NBA

NBA Sunday: Worrying About the Warriors

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The Golden State Warriors may be 31-6, but that doesn’t mean much considering that they’re a combined 0-5 against the San Antonio Spurs, Houston Rockets, Memphis Grizzlies and Cleveland Cavaliers.

Although it’s true that the playoffs are still several months away, some of the issues that have plagued the Warriors may not be solvable without addressing one of their key personnel issues. After all, the old adage holds true; you can’t teach size.

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Winning in the NBA requires many things—talent, capable coaching and good luck, to name a few. There may be differing opinions as it relates to whether or not being an elite defensive team is a requisite for the highest level of success, but at the very least, a championship caliber team needs to be able to get stops in the waning moments of games. What the Spurs, Rockets, Grizzlies and Cavaliers have each proven to have, though, are players that the Warriors appear to have difficulty stopping.

The Spurs and Warriors met on the first night of the regular season and considering the 129-100 final score by which the Warriors lost, one could easily surmise that the final result was an aberration. The Warriors won’t meet the Spurs again until May, but what was revealed in that game was that the Warriors defensive rotations and ability to simultaneously stop a driving swingman and defend against a big midrange shooter were questionable, at least. Kawhi Leonard had his way with Golden State, getting wherever he wanted on the perimeter while LaMarcus Aldridge used his size advantage to finish in the paint. That the team shot 12-for-24 from the three-point line was an obvious help.

Still, in the losses that the Warriors have suffered since then, there have been some alarming consistencies. On December 1, after succumbing to the Houston Rockets by the tune of a 132-127 overtime decision, James Harden had danced and pranced his way to a 29-point, 15-rebound, 13-assist triple-double and got 11 combined three-pointers from Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon and Sam Dekker.

What these losses revealed are two things: first, despite being a plus-defensive team, the Warriors do not have a defender on the roster that is capable of single-handedly shutting down the game’s elite wing players. Like in years past, the Warriors continue to employ trapping schemes and swift rotations to cover up for their lack of size. The problem, however, is that with more and more NBA teams coming to rely on floor spacing and three-point shooting, it’s becoming impossible for the Warriors to both guard the perimeter as a team and defend the paint as a team. As seen in their January 6 loss against the Grizzlies (where the Warriors blew a 24-point lead), the Dubs had absolutely no answer for the combination of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. Mike Conley’s 27 points and 12 assists obviously went a long way as well.

Again, it may still be relatively early in the season, but the Warriors have some issues that they need to resolve. The propensity of most people would be to look at their 31-6 record and dismiss any talk of an imminent demise, but doing so would be a tremendous mistake that could thwart the Warriors as they attempt to become a part of the first NBA Finals trilogy in history. Because to be frank, there’s no way the Cavaliers aren’t winning the East.

If the Dubs want to meet them there, though, they’ve got a few things to figure out.

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Any NBA general manager would have jumped at the opportunity to add a player like Kevin Durant. There were obvious chemistry concerns, just as there were when LeBron James and Dwayne Wade decided to join forces in Miami. That’s where good coaching comes in. A good coach is able to connect with his players and help them buy into a common goal. To his credit, Kerr seems to have found a happy medium.

However, signing Durant came at an obvious cost. Andrew Bogut, Festus Ezeli, Harrison Barnes and Marreese Speights were amongst the salary cap casualties. Bogut, Ezeli and Speights were each able to guard the interior by themselves, giving the other four players the ability to zone trap the basketball and otherwise use a strength in numbers approach to thwart opposing offenses. Even when the Warriors utilized their “Death Lineup,” which features Draymond Green as the center, depending on matchups and situations, Kerr would often go to one of the three aforementioned big men in key moments, even if only for a few minutes.

What was special about the small lineup that featured Green as the center was the uniqueness of it. During the 2014-15 championship season, opposing coaches had little experience battling and figuring out how to overcome it. At that time, Aldridge hadn’t joined the Spurs, the Grizzlies were unhealthy and Kevin Love was still trying to figure out how to fit in with the Cavaliers. In other words, the league was completely different back then. Things have changed, and the Warriors need to adjust. In short, Kerr needs to either find more rotation minutes for Zaza Pachulia or JaVale McGee or general manager Bob Myers needs to find a way to replace Bogut by finding a center who can defend, pass, rebound and finish.

For all that has been said of the Warriors blowing a 3-1 lead in the NBA Finals, not enough has been said of the fact that Bogut was missing in action. Injured during the third quarter of Game 5 (a game the Warriors would end up losing), the Warriors missed their starting center for the remainder of the Finals.

Said differently, including their Christmas Day choke job, the Warriors are 0-4 against the Cavaliers in their last four games—all played without Bogut. Meanwhile, entering Game 5 of the 2016 Finals, the Warriors had gone an impressive 8-1 against the Cavs in their nine prior meetings.

Again, at 31-6, it’s difficult to find much to complain about if you’re a fan of the Golden State Warriors, but their regular season dominance won’t mean much when the playoffs begin. Returning to the NBA Finals for a third consecutive year will likely require going through at least two of the Grizzlies, Spurs, Rockets and Los Angeles Clippers. In each their own right, those four teams have some of the common characteristics of teams that we have seen give the Warriors problems recently.

And then, if they’re lucky, the Cavaliers will probably be there waiting for them in the Finals.

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In acquiring Durant and cutting ties with some of the key defensive rotation players from last season’s team, the Warriors have effectively doubled down on the idea that they can outshoot and outscore other teams when they need to. For the most part, it has been a winning strategy—just not against the Spurs, Rockets, Grizzlies and Cavaliers.

Make no mistake about it. The Warriors have work to do. Their championship hopes depend on it.

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About Moke Hamilton

Moke Hamilton

Moke Hamilton is a Deputy Editor and Columnist for Basketball Insiders, covering the NBA and international basketball.

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