Advanced statistics, maybe even more than the gleam of multiple championship rings and Larry O’Brien trophies, suggest that Stephen Curry and Draymond Green are among the NBA’s most dominant pair of teammates ever.
The Warriors won three championships from 2014-15 to 2018-19. They played in the NBA Finals every June, and combined to win 322 regular season games – by far the most in league history over any five-year span. Even that all-time level of success still doesn’t quite portray just how close Golden State was to winning a mind-bending five straight titles. Luck always affects the championship picture, but the Warriors – with Green’s one-game suspension midway through the 2016 Finals and separate injuries to Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson last spring – were almost the last team standing for a half-decade running regardless.
Curry and Green, certainly before Durant arrived and even for the past three seasons, were the driving forces behind Golden State’s dynasty. Everything the Warriors did on both ends stemmed from the singular influence provided by the most imminently-threatening shooter of all time and a defensive chameleon the likes of which the league had never seen. Steve Kerr deserves immense credit for the implementation and execution of his team’s ballyhooed two-way concepts, but he’s the first to acknowledge that its unique style of play was built on the backs of Curry and Green.
The same will hold true in 2019-20. The Warriors, in fact, are poised to ask more of Curry and Green this season than ever, a development the numbers indicate should lead to sustained success despite a re-made, underwhelming roster that won’t include Thompson until March at the absolute earliest, if he comes back at all.
Curry and Green posted a +15.2 net rating last season, the league’s third-best mark behind duos that included each of them and Durant. They had the 12th-best net rating in 2017-18, when Curry missed 31 games with an ankle injury, and ranked top-eight in that regard during each of the previous three seasons. No other tandem in basketball boasts a higher average net rating since 2014-15 than Curry and Green’s +16.5.
Obviously, Curry and Green don’t account for that unparalleled level of on-court success all by themselves. Duos including Durant, Thompson, Andre Iguodala, and even Zaza Pachulia and Andrew Bogut, plus one of Curry or Green, also count among the league’s best in recent seasons. The Warriors’ dominance, unsurprisingly, rippled throughout the roster.
The problem is that it won’t in 2019-20. Golden State doesn’t have superlative high-end talent anymore, at least until Thompson is back to full-strength, and more importantly, sorely lacks the “Strength In Numbers” that defined its first title team and propelled them to 73 wins.
Curry, Green and D’Angelo Russell are the only consensus starter-level players on the roster. We’re high on Kevon Looney, especially now that he’s planning to shoot threes on a consistent basis, but there’s understandable debate about his value. The Warriors are hopeful Willie Cauley-Stein, abandoned by the Sacramento Kings, will thrive in a more defined role. Glenn Robinson III is the Warriors’ fifth starter, but it’s unclear, entering his sixth season with his fifth different team, what abject positive he brings to the floor. It’s remiss for a team to count on the availability of Alec Burks. Golden State took a training-camp flier on Marquese Chriss, and now he’s a meaningful member of the rotation. Jordan Poole has impressed with his scoring instincts and Eric Paschall has solid defensive tools, but expecting any rookie to meaningfully contribute, especially those drafted outside the lottery, is likely to end in disappointment.
No other team with legitimate playoff aspirations has a less proven, to put it politely, supporting cast than the Warriors. Complicating matters is that Kerr no longer has the personnel needed to employ his longtime systems on both sides of the ball. Golden State has little roster continuity and, without continuity of its scheme, too, has little more to fall back on other than the presence of Curry and Green.
Offensively, that equation will almost undoubtedly still add up to a top-10 unit. Curry makes the game that much easier for his teammates and, unleashed again as his team’s clear alpha dog, could put up big enough numbers to become just the ninth player ever to win a third MVP. Another dynamic ball-screen operator like Russell will make the game easier on Curry, too, and at least somewhat narrow the inevitable gulf between the Warriors’ effectiveness when the latter is on the court compared to when he’s on the bench.
It’s the other end of the floor that could doom Golden State. Green was playing more than 20 pounds overweight for most of last season, but it’s still instructive to remember that the Warriors finished 11th in defensive rating, tied for their worst showing in the Kerr era. Without switch-proof defenders like Durant, Thompson, Iguodala, Shaun Livingston and Jordan Bell, just what type of defense will Kerr and highly-respected coordinator Ron Adams implement?
That question may not be as pertinent to the Warriors’ ability to get stops as to how Green functions in his team’s new system. There’s no help defender in basketball smarter or more impactful than Green; he routinely makes offenses react to him rather than the other way around. But much of his value is derived from Green’s ability to guard all five players on the floor in isolation situations. With Golden State likely to play a more traditional brand of defense, far lighter on switching until late in the shot clock, just how large can Green’s influence loom?
Another factor that lowers the Warriors’ floor: age. Curry is already 31, and Green turns 30 in March. Both have played into June each of the last five seasons, and Golden State has long prioritized the big picture relating to rest. Curry and Green should be due for a decrease in playing time at this stage of their careers. Instead, even if they don’t see additional minutes, every possession during the regular season will prove a bit more onerous than those in recent years, as Curry and Green are tasked with almost single-handedly propping up the Warriors on offense and defense, respectively.
Of course, Golden State, whose flexibility is limited by the hard cap, has re-adjusted expectations for 2019-20. It’s no longer championship or bust in the Bay, and won’t be even if Thompson is able to return in time for a postseason run.
But just because the stakes have changed doesn’t mean missing the playoffs in perhaps the most competitive Western Conference ever will be an acceptable outcome. The deeper you dig into the Warriors’ potential strengths and weaknesses, the clearer it becomes that Curry and Green, despite so many years of historic success, may not be enough to take them there.
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