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Six Things to Know About the Golden State Warriors

Basketball Insiders’ series six things you need to know continues with the Golden State Warriors.

Nate Duncan

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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.

Nate Duncan is an NBA analyst and attorney. He writes regular features for Basketball Insiders and chats weekly at 11 Eastern on Tuesdays.

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NBA Daily: Jonas Valanciunas Spearheading Grizzlies’ Growth

Jaren Jackson Jr. made his debut last night after missing the first 56 games of the season. Still, the Memphis Grizzlies have stockpiled wins without their second-best player, thanks in large part to the strong play of Jonas Valanciunas.

Chad Smith

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With less than a month remaining in the regular season, the playoff races are heating up. The new play-in tournament will allow more teams into the thick of things as the season winds down. One team looking to make a return to postseason play is the Memphis Grizzlies, led by dynamic point guard Ja Morant. Memphis currently owns the eighth spot in the Western Conference, thanks to excellent team basketball.

Morant may be the face of the franchise, but he has had a minor sophomore slump this season. His shooting percentages are down across the board, which include 74 percent from the free-throw line and 27 percent from behind the three-point line. Like most everyone in the league this year, he has missed a handful of games that have prevented him from getting into the type of rhythm that he would like.

Memphis is the true definition of the word “team” as they have collected wins with a well-balanced attack. They don’t have one or two superstar players that carry them on a nightly basis. They don’t rely on that which either, which makes things difficult for the opponent as they prepare their defensive strategies. The Grizzlies are difficult to game plan for, which is a credit to their unselfish play.

Contributions have come from everyone on the roster, from top to bottom. Kyle Anderson has been a perfect fit in Memphis. Dillon Brooks is seemingly unstoppable when he gets going. Brandon Clarke continues to impress and Grayson Allen has been a revelation for this team. It doesn’t stop there either. De’Anthony Melton, Desmond Bane and Xavier Tillman have been excellent additions by the front office and the continued development of Tyus Jones has been crucial to lessening the load on Morant.

The real surprise has come at the center position. Memphis was supposed to be a two-headed monster with the young duo of Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. The fourth-overall pick in the 2018 draft finally made his season debut last night against the Los Angeles Clippers, which makes what Memphis is doing even more impressive.

With Jackson sidelined for essentially the entire season, the only other center on the roster is Jonas Valanciunas. Memphis was concerned about having the veteran big man shoulder too much of the load, but he has delivered on a nightly basis. The nine-year vet is having a career year in Memphis. Unfortunately, the team announced on Sunday that he would miss some time due to a concussion.

Not only has the Lithuanian produced some incredible numbers so far this season, but he has also been a key cog to the Grizzlies’ winning ways. Valanciunas has a PER (Player Efficiency Rating) of 24.13 which ranks 18th in the league among all players. That is a remarkable accomplishment for a center in today’s game.

The rebounding numbers alone are quite impressive. Valanciunas has essentially led the team in that department each game and has done it by a wide margin. He currently ranks third in the league in rebounds, behind only Clint Capela and Rudy Gobert.

Valanciunas has 40 double-doubles this season in his 50 games played. As of last week, the only players with more double-doubles this season were MVP front-runner Nikola Jokic and triple-double machine Russell Westbrook.

Valanciunas has been getting better as the season progresses. He averaged 15.0 rebounds per game in March. His numbers in April are a reflection of how well Memphis has been playing. He is averaging 20.6 points, 12.5 rebounds and 1.0 blocks per game this month. He is shooting 68 percent from the floor, 46 percent from three-point range and 86.2 percent from the free-throw line. His best game this month came against the Indiana Pacers when he poured in 34 points and grabbed 22 rebounds.

Before Valanciunas went out with a concussion, the Grizzlies had won seven of their last ten games. They are now 0-2 without him but the losses weren’t bad by any stretch of the imagination. They came up short in an overtime game against a red-hot New York Knicks team, then lost to the Dallas Mavericks on a ridiculous floating three-pointer by Luka Doncic. On Monday they fell two points short in a double-overtime thriller in Denver against the Nuggets. Without JV on the floor, Jokic erupted with 47 points, 15 rebounds and 8 assists.

Sharing the ball has been a constant theme for this young Memphis team. Only the Golden State Warriors average more assists per game as a team. The Grizzlies also lead the league in steals per game, which is a testament to their effort on the defensive end of the floor.

Taylor Jenkins deserves much of the credit in Memphis, though he doesn’t want the spotlight. The second-year head coach has the Grizzlies playing elite defense despite being one of the faster teams in terms of pace of play. Their defensive rating ranks seventh in the league while also boasting the 11th best net rating. The road ahead doesn’t get much easier for them though.

Memphis is in the middle of a brutal seven-game road trip. It started well for them, with wins over the Chicago Bulls and Milwaukee Bucks. After the double-overtime loss in Denver, they beat the Clippers in Jackson’s season debut and now head to Portland for two games against the Trail Blazers. Their road trip wraps up with another visit to Denver before facing Portland for the third time in six days.

The last time Memphis made the playoffs was during the 2016-17 season. Along with Mike Conley and Marc Gasol, that roster included players like Tony Allen, Vince Carter, Chandler Parsons, Brandan Wright and Zach Randolph. This Grizzlies team may not have the same level of veterans, but their talent runs extremely deep.

Adding Jackson back into the fold should give Memphis a potent punch heading into the postseason. With Valanciunas now missing games, Jackson should have the opportunity to shake off the rust. While they aren’t heading to the NBA Finals this season, this is a scary Grizzlies team that can derail the hopes of a championship contender in the West.

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NBA Daily: Is Stephen Curry the MVP?

Given the prolific season Stephen Curry is having, despite the Golden State Warriors being ninth in the Western Conference, does his impact make him the Most Valuable Player in the NBA this season?

Bobby Krivitsky

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In the aftermath of Klay Thompson suffering an Achilles tear that ended his season before it began, no one would have blamed Stephen Curry for prioritizing his preservation through the 2020-21 campaign.

Instead, despite the Golden State Warriors lacking the necessary talent to become a title contender, Curry’s doing everything in his power to get them into the playoffs.

The two-time league MVP is on pace to win the scoring title for the second time in his career. In a recent road loss against the Boston Celtics, Curry put up 47 points, becoming the second player in Warriors history to score 30 or more points in 10-straight games, joining Wilt Chamberlain. 

In his last 11 contests, Curry’s averaging 40 points on shooting splits that aren’t supposed to be possible at the game’s highest level. Even though he’s hoisting 14.3 attempts from beyond the arc per game, he’s making them at a 49.7 percent clip. He’s taking 23.4 shots from the field but still seeing the ball go through the hoop 54.1 percent of the time.

The context of how Curry’s producing those prodigious numbers makes them even more impressive. He is the only scoring threat on Golden State who defenses need to concern themselves with — stop Curry, win the game; it’s that simple, at least in theory it is.

 

Another layer of what makes Curry’s prolific scoring so impressive is the energy he’s exerting to do so. According to NBA.com’s tracking data, Curry’s running 1.43 miles per game on offense, which is the sixth-most league-wide. And what that figure doesn’t fully capture is that while Curry has a lightning-quick release and is masterful at creating the sliver of daylight he needs to get his shot off, it takes a significant amount of energy to do that once, let alone throughout a game.

Even though Curry’s already the greatest shooter of all time, he’s taken the most lethal part of his game to new heights. From 2015 when the Warriors won their first NBA championship to 2019, a stretch in which they reached the finals every year, step-back threes accounted for just eight percent of Curry’s shooting profile from beyond the arc. But this season, Curry knew it would be more challenging to create shots for himself, which is why he’s doubled that figure to 16 percent and he’s knocking down 51.5 percent of his step-back threes, per NBA.com.

Curry’s also putting more pressure on opponents from further away from the hoop than he has in years past. According to NBA.com, from 2015 through 2019, five percent of his threes came from 30 to 40 feet. This season, shots from that distance account for 10 percent of his three-point attempts. Just like when defenses double team him out of a pick-and-roll, Curry forcing teams to defend him from further out is another way for him to create 4-3 opportunities for his teammates.

 

After that loss against the Celtics, Warriors head coach Steve Kerr said Curry’s “at the peak of his powers.” Though he’s not just putting his talents towards individual production, he is the primary reason Golden State’s firmly in the play-in tournament. The Warriors currently reside ninth in the Western Conference. They’re one game behind the eighth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies and two back of the seventh-ranked Dallas Mavericks. 

As impressive an individual season as Curry’s having and as vital as he’s been to his team’s success this season, the reality is the Warriors haven’t won at a high enough level for him to win Most Valuable Player honors for the third time in his career. Currently, Nikola Jokic is the leading MVP candidate. While it’s fair to point out the Denver Nuggets aren’t even in the top three in the Western Conference, Jokic ranks first in player efficiency rating, win shares, box plus/minus and value over replacement player. He’s averaging 26.4 points, 11.1 rebounds, 8.8 assists and 1.4 steals per game. 

If Jokic misses enough of Denver’s remaining games, someone could usurp him for the right to win MVP. In that scenario, Curry would have a chance to become the NBA’s Most Valuable Player for a third time, but he’d have to sway voters from giving it to Joel Embiid. Embiid’s in the midst of a career season, ranking second in player efficiency rating, eighth in win shares and fourth in box plus/minus. He’s averaging 29.9 points, 11.2 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game while leading the Philadelphia 76ers to the best record in the Eastern Conference.

Curry ranks sixth in player efficiency rating, seventh in win shares and is second in both box plus/minus and value over replacement player. He has a case for MVP, but Jokic and Embiid are capping off career seasons while leading their respective teams to a higher level of success. Yes, their teams are more talented and there probably isn’t enough weight put on how valuable an individual is to his team, but the reality is the MVP typically goes to the best player on a top team. Furthermore, that argument also applies to Jokic, who’s the lone All-Star on a team with a better record.

Not naming Curry this season’s Most Valuable Player doesn’t mean his prolific production isn’t appreciated. Nor should it get taken as a sign elevating his team, somehow finding ways to become a more dangerous shooter and investing as much energy as he has into a season that won’t end with a championship isn’t garnering respect from the NBA community. That includes fans whose favorite team doesn’t reside in the Bay Area.

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NBA Daily: The Lakers’ Path Back to the NBA Finals

In the wake of Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury, Bobby Krivitsky examines the Los Angeles Lakers’ path back to the NBA Finals.

Bobby Krivitsky

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It’s been 15 games since a high ankle sprain sidelined LeBron James. 

With the Western Conference standings congested and Anthony Davis already out due to a right calf strain and a re-aggravation of his right Achilles tendinosis, the Los Angeles Lakers faced the threat of a fall that would require their participation in the play-in tournament.

However, the Lakers have fought admirably in the absence of their two stars, going seven and eight. As a result, their fall in the standings has been painless, going from third at the time of James’ injury to now occupying fifth place in the West.

The primary reason the Lakers have been able to tread water without their two stars is they’ve remained stingy on defense. Since James’ injury, they have the fourth-best defensive rating in the league. That’s despite facing four teams who rank in the top five in offensive rating and six of the categories’ top-10 members.

Right now, the Lakers are 2.5 games ahead of the sixth-seeded Portland Trail Blazers, with a 4.5-game cushion between them and the Dallas Mavericks, who are seventh in the conference. That should be a large enough gap to keep Los Angeles out of the play-in tournament, but the two teams are going to converge for a two-game series starting Thursday. For the Lakers, getting swept would re-open the possibility of having to compete in the play-in tournament.

Fortunately for them, even splitting that series would make it unlikely the Mavericks finish ahead of the Lakers in the standings. And help might be on the way for the Lakers: Davis may soon rejoin the lineup, per ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, meaning there’s a distinct possibility he’s active for at least one of those two matchups. As for James, he’s on track to return in three weeks.

While Los Angeles’ stars are getting closer to making their returns, the Denver Nuggets got dealt a more severe blow when Jamal Murray tore his ACL in a recent game against the Golden State Warriors. Denver is 10-2 since acquiring Aaron Gordon at the trade deadline and looked the part of a legitimate title contender prior to Murray’s injury. 

Denver is fourth in the West, 1.5 games ahead of Los Angeles. But even if the Nuggets have home-court advantage, they’re the preferable opening-round opponent, not just for Los Angeles, but any team with a legitimate chance at the fourth or fifth seed.

Fortunately for the Lakers, that’s the place in the Western Conference pecking order where they’re most likely to finish this season. So long as the Nuggets don’t freefall in Murray’s absence, Los Angeles will likely start the playoffs against an opponent that’s gone from having the potential to present the greatest challenge to the defending champions’ quest to get back to the Finals to becoming a desirable first-round matchup.

After that, the Lakers may have to get past the Utah Jazz and or the Los Angeles Clippers to make a return trip to the NBA Finals. The former has the best record in the league this season, but locking horns with the defending champions in a best of seven series is a far more challenging and potentially rewarding proving ground.

The Jazz have a deep, reliable rotation, they have the best net rating in the NBA, they’re in the top five in points for and against per 100 possessions, and they’re attempting the most threes per game, but also rank in the top five in three-point shooting percentage. However, the Lakers would have the two best players in a series against Utah. Usually, an opponent doesn’t overcome that disadvantage.  

As for the Clippers, Rajon Rondo has quickly proven to be an impactful acquisition. Los Angeles is seven and one with him in the lineup, generating the highest net rating in the league during that span. Last season, the Lakers saw first-hand how impactful playoff Rondo can be. Now, the Clippers are hoping he can bring structure to their offense, something they sorely lacked last postseason and was at the forefront of them blowing a 3-1 series lead over the Nuggets. Doing so would go a long way towards maximizing the production of a team that has the talent to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy for the first time in franchise history.

If this is the year the battle of LA takes place in the postseason, it figures to be a slugfest. Still, the Clippers have their doubters after last year’s meltdown in the playoffs. There’s also a large contingency who are skeptical about how far the Jazz can go in the postseason, given their lack of a top-tier superstar. Despite the validity of those concerns, both teams can beat the Lakers in a best of seven series. That no longer appears to be the case for the Nuggets, which is a shame for them and people who want to see the best possible matchups in the playoffs. But Murray’s injury, as unfortunate an occurrence as it is, makes it easier for the Lakers to get through the gauntlet that is the Western Conference and have a chance to claim an 18th championship, which would break their tie with the Boston Celtics for the most titles in NBA history.

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