Here's the short answer for where the Warriors stand as we begin 2017: Golden State has the best record in the NBA, the best offense in the NBA, a top-five defense in the NBA, the best point differential in the NBA, four sure-fire All-NBA selections, an MVP candidate in Kevin Durant, a Defensive Player of the Year candidate in Draymond Green, and no reason to doubt that they will be the Western Conference's representative in the 2017 NBA Finals for a third straight season.
So if you're satisfied with that orbital look at where the Warriors stand right now, you can go about your business. There are, though, interesting things to look at with regard to where the Warriors stand, what makes them so good, and why it is that for all their greatness they've also lost to San Antonio, Houston and the Cavaliers and looked vulnerable in areas that could, feasibly, come up to bite them in the wrong matchup at the wrong time.
There are big questions with Golden State at this point, like:
Why is it that in about half the games this season, Stephen Curry looks very much like decoration, as if he's just a priceless vase on a display in a corner? Does this Warriors team, given the way the pieces have come together and the way their offense often defaults to running, actually need Stephen Curry... and does that matter?
Why does the Warriors' crunch time offense look so disjointed in its limited exposure... and does that matter?
Is this team really just "Kevin Durant and a great supporting cast?" instead of the multi-faceted Swiss army knife of doom.... and does it matter?
We'll explore those questions to give you some grain-of-sand context to what has undeniably been a brilliant Golden State season to this point.
Most everything, honestly. There were concerns early on about whether rim protection would be an issue. They're going to get crushed on the offensive glass in the playoffs, but whether that matters or not is dependent on who they face. Meanwhile, they're middle of the pack (13th) in shots given up at the rim, with the eleventh-best field goal percentage allowed in the restricted area. They have the 10th best differential in how opponents usually shoot there compared to how they perform vs. the Warriors.
SBNation pointed out that, effectively, Kevin Durant is their rim protector:
Durant's 1.5 blocks per game are a career-high and he has 16 games with at least two blocks this season, according to Basketball-Reference. That's tied with Bucks' shot-blocker John Henson and ahead of guys like LeBron James (four), Andre Drummond (nine), Karl-Anthony Towns (12), Dwight Howard (15), and Bismack Biyombo (15).
Only one non-big man has recorded more games with two or more blocks than Durant: Giannis Antetokounmpo, with 17. He's joined by Rudy Gobert (29), Anthony Davis (27), Myles Turner (25), Hassan Whiteside (24), DeAndre Jordan (20), Kristaps Porzingis (19), Brook and Robin Lopez (17), and Marc Gasol (17).
That's how they went from being a mid-level defense to a top-five defense over the course of a month. They still have nights, particularly in the past two weeks, when they just don't give the necessary effort on that end, and if you're searching for a reason for playoff concern, that has to be it. Golden State is prone to being a bad defensive team at times, more so than most elite defensive teams, but they just rarely actually are. They had problems and found both the effort and scheme solutions to solve them. Their defense is not a concern at this point.
(Note: This does not mean that it was wrong to point that out as a weakness back in November. You can't just assume teams are going to improve in problem areas, and doing so takes away from the collective work the Warriors put in to solve a major area of weakness.)
Offensively, things are even better. Klay Thompson has basically evolved to being the Ray Allen on this team. Thompson is still averaging 21.5 points per game, and shooting 40 percent from 3-point range. He had his 60-point performance vs. the Pacers, and is still just as valuable because he punishes the defense off-ball when all the others draw attention. Draymond Green's taken a step back offensively, worse in field goal percentage, 3-point percentage and points per game, but he's also the league leader for Defensive Player of the Year along with Rudy Gobert. And Green's averaging a career high in assists. He still stirs the Warriors' drink with his passing.
Durant, meanwhile, has taken over as the best player on the Warriors. The Warriors are constantly seeking out KD in efforts to keep him involved and he looks like the second-best player in the league again. He's the focal point of the Warriors, rightfully so. That's maybe the most surprising thing about the Warriors: as great as these guys are, this team really is "Kevin Durant and Friends." It's not a super-team; it's more the model of your traditional great team, with one dominant alpha player in Durant and some great supporting players bringing various skills. Those collective supporting skill levels are so great that make Golden State superior to almost every team in the league, but it's not an egalitarian system.
The subtle difference, though, is how Durant is used off-ball in the Warriors' system. Golden State has dramatically reduced the number of possessions Durant used in isolation and pick and roll in OKC. Here's a comparison of his possessions per game this year vs. 2014 when he won MVP with the Thunder:
|Kevin Durant -- Play Types||Possessions per game: 2014||Possessions per game: 2017|
|Pick and Roll||5.8||2.9|
He has a smaller role in the offense than he did in OKC, predictably, but he's also a lot more efficient. And while those cut numbers may seem low, they're significant. The biggest thing that we may have missed when diagnosing how Durant fits with Golden State is what he brings as a cutter. Sure, he's one of the best shooters in league history, but it's also easy to forget that Durant is a 7-foot, hyper-athletic, quick-as-all-get-out super-weapon. Watch poor Cory Joseph try to handle him on a switch physically.
Oh and he's also incredibly fast, which is a problem when you have to stay home in transition on Klay Thompson, who's screening in transition for him.
And this... I mean, good luck.
The Warriors' cutting remains superb. They use the attention Steph Curry and Durant and Thopson draw to create mayhem with off-ball screens.
So what I'm subtly trying to get at here is that the Warriors are really good.
The most interesting question about the Warriors, outside of "Will they beat the Cavaliers in the Finals?" (about which there isn't much to really discuss until it happens), is where Steph Curry fits in with this Warriors team and what his role is.
Curry is scoring 24.2 points per game, which is great. He's shooting 40 percent from 3-point range, which is great for normal non-mythical-god-like NBA players. He's averaging 5.8 assists per game, which is really good.
Matt Steinmetz of CSN Bay Area argues that there's absolutely, positively nothing wrong with Curry. That if he hadn't had last year's insane season, we'd be talking about Curry averaging a career high in points, despite playing with Kevin Durant.
So here's a question: Why doesn't it feel like that? It's not Golden State critics bringing this up, it's a nightly discussion on Twitter among Warriors fans and basketball fanatics who swooned with every Curry pull-up 30-footer last season. Curry's still scoring, the numbers are there. But it's not the same. Consider these tweets from Bay Area scribe Marcus Thompson, who knows the Warriors as well as anyone:
That was Curry's third 30+ game in the last 18. He had 6 in the first 18 games.— Marcus Thompson (@ThompsonScribe) January 5, 2017
Last season, he had 30+ points 14 times in first 36 games
Curry is passing up shots he used to take without blinking— Marcus Thompson (@ThompsonScribe) January 5, 2017
And consider this from Thompson's column after the Christmas day debacle in Cleveland:
The price for integrating Kevin Durant has been Curry's brilliance. He's shown flashes of his usual self. But he has no doubt absorbed the greatest sacrifice of the Warriors' incumbent stars. And beating Cleveland in the Finals, presuming they meet for a third straight year, is going to require Curry being Curry.
Even with Durant, the two-time MVP can't just blend in for the Warriors to maximize their talent.
The Warriors have learned the hard way that regular season wins, even a record pile of 'em, don't get them a championship. But if Sunday's game did anything, it highlighted the impact the acquisition of Durant's had on Curry.
It's not just that his shot attempts are down -- nearly four fewer per game, the biggest drop in his career. But his approach to games has changed. His role in the offense has been altered. And it all seems to be affecting his shooting.
With his 2-for-7 shooting performance from three, Curry fell back below 40 percent for the season from behind the arc. Most players would love to shoot 39.9 percent from 3 for a season. But that would easily be a career-low for Curry, who made 45.4 percent of his threes last season.He is still averaging 24.1 points per game. But he isn't dominating at will like he once did. And, against the Cavaliers, the Warriors could have used some Curry dominance.
There are two noticeable differences between this year and last season's 73-win team. One, they are not the same unstoppable, awe-inspiring force. That doesn't mean that they're not the best team in the league, or one of them. They obviously are. But there's a huge difference between what these Warriors are, a superb NBA team that feels very much like a lot of the great teams we've seen throughout NBA history, and last year's team, which was like some sort of mythical super-weapon come to life. They were transcendent. They were revolutionary.
This team? They're awesome. They'll probably win a championship.
Is that enough? Should that be enough? Is that the best version of the Warriors?
The best version of last year's Warriors were transcendent because Curry was undeniably, inexplicably dominant. He was the best 3-point shooter in NBA history. This year he's probably going to be the second-best... but does it feel like that? Does it feel like Curry is scrambling defenses with his pull-up 35-foot shots, constantly amazing people and making Vine counts go haywire like a jackpot slot machine? No. It feels like Curry is an incredibly efficient weapon for Durant and Green to take advantage of. Even the crazy highlights feel like people are just trying to rekindle the magic of last season.
The more interesting question, which I truly do not have an answer for yet, is whether the Warriors need Curry. Would Green, Thompson, Durant, and some of the Warriors' role players fill in some of that scoring? Not as efficiently, certainly. But then, given how much the Warriors defeat teams by -- 11.9 points per 100 possessions -- do they need it? Wouldn't they win anyway, even if not as comfortably?
This is not to suggest the Warriors should get rid of Curry, because they don't need to, and that's insane. He's Steph Curry, one of the 3-5 best players in the entire NBA. You've won a championship with Steph Curry as your best player. Trading him would be stupid, insane, whatever negative term you want to use, and Golden State would laugh so hard at you if you suggested such a thing it would become uncomfortable for both of you. But that doesn't change the reality that what makes this Warriors team great is A.) Kevin Durant and B.) their defense, led by Draymond Green. Curry just makes them greater. Which is, well, great, but it's also interesting that this is how the team has shaken out when the super Warriors team that was so hugely dependent onSteph Curry, and at times completely dependent, is still so fresh in our minds.
Notably, Curry has demanded more pick-and-roll opportunities, and you saw that in their win Thursday vs. the Blazers. They even involved Curry and Durant in more situations, though the results weren't great. They scored a few times, turned the ball over a few more, and the timing wasn't great. It's something they're going to try and work through, and it'll wind up being a big weapon in the playoffs, most likely. (It's possible that it won't, that their chemistry in the pick and roll just won't work, as sometimes happens even with great players, but it's unlikely.)
The end result of this, of course, is that it probably doesn't matter. No one's forgetting Curry; he leads the West in All-Star votes. But there's a big difference between a full-blown, light-the-world-on-fire superstar and a solid All-Star, which is what Curry feels like at the moment. The simple truth is that if the Warriors want to recapture what they had last season, however, it will take a shift in what Curry is and has been to this team, and that's going to demand even more changes from Durant. He's likely willing to make those changes, but it is something that would have to be adjusted, and change is hard.
The response might be that the team that had Curry in that alpha role, the team that revolutionized how so many thought about basketball, eventually failed. The Cavaliers solved that team, even if it took them a Game 7, a Curry injury, a Bogut injury, a Draymond Green suspension, an otherworldly LeBron James performance, and whatever other reason you can tack on that went down. Maybe it will take this tweaked Golden State combination, and just a little bit better balance with Curry, to beat Cleveland.
However, a team with Kevin Durant as its best player has never won a title, regardless of the context necessary to truly understand that fact. It's hard to say a team with Kevin Durant as its best player, especially this team, can't win the title. But it's impossible to say a team with Steph Curry as its best player can't. It's been done.
As you might expect, it's difficult to find much ugliness on a 31-5 team with two former MVPs and top-five marks in offense and defense. You have to really reach to find any real significant issues with this team.
But... there is this:
The Warriors have almost no experience in crunch time. They've been in just eight games with the score within five points inside the final two minutes. They're a stellar 6-2 in that situation. Back it up to five minutes in a five-point game and they're 9-2. So when we talk about it, you need to understand A.) it's an insanely small sample size we're talking about, and B.) they're still really good in winning at clutch time anyway.
But if you want to try and find something to classify as "ugly," outside of their penchant for turnovers, it's that when it gets into "possession basketball," which is how coaches and players describe those moments where you're having to value each possession on both ends of the floor, they're trapped between two worlds.
In one world, there's this:
The Warriors don't value the basketball. It's always been an issue, and is endemic to their style. They play free, bold, brash, over-confident. They hoist off-the-dribble 3-pointers in transition, shots which are terrible for 95 percent of the basketball world but are the Warriors' bread and butter. And sometimes, it works:
But it can also lead to this:
This has always driven Kerr crazy. He's spoken often of wishing the team would "value the ball." Their confidence unlocks all the amazing things that made them a historic regular-season team last year, but sometimes it also undoes their work in key, late situations, as it has throughout several playoff games. But truth be told, this is still when the Warriors are at their best, when they are freewheeling. They struggle with how to have a late key possession when the defense is locked in and still move the ball the way they do. But when they do find that solution, they're still unstoppable.
On plays drawn up after timeouts in a five-point game in the final two minutes this season, the Warriors have a 1.235 points per possession mark. That basically means they're unstoppable on after-timeout plays in the final two minutes, though a lot of those are the result of being intentionally fouled. When you remove those possessions, you wind up with 12 points on 18 possessions.
(We're talking 18 possessions here, so again, if you want to just say "small sample size, nothing to take away from this," I don't blame you. It's notable, but not statistically significant, is how I would describe it.)
The other world they get caught in is Kevin Durant's world from Oklahoma City:
The Warriors have run 10 isolations in the final five minutes of a five-point game this season. Of those plays, Kevin Durant has had eight of them.
He has not scored, or been fouled, on any of them.
Durant's clutch-time persona has always been a bit controversial, dating back to the Daily Oklahoman's decision to use "Mr. Unreliable" as the headline to a playoff column, which Durant never got over.
As an example, Durant shot 4 of 20 last season in the final five minutes of a five-point game. Curry, by comparison, shot 14 of 26, a terrific number. (LeBron James shot a not-great 7 of 21, while Kyrie Irving was more efficient at 7 of 15.) But before you leap to calling Durant Captain No-Clutch and saying this is a massive problem, remember a few things. One, Durant's still getting used to this system. Two, the Warriors haven't used their most devastating set once in those close games: the Curry-Durant pick and roll. If they work that out, Durant's going to get much better looks.
What those late-game numbers, and Durant's 7-of-22 mark in the final five minutes of a five-point game this year, show, is that Durant still falls back into those old habits he had in OKC. He still calls his own number. He still isolates. He still struggles to establish position (which has always been a problem for him due to his slight frame) and he still struggles to convert. The Warriors are either slinging the ball around too carelessly (though their turnover rate in the clutch this year is very low), or Durant is playing into isolation hero ball. Finding the right combination in those areas will be key for Golden State unlocking its crunch-time potential.
The problem with getting those crucial repetitions, honestly, is that they're too good. They're not going to have many clutch-time situations to work out some of these bugs, because they wind up beating teams by double-digits most nights. That's a problem that 29 other NBA coaches would love to have, but it's also not going to help them work out these bugs before the playoffs come and they face tougher defenses in high-pressure situations consistently.
Does any of this matter? Again, probably not, at least not until the Finals. Maybe they'll just never be in a clutch situation, and maybe Kerr will bust out such brilliant, complicated sets as to render the conversation entirely moot. But if you're looking for another area of concern, this is probably their most glaring analytical hole.
TO SUM UP
So there you have it. The Warriors are awesome, but not as awesome as last year, at least not yet. Stephen Curry is awesome, but not as awesome as last year, at least not yet. They have clutch-time issues, but it's not anything they can't overcome. They remain the favorites to win the title for several reasons, but things are not the perfect symphony so many predicted and hoped they would be.
If you want the scariest part of all this for the rest of the league, however? Consider how good the Warriors are, how likely they are to win the title. Then consider that they have been playing together for three months counting the preseason, and they're going to play together another three years at least.
So yeah, maybe the ugly is what this Warriors team looks like long-term for the rest of the league, even if they look mortal in this early January moment.