The Golden State Warriors were the darlings of the first two playoff rounds in 2013 before finally succumbing to the San Antonio Spurs in six games. After a blockbuster offseason brought swingman Andre Iguodala from the vanquished Denver Nuggets, the Warriors looked poised to move into the league’s elite. At times the team has looked that way, especially when their dominating starting unit plays together. Other times, the team has played .500 ball. As the season moves towards the All-Star break, here are six things you need to know about the Golden State Warriors.
David Lee’s Defense Isn’t So Bad Anymore
The 2013 Sloan Sports Analytics Conference saw Lee became the poster child for terrible interior defense courtesy of research by Grantland’s Kirk Goldsberry, which showed that teams made an inordinate number of shots when Lee was defending near the rim. Shortly thereafter, Lee essentially missed the Warriors’ surprise 2013 playoff run after tearing a hip flexor in Game 1 against the Denver Nuggets. After this success sans Lee, many posited that the Warriors would be better off playing a four-out style with a three-point shooter like Harrison Barnes or Draymond Green at power forward.
Lee apparently took the criticism of his defense to heart, losing five percent body fat in the offseason and getting into better cardiovascular shape. This was sorely needed; Lee’s biggest problem in recent years had been sustaining multiple efforts and getting into the right position on defense. His hard work has paid off, as the Warriors allow only 98.9 points per 100 possessions with him on the court.* This year, Lee has allowed 49.1 percent shooting while defending the rim, a massive decrease from last year’s 61 percent as noted by Goldsberry. Indeed, that number ranks a very respectable 21st in the league out of 61 players who defend four or more shots per game at the rim. Subjectively, his pick and roll defense and rotations have improved mightily over past years. Lee has even displayed stout post defense of late, forcing LaMarcus Aldridge into a miserable 2-14 shooting night and even doing well against the powerful Blake Griffin during the times they were matched up on Thursday.
*In fairness, most of the credit for this solid number should go to defensive stalwarts Andre Iguodala and Andrew Bogut, with whom Lee shares most of his minutes. But at the very least it can be said that Lee is not preventing the Warriors from defending well, which could not be said in past years.
Lee will never possess the imposing physical gifts of the best interior defenders. He remains a liability at times due to his below average weight, length, and two foot jumping ability compared to many power forwards. He is still prone to getting bludgeoned in the post at times, his defensive rebounding has been below average,* and he has blocked 16 shots all year. These problems are compounded when he is forced to play center with some of Golden State’s bench units, or when coach Mark Jackson has benched Andrew Bogut late in games.
*Especially at the end of games or when he has to box out centers on free throws.
But despite these warts, Lee’s failings are now largely the result of his physical limitations instead of a lack of effort, awareness or conditioning. In 2013-14, Lee competes as hard as he needs to and is now close to maximizing his limited defensive potential.
The Warriors Are Most Likely to Be the Sixth Seed
Predicting a Warriors playoff berth does not exactly go against the grain of conventional wisdom, but after a recent spate of home losses to the Nuggets, Pacers, Timberwolves and Wizards took the shine off a franchise-best East Coast road trip it suddenly appeared as if their assumed playoff position might be vulnerable. But recent events have bolstered the Dubs’ chances to a near certainty. The Warriors righted the ship with back to back wins against the Clippers and Jazz. But perhaps more importantly, the surging Grizzlies (Mike Conley) and Wolves (Nikola Pekovic) suffered ankle injuries to one of their top two players that should have them both out a week and potentially longer. Meanwhile, Dallas does not appear to have the personnel on defense to make a significant move. All of the aforementioned competition is at least 2 games back in the standings.
The Warriors are in seventh position in the conference, in a virtual tie with Phoenix for sixth. Mark Jackson’s squad has a better point differential than the Suns, and Eric Bledsoe should still be out for a while. The Warriors seem likely to pass the Suns, pending any potential trades by Phoenix.
At 3.5 games behind the Clippers for the fourth seed, Golden State is unlikely to seize homecourt advantage in the first round. But getting at least the sixth seed is paramount for the Warriors. This would allow them to avoid a first round matchup as a heavy underdog against likely one and two seeds Oklahoma City and San Antonio. Instead, the likely opponent would be Portland or the Clippers, both of which the Warriors would stand a decent chance of beating. In fact, with little difference between those two potential opponents (at least at this juncture), the sixth seed might serve the Warriors better than the fifth seed, currently held by the Rockets. This would allow them to avoid a matchup against first-seeded Oklahoma City until the conference finals. As proven in last year’s playoffs before Bogut and Stephen Curry were injured, the Warriors matchup reasonably well with projected second seed San Antonio, though they would still be an underdog in a series against a healthy Spurs team.
The Warriors Need Klay Thompson to Diversify His Game
The 11th overall pick in the 2011 draft is a great three-point shooter and solid defender. Those two things alone make him a valuable player. The problem is that those two things are alone—he does virtually nothing else well. The Washington State product is 30th among shooting guards in PER due to his lack of rebounds, assists, steals and free throws. The Warriors rank a disappointing 16th offensively by points per possession, a very poor result for a team featuring the Mark Jackson-christened best shooting backcourt in NBA history.
Part of the problem is how one-dimensional Thompson is on offense. Passing is a particularly neglected aspect of his game. Thompson is one of the worst and least frequent passers among the league’s guards. His assists per 36 minutes ranks 50th among the 54 guards who have qualified for the minutes leaderboard and have a usage rate above the league average of 20 percent. Moreover, he averages a mere 20 passes per game in his 38 minutes per game. How bad is that? Among the 116 players at all positions who play 30 minutes per game or more, Thompson ranks 116th in passes per game.
This is not to imply that Thompson is selfish or takes an inordinate number of bad shots. His role is to shoot the ball. At 41 percent from deep, pretty much any shot he takes out there is a good one. And while his True Shooting Percentage is disappointingly near the league’s average due to his propensity to take long twos and inability to get to the line,* he is not mindlessly gunning away. But, the only way Thompson helps the Warriors’ offense is by shooting from the outside. That certainly has value outside of the box score statistics, as his man must remain glued to him at all times. Unfortunately, his offensive impact is limited because he is not a passing threat when he does try to create on his own, whether off a close out or postups.
*Thompson might be well-served to watch tape of guys like Reggie Miller and Richard Hamilton, two players who got to the line at solid rates despite their jumpshot-based games. However, emulating them may not be possible since Thompson lacks the athleticism of even those players.
As a third year player, Thompson will be eligible for an extension to his rookie contract this offseason. The negotiations will be fascinating, as there are many conflicting indicators on his value.
The Warriors Cannot Create Without Curry
A season-long problem for the Dubs has been their putrid offense without Curry on the floor. With him, they score 108.8 points/100; without him that drops to 89.7. The former rate would nearly lead the league, the latter is far below the worst team in the league. Why are they so bad without Curry? He is their only real offensive creator. He ranks in the 84th percentile in points per possession out of the pick and roll. Thompson ranks second on the team at the 40th percentile, but as discussed he cannot create for others. The rest of their perimeter players, namely Harrison Barnes (22nd percentile), Andre Iguodala (6th) and Jordan Crawford (3rd), are even worse.* Until the Warriors can find someone else to create offense out of basketball’s most basic play, they will continue to struggle without Curry on the floor.
*Crawford was brought in to upgrade the shot creation on the second unit, and he has—departed point guard Toney Douglas was only in the 2nd percentile out of the pick and roll.
Andre Iguodala is Essential to the Defense
Andrew Bogut has gotten the most buzz as the key to the Warriors’ defense, and his rim protection and defensive rebounding have been fantastic in his first healthy season in several years. Nonetheless, Andre Iguodala has the most impressive on/off court numbers on that end. With Iguodala in the game, the Warriors allow a mere 95.8 points/100, which would rank second in the league. Without him, the D falls to below league average at 103.7 points/100. Subjectively, Iguodala has not appeared to be the individual stopper he once was, especially upon returning from his hamstring injury. However, his team defense is still outstanding, especially against teams without a dominant wing. He was all over the floor in recent home victories when the Dubs shut down the elite Portland and Clippers offenses.
Get Used to This Team
For better or for worse, this Warriors starting five will likely be in town for quite a while. Curry is in the first year of a 4-year, $44 million contract extension that may be the best value non-rookie contract in the league. Bogut just signed a 3-year, $36 million extension that kicks in next season. Iguodala is in the first year of a 4-year, $48 million deal he signed as a free agent over the summer. And Lee still has 2 years and $30.5 million remaining after this year on the 6-year, $79.5 million contract signed in the summer of 2010. Meanwhile, Thompson is under team control for at least another year, and the Warriors can match any offer to him as a restricted free agent in the summer of 2015 if they fail to agree on an extension this offseason. Finally, the Warriors gave up 2014 and 2017 first round picks to Utah to help clear salary for the Iguodala signing, so they are prohibited from trading any first rounders aside from their 2019 selection.
In my recent interview with him, General Manager Bob Myers intimated that the Warriors still have flexibility to add to the roster. I must respectfully disagree. The Warriors really have no major trade chips left aside from Thompson and Harrison Barnes, who has fallen short of the high expectations many (though not your writer) had for him in his second year. Dealing Thompson would leave the Warriors with a giant hole at shooting guard, so that seems unlikely. That would leave a potential trade of Barnes’ perceived upside for a legitimate third big man or a more established wing scorer. It is unclear how much value Barnes still has around the league, but one would imagine the Warriors will simply hold onto him and hope he can evolve into the fourth scorer this team desperately needs right now.
With no salary cap space, few tradeable assets, no 2014 first-rounder and big long-term contracts for their key players, this is likely the Warriors’ team for at least the next two seasons.
Is Kyrie Irving’s Second Opinion a Cause for Concern?
Shane Rhodes breaks down the tough situation the Celtics are in with Kyrie Irving.
The Boston Celtics are in one awful predicament.
With a third of the roster out due to injury, Brad Stevens has been forced into the impossible task of maintaining Boston’s championship aspirations with some subpar talent; while they have performed admirably, the likes of Abdel Nader and Semi Ojeleye wouldn’t see the same run they are currently on with most contenders. Gordon Hayward has missed the entire season, save a few minutes on opening night. Kyrie Irving, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart and Daniel Theis are all currently out, some for the year and others not. Key contributors Al Horford, Marcus Morris and others have missed time as well.
It couldn’t get worse, could it?
Well, it may just have. Reports surfaced Tuesday that Irving, who had missed time this season — including the last four games — with left knee soreness, is seeking a second opinion after a lack of progress in his recovery.
— Tony Massarotti (@TonyMassarotti) March 20, 2018
With lack of progress on his ailing left knee, Celtics All-Star Kyrie Irving plans to travel for a second opinion later this week, league sources tell Yahoo.
— Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania) March 20, 2018
In the wake of the Isaiah Thomas fiasco and his ailing hip last Summer, an injury that lingered deep into this season, the Celtics will likely be more than cautious with Irving, whom they gave up a haul (the rights to the 2018 Brooklyn Nets first round pick, most notably), to acquire. But one can only wonder if these persistent issues — Irving’s left knee was surgically repaired after he sustained a fractured kneecap in 2015, and he reportedly threatened the Cleveland Cavaliers with surgery this offseason before his trade to Boston — are a cause for concern for general manager Danny Ainge and the Celtics.
The situation presents the Celtics with a quandary, to say the least.
Knee injuries aren’t exactly a death-knell, but fans need not look far for to see the devastating effect they can have on NBA players (e.g. Derrick Rose). They can snowball and, over time, even the best players will break down. Regardless of the severity, Irving’s knee issue presents problems both now and in the future.
The problems now are obvious: the Celtics, already down Gordon Hayward, cannot afford to lose Irving if they are at all interested in making a Finals run this season. Boston struggles mightily on the offensive end when Irving and his 24.4 points, 3.8 rebounds and 5.1 assists aren’t on the court. In a playoff atmosphere, especially, the team would sorely miss his scoring prowess.
Looking ahead, if Irving is dealing with these problems at the age of 25, what could the future hold for the All-Star guard? Knee issues, most lower body issues in general, are often of the chronic variety, and constant maintenance can wear on people, both mentally and physically.
Just a season separated from a likely super-max payday, will the Celtics want to commit big-money long-term to potentially damaged goods?
If there is a silver lining in it all, it is the fact that 20-year-old rookie Jayson Tatum must now shoulder the scoring load, something that should go a long way in building on the potential that made him the No. 3 overall pick last June. And, should Irving miss the remainder of this season, exposure to the fires of the playoffs should only temper the Celtics’ young roster. In the event that Irving’s absence isn’t prolonged, time like this could only serve to strengthen the roster around him.
Still, Ainge brought Irving to Boston for a reason: he was meant to lead the Celtics into battle, alongside Gordon Hayward and Al Horford, in their quest for a title. Obviously, he can’t do that from the bench. Without Irving at 100 percent, the Celtics are not a championship caliber squad, healthy Gordon Hayward or not. That fact alone will make Irving’s situation one to monitor going forward and for the foreseeable future.
NBA Daily: Houston Has It All
Deciphering whether Houston is a contender or pretender is tough, but they’re making it easy.
It is very easy to get caught up in the NBA regular-season hyperbole. The past is littered with a plethora of NBA teams that looked like world-beaters in the regular season only to pull up lame in the playoffs and emerge as a bunch of pretenders.
So when it comes to the Houston Rockets, it’s no surprise many pundits and fans of the game fall heavily on one side or the other. The 2017-18 Rockets are a polarizing squad in that respect. On one side of the fence, you have the folks that are struggling to get behind Houston until they see how the franchise performs in the playoffs under the brightest of lights and on the biggest of stages. On the other, folks that place a great deal of weight on the 82-game regular season and the ability to sustain consistency throughout the marathon.
As always, the truth is somewhere in the middle.
At the top of Houston’s lineup are two future Hall of Famers in James Harden and Chris Paul. The latter was a perennial star in his heyday and is still a top-tier talent in the league. Harden, on the other hand, is closing in on his first MVP award and had serious cases for winning the honors in prior seasons, as well. Both Harden and Paul are criticized for their past playoff failures.
Paul entered the league during the 2006 season and has been dogged by the ever looming fact that he’s never reached a Conference Finals. Harden has been to the NBA Finals but has been dogged for multiple playoff missteps and shaky performances that remain etched in everyone’s memory. But something about this season’s Rockets team (57-14) seems different as the duo closes in on 60 wins.
One way to measure the true greatness of a NBA team is evaluating how many ways the roster can win playing a variety of styles. From the eyeball test, Houston checks the boxes in this category. The team sustains leads during blowouts. They have an offense built to erase large deficits quickly. The team possesses the talent to employ an array of versatile lineups to withstand top heat from opposing teams. Head coach Mike D’Antoni has shown the ability to adjust on the fly during certain situations. Houston is seemingly comprised of a bunch of guys that are selfless and ready to sacrifice at this stage of their respective careers.
Time will tell on all of those aforementioned aspects, but the Rockets are built to compete and win now. On paper at least, the team fits the criteria.
Paul has a chance to go down as a top five point guard in NBA history .His court vision is unquestioned and his big men always seem to end up being in the top five of field goal percentage each season (i.e. Tyson Chandler, DeAndre Jordan and now Clint Capela). In years past, the Rockets faltered down the stretch of games because the entire system ran through Harden. But this year’s club has the luxury of taking some of the on-ball expectation away from Harden and by giving the rock to Paul who naturally thrives in this role the squad doesn’t take a step back on the floor.
This is going to be big for Houston which has seen Harden gassed late in playoff games from carrying the entire load.
Small Ball Ready
Presumably standing between the Rockets and an appearance in the NBA Finals are the Golden State Warriors. The Warriors turned the NBA upside down with their free-flowing offense, long range accuracy and the successful ability to push the pace while playing small ball.
At the height of Golden State’s success they employed the “death lineup” which places All-Star forward Draymond Green at center. In different variations this gives the Warriors five guys on the court who can dribble, drive, pass and shoot. Versatility is important and if you look at this year’s Rockets team they have the ability to match the death lineup with their own version. Veteran forward P.J. Tucker would be able to guard Green in this scenario at center or Houston could just rely on the athleticism of Capela.
When it comes to defense, the Rockets will never be confused for the bad boy Detroit Pistons of yesteryear, however, the team has an assortment of individually capable defenders on the roster. Paul has all defensive team honors hanging on his mantle during his time in the league. Small forward Trevor Ariza made his bones in the league by placing an emphasis on defense. Before Capela emerged as a double-digit scorer, he was relied on as a defensive spark off the bench. Luc Mbah a Moute has a reputation and consistent track record of being a very willing defender.
Shooting, Versatility and Experience
All of this success, leads to the variation D’Antoni can put out onto the floor. The versatility to go with a small ball lineup or a lineup heavily skewed toward defenders is a luxury amenity. Houston also features five guys with 125 or more three-pointers made this season with Harden, Eric Gordon, Ariza, Paul and Ryan Anderson leading the way. A sixth, Tucker, should join the +100 club before season’s end. Veteran Gerald Green has only played 30 games with the franchise but has already knocked down 76 attempts from distance.
Experience is key as well. This year’s Rockets team features only one player under 25, receiving 25 or more minutes per night in the rotation. Look at NBA history, title winning teams are full of veterans not second or third year players.
Again, the Rockets will never be confused with the late 80s or early 90s Pistons but the team has more than a few guys that don’t shy away from contact or physical play. The collection of Nene, Tucker, Green and Ariza have had more than their share of shoving matches when things get heated on the floor.
With the start of the NBA playoffs (April 14) under a month away, the Rockets continue to build momentum toward a title run. Will Harden and Paul’s playoff demons from the past emerge or is their first true shot at greatness with a complete team? These questions will soon be answered.
PODCAST: Breaking Down The Western Conference Playoff Race
Basketball Insiders Deputy Editor Jesse Blancarte and Writer James Blancarte break down the Western Conference playoff race and check in on the Los Angeles Clippers and Los Angeles Lakers.