Simply Golden: How the Warriors Became the Total PackageEzra Shaw/Getty Images
It was just an extra pass, and maybe not even a mathematically ideal one, but it stuck in my head ever since Draymond Green tossed it during Golden State’s win two weeks ago in Chicago:
It’s such a selfless play. It is tangible basketball generosity, and every Golden State game has a half-dozen instances of such above-and-beyond sharing. All that giving has to add up to something. The knowledge that every teammate truly wants the best for you, and will sacrifice whatever it takes in the moment to help both you and the team — that has to be a powerful feeling. It must will you to do special things in return, and when everyone has that will inside of them, true team greatness can grow.
Golden State is fun to watch for all the obvious reasons — the best shooting backcourt ever, Stephen Curry’s preposterous pull-up 3s, the splendid passing dotted across the roster, Andrew Bogut’s dirty tricks, the funky lineups, and the ever-present sense that Curry could transform the team into one giant fireball at any moment.
But Golden State is also fun because the players make you believe in the larger spiritual underpinnings of team sports. They are so in tune with each other, and that synchronization guides them on both ends of the floor.
“I know exactly what play you’re talking about,” Green said when I asked him Monday about that pass to Marreese Speights. “The guys on this team just know how to get each other going. I get going on the defensive end. Stops really get me going. But that’s just me. Mo gets going on the offensive end. Nothing wrong with that. That’s just who he is. And I know that. So that pass — that’s what you do. That’s what we do.”
I just spilled blue and yellow Kool-Aid all over my laptop.
Players in the NBA aren’t necessarily selfish, but lots of them are concerned to some degree about their numbers — especially guys who are approaching free agency. To convince an entire roster to give up good shots in pursuit of great ones is a rare thing.
The real grunt work, and the real sacrifice, comes on defense. The Warriors were a decades-long punch line on that end, but during three seasons under Mark Jackson, they transformed into a top-five outfit behind smart scheming and improved personnel. Steve Kerr didn’t have to reinvent the wheel on that end, but he has made a few significant changes, and the Warriors now have the no. 1 defense in the league.
Golden State’s penchant for switching has drawn all the headlines lately, including in this space. They start three like-size players in between Bogut and the improving Curry; Harrison Barnes, Klay Thompson, and Green can all switch against lots of teams without conceding much. Golden State’s go-to bench units feature four wings who can switch on the fly — Barnes, Thompson, Andre Iguodala, and Shaun Livingston.
Switching is dangerous. It creates mismatches; Thompson fronting Dirk Nowitzki in the post after a Monta Ellis/Dirk pick-and-roll is a scary thing.
But it can also stall out offenses that thrive by moving the ball through tiny crevices that open when non-switching defenses rotate around the floor:
Switching a single high pick-and-roll is easy, especially when the opposing point guard is just pounding the ball and waiting for the screen. What separates the Warriors is how fluidly they switch and re-switch everywhere, on and off the ball, as opposing offenses run their course. Look at how smoothly Livingston and Thompson negotiate which of them should guard each member of the Aaron Brooks–Kirk Hinrich duo during the chaos of semi-transition:
That’s a small bit of hoops ballet.
The bigs can do it, too. Watch Green and Bogut flip-flop assignments during this Chicago pick-and-roll:
That is the stuff most teams eventually mess up. Two defenders will chase one offensive player, or one will hesitate a split second before realizing he needs to switch.
Golden State almost never messes this up. It’s remarkable. “When some teams switch, there are gaps,” Green says. “We don’t have any gaps.” It’s not even something they practice much, Kerr says. “It just comes pretty naturally to our guys,” he says. “We have very smart players.”
The players will discuss opposing personnel and playbooks among themselves and decide when they might switch, Green says, but a lot of the Dubs’ switchcraft comes down to having high-IQ players who have been together awhile. “It’s Year 3 for us,” Green says. “We can figure each other out. And Coach Kerr gives us the freedom to make those reads.”
Average NBA defense can be jagged: One guy rotates to help, everyone stands still for a half-second, and then the next guy in line realizes he must rotate to cover for the first guy. Golden State’s defense isn’t like that. The rotations happen simultaneously, like they have a collective mind meld. The Warriors play liquid basketball.
They also know they can’t overdo it with the switches; they didn’t switch nearly as much last night against the behemoth Grizz, with Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol ready to smash defenders on the block. Kerr likes to limit the switching until the shot clock is in single digits, since that leaves offenses with less time to attack mismatches.
Curry’s ball pressure is the first link in that process, Kerr says. He’s hounding ball handlers all the way up the floor, draining seconds from the shot clock. “When we get bad,” Kerr says, “is when we try to switch right away.”
Opponents will scout all of this to death in the playoffs. Golden State resists any switch that leaves Curry battling a big, so smart teams will put him in a ton of screening action. That’s fine with the Warriors, Green says. Run Curry through a traditional point guard/center pick-and-roll, and you’re only bringing Bogut’s rim protection into play. “Good luck hitting enough midrange jumpers to beat us,” Green says. “You won’t.”
Kerr can also counter by slotting Thompson on opposing point guards, something he hasn’t done nearly as much as Jackson. But it’s in his bag. “We’ll still put Klay on guys like Chris Paul at times,” Kerr says.
Putting Curry and Green together in a pick-and-roll might be dicier, since Green doesn’t offer the same level of rim protection. But he’s a mobile help defender, and having Green’s man set picks means Bogut is still lurking around the baseline somewhere. The Warriors welcome this kind of overthinking from teams concerned with neutering the switches. “You can only run away from the switches for so long,” Green says. “No matter what, you’ll be taking someone out of the game.”
The Warriors are a legit title contender if healthy. That question is over. But almost every team that makes the playoffs in the West will be a legit title contender. Matchups will be of paramount importance, and the West offers a gantlet of massive front lines. Dallas brings the Nowitzki/Tyson Chandler combination. Memphis has its old-school “brother from another mother” post-up bullies. Blake Griffin eviscerated David Lee on the block in last season’s first round, and DeAndre Jordan can outleap anyone.
The Spurs’ bigs aren’t as fearsome on the surface, but both their starters can protect the rim, and Boris Diaw comes off the bench to poke at small-ball mismatches. Portland’s size forced Houston to scramble its entire rotation in the playoffs and bring back the Omer Asik/Dwight Howard front line that failed so badly early in the season.
Green is undersize in terms of height but has proven he’s a real power forward. He fights like all hell, he has a solid foundation, and he uses his long arms to get reaching shot blocks against post-up guys who can move him closer to the basket. He swatted Randolph three times last night, and he frustrated Griffin during last season’s playoffs.
The Warriors have done well playing Barnes as a small-ball power forward on bench units, and that’s fine when Barnes is guarding Jon Leuer, Al-Farouq Aminu, Joel Freeland, or some other backup big who can’t hurt Golden State. They’ve even risked going small in short stretches against the Randolph-Gasol and Nowitzki-Chandler combinations in recent games.
But they’ll lose that battle on some nights in the playoffs, and that brings us to the elephant in the room: Lee is coming back soon. He won’t start; that question is also over. But his fit off the bench is unclear. Playing him with both Barnes and Speights shifts Barnes to the wing and pushes Golden State away from small ball.
It could also create spacing issues for bench units that already struggle to score. The Warriors can play the bricky Iguodala and Livingston together off the bench in part because Barnes gives them some extra spacing at power forward. And even then, things can get tight for the Dubs’ second unit:
Golden State still can’t produce points when Curry sits, a long-standing issue that killed its winning streak in Memphis and bolsters Curry’s MVP case; the Warriors have scored 112.6 points per 100 possessions with Curry on the floor and clanked away to a Sixers-esque 93.7 when he sits, per NBA.com.
The second unit doesn’t have a consistent pick-and-roll player. The Warriors in the half court have relied on basic motion offense, Livingston’s post-up game, and some other stuff that just hasn’t worked without Curry’s spacing.
That’s the appeal of Lee here: He can work as an offensive hub for the bench, facilitating from the elbows and posting up backup bigs. Golden State will need his size at some point in the playoffs, but playing Lee cannibalizes either its small-ball weaponry or Speights’s playing time.
Perhaps it’s just something Kerr can play by matchup; he ditched small ball during segments of the Memphis game, reinserting Green alongside Speights when he felt the team needed more size and defense. He wants to use a nine-man rotation once Golden State has its full roster, meaning we’ll eventually wave good-bye to Leandro Barbosa, Brandon Rush, and Festus Ezeli.
Kerr can mix and match the pieces night to night. Curry and Livingston have played together more of late, an arrangement that compensates for Livingston’s shooting issues and frees Thompson to lead bench units when Curry rests. Speights will slump at some point, leaving some minutes at center for Lee. But when Speights is rolling, there might be times when the Warriors simply don’t need Lee much.
“Guys will have to sacrifice,” Kerr says. “And that’s hard.”
In a theoretical world in which Golden State doesn’t need Lee, it absolutely has to look into trading him. Green is a free agent this summer, and though he’s only a fourth or fifth starter, he’s a perfect puzzle piece on a good team; someone is offering him $10 million. If Golden State retains him at that rate, it could rocket about $10 million over the projected tax line1 if it also keeps Lee and Iguodala.
The Warriors have never paid the tax and in recent seasons have made small last-minute deals to duck under it. Their owners are swimming in money, but are they really willing to pay more than $100 million just to field a team next season? It would seem they have to trade someone in the interim.
If I were a betting man, I’d bet on this: Golden State rides it out this season and waits until the offseason to cut payroll. The Warriors are not in the tax this season, and they think they can win the title. They are not going to harm the roster now to settle next season’s payroll issues. This is not Oklahoma City.
This is not to say the Warriors won’t chase deals in which they might dump Lee, or even Iguodala. They will make calls. If they can find trades that tidy up next year’s books without handicapping the current team — and without sending more first-round picks away — they’ll of course do them.
Those deals will be hard to find. Lee earns more than $15 million per year on a contract that runs through next season. No one is eager to swallow that contract without getting some sweetener in return, and the Warriors are already out one future first-round pick and four second-rounders.
And they’ll need everyone to chase the title. The 2011 Mavs needed Peja Stojakovic and J.J. Barea. The Heat needed Mike Miller at the right moments. The Spurs might not have gotten by Oklahoma City last season without some scintillating minutes from Cory Joseph.
Golden State clearly doesn’t need Lee to be great. We know that. But that’s different than saying it doesn’t need him to win the title. He might be a hair less expendable than Iguodala, which sounds weird, since the Warriors are 21-3 without Lee — and have a long history of excelling without him.
Look at their front line. Ezeli is working on that righty jump hook, but it’s awkward, and he can’t catch the ball. Bogut is hurt again. It’s easy to say the Warriors can’t win the title without Bogut. Duh. But what if he’s nicked up for two weeks in May, and the Warriors need to win one round without him before he returns healthy?
You’ll need Lee for that. They damn near beat the Clippers last season by going super-small, sticking Lee or Green at center, and spreading the floor for a lethal drive-and-kick attack.2
You probably can’t do that without Lee, meaning that if you deal him for cap relief, you better be damn confident in Ezeli and/or net a quality big man back somehow. That could be a buyout guy. Maybe it’s a big on an expiring contract, with the other team willing to take on Lee’s deal for just a single future second-rounder. You could construct workable Lee/Brook Lopez and Lee/Amar’e Stoudemire scenarios, but those deals come with obvious pitfalls.
Most league executives expect Lopez to exercise his player option for next season, meaning he offers no certain cap relief. Stoudemire is a true expiring who is scoring well — a really nice story, by the way — but he makes Lee look like Bill Russell on defense. And that’s hard to do.
Losing Iggy might hurt less, since the Warriors are stacked on the wing. But he’s a versatile piece who is key to what they do on both ends, especially on defense. They could at least chip away at next season’s tax bill over the summer by dealing Livingston, whose contract is only 50 percent guaranteed in 2016-17. He’s a good player but something of a luxury for a team with so much wing and guard talent.
The Warriors can also look two years ahead and see the cap level leaping for 2016-17, when the NBA’s new national TV deal kicks in. The cap and tax will rise so fast, and so dramatically, that there will be a one- or two-year window when it will be very hard to spend over the tax. Golden State could bite the bullet on a tax bill for 2015-16 confident it won’t pay it again, so that the dreaded repeater tax penalties are never a worry.3
That would hurt next season, but plenty of teams chasing titles have absorbed a less-than-ideal fiscal year. That’s the price of drafting and signing good players. The Warriors have a chance to win the whole thing this season. It’s way too early to declare them favorites, but they’re in the inner circle. That’s precious territory. Tread carefully.