving as a coach.

  1. Shaun Livingston

Livingston has put a catastrophic injury well behind him in becoming a key bench cog for the Warriors, one with the skills to prop up an offense for a few minutes a game (his midrange post game felt unstoppable for long stretches last season) plus the size at the point to maintain the Dubs’ switch-everything defensive identity. His size makes him capable of fitting in alongside starter-heavy units when there’s a need, and he may have been the single Warrior most capable of exploiting a one-on-one size mismatch in a pinch until Durant came along. He’ll continue to do important work behind the scenes.

  1. David West

West brings experience, savvy and guile as the team’s new elder statesman, and more importantly might save Kerr from his maddening tendency to trot Anderson Varejao out at strange times. He’s physical enough to help make up for a general lack of size at the big positions, and could be a great mentor for someone like Green.

– Ben Dowsett

SALARY CAP 101

Once Kevin Durant agreed to join the Warriors, the team renounced the rights to free agents Harrison Barnes, Festus Ezeli, Leandro Barbosa and others, then traded Andrew Bogut to the Dallas Mavericks. Once they had enough room under the NBA’s $94.1 million salary cap, they signed Durant to a two-year, $54.3 million contract. Durant can opt out next season, and either re-sign with Non-Bird Rights at $31.8 million — or push Golden State to use cap room to pay him a maximum salary that projects to be $33.5 million with a $102 million projected salary cap. The former makes a lot more sense for the team, and is probably a necessary sacrifice for Durant.

Meanwhile, the team has 14 guaranteed salaries, with five players vying for one spot (Elliot Williams, JaVale McGee, Phil Pressey, Cameron Jones and Elgin Cook). The team has until the end of October to pick up Kevon Looney’s rookie-scale option. Next summer, the Warriors can get to about $60 million in cap space, but that number assumes Stephen Curry, Andre Iguodala and Durant move on as free agents. Naturally, the Warriors would seriously prefer to not drop under next year’s cap.

– Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

Barring catastrophe, the Warriors will contend with some of the most dominant offenses in league history. They’re the most talented group of shooters ever assembled by a wide margin, and Durant brings them one of the league’s most efficient one-on-one options for the brief stretches where gravity within their team scheme isn’t enough. Expect them to once again be near the league lead in transition chances and efficiency, plus overall pace – no one is more comfortable trading quick possessions. They could be in for some amount of defensive slippage, but it’s possible this still remains a strength with a number of talented, like-sized guys in the rotation and Green at the helm. Green was also the linchpin for strong team rebounding figures, which should likely continue this year.

– Ben Dowsett

WEAKNESSES

Depth concerns are probably overstated among those simply trying to find something negative about this team, but Green could be the exception here: Where guys like Durant, Curry and Thompson at least have some of the same overlapping skills and gravity, no one else on this roster does what Draymond does or even comes close. Any prolonged absence or slippage from Green is the only semi-realistic regular season scenario that really casts doubt on the team’s depth, but that scenario could be scarier than most assume. Age and durability are concerns for basically the entire frontcourt outside of Green. It’s also fair to wonder whether the likes of Pachulia and West are as capable on either end of the ball as Bogut and Festus Ezeli, particularly defensively, and whether the season-long trickle-down might be enough to drop the Warriors out of the league’s top 10 for defensive efficiency.

– Ben Dowsett

THE BURNING QUESTION

Do the Warriors win a ring or not?

Every team has an abundance of smaller queries that add up to this big one, but few others in recent memory have been in a situation where that all-important question is so singularly prominent. This is arguably the strongest collection of talent to ever share a court in this league, and anything but the ultimate prize will, right or wrong, be considered a failure. What the Warriors do during the regular season is about as close to irrelevant as it gets – their entire year will be sculpted with that couple-month stretch from April to June solely in mind. Expectations are sky-high, but so is this group’s confidence and, of course, their skill level. Only the hardware will represent a successful season this time around.

– Ben Dowsett

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