A win is a win, and in the process of adopting and covering a perpetually downtrodden franchise like the Golden State Warriors I’m in no place to nitpick. As a dedicated Kansas City sports fan that can’t remember seeing either hometown professional franchise (the NFL’s Chiefs and MLB’s Royals) win a playoff game in his lifetime that’s especially true. Having a real rooting interest for a local NBA team is even a first for me and should probably be enough, final score be damned. And knowing the Warriors’ extremely loyal fanbase has endured countless years where even mediocrity was deemed success, this no doubt comes off as privileged and pompous; I should earn my stripes following the team before deriding a win.
But something rubbed me wrong about Golden State’s win last night, a hardfought 87-85 victory over the Suns in Phoenix that gave this organization its first taste of a winning record since they went 2-1 to open 2011-2012. For a team supposedly on the rise, one that’s developed a new culture, and one that’s a trendy pick to make the playoffs in an ever-loaded Western Conference, there were simply too many reminders of why the Warriors have to dig themselves out of such a deep hole in the first place. And it all came against a team in full-blown rebuilding mode, the Suns for the first time since 2003 opening a season without Steve Nash running the show.
Forced shots. Missed rotations. Shoddy effort. Little strategy. Questionable lineups and substitutions.
Those are the things that almost cost Golden State the game last night, one in which they held a 17-point second quarter lead after dominant bench play spearheaded by Brandon Rush. But in typical Warriors/Chiefs/Royals fashion, it seemed all for naught as Phoenix gradually grabbed a fourth quarter lead and the Warriors fumbled away opportunities to take it back with poor individual/team defense and sloppy offense. Carl Landry ultimately saved the day with 14 fourth quarter points, of course, and Bay Area basketball fans probably woke up today with a smile knowing their team’s losing days are over.
But based on the intricacies of last night’s game they’d be wrong. If this was maybe any team but the transitional Suns – a popular pick for the NBA’s worst record at season’s end, mind you – the Warriors would have left Phoenix t last night a humbling and all-too familiar 0-1. And one of this franchise’s long-standing problems would have been emanating again, too.
David Lee’s been a divisive figure since signing with Golden State for near-maximum money in the summer of 2010, and his almost game-costing play last night is a perfect example of why. Lee scored six points on 2-16 from the field and grabbed nine rebounds in a team-leading 39 minutes against Phoenix, playing typically poor defense and forcing shots amid double and triple teams throughout. If not for Landry’s late heroics, his truly awful performance would be making headlines this morning along with Jackson’s steadfast refusal to bench him and insistence to force-feed him offensively.
Lee won’t shoot so horrendously every night, of course, but the over-arching point remains and will plague Golden State all season long unless a change is made: he killed the Warriors on both ends of the floor in Phoenix just as his contract is killing their flexibility within the salary cap. Lee is owed 13 million dollars this season and and even more the next three years before his contract expires in 2016. Getting him to accept a role that deserves half that much coin – hustle, rebounding, finishing – is key on a team flush with this much offensive talent. It’s easy to forget that Lee was drafted out of Florida in 2005 to fulfill exactly those responsibilities. With Stephen Curry, Andrew Bogut, Klay Thompson, and that game-winning bench wearing blue and gold, Lee can and must revert to doing the dirty work that got him a spot in the league in the first place. And it would help, too, if Jackson and the rest of the coaching staff drove this point home rather than encourage otherwise.
That Golden State was competitive in this game at all is a testament to the team’s ballyhooed offseason. There won’t be many times this season when Curry (2-14 FG) comes close to replicating Lee’s shooting woes, but that Golden State has the reserve horsepower to make up for it is certainly encouraging. That will matter little, though, unless Jackson gets a better grasp of who and how to play when. Watching a clearly hobbled Curry probe for shots or Lee and Landry isolate in the post in the game’s closing minutes was painful, especially when the Warriors enjoyed so much first-half success with Rush and Klay Thompson catching and attacking off down screens and Jarrett Jack pushing the tempo to breakneck speeds. Bogut and Festus Ezeli unavailable due to injury not withstanding, Jackson’s second-half lineups and strategy did little to quell my belief he’s a notch behind most NBA coaches in terms of in-game understanding and adjustments. A team can like and respect its coach all they want, but it won’t matter if he can’t put them in a position for sustained success. To me, that’s Jackson and the Warriors in a nutshell.
There are caveats to pessimism after last night’s win just as there is optimism. It was the first game of the season. Bogut and Curry are hobbled. The team’s top players have had almost no time to mesh in practice. And the list goes on.
But that culture change – an absolutely crucial aspect to this franchise’s fortunes turning around – seemed absent in Phoenix, and that’s all the more troubling because when it’s there you can almost always see it. Kevin Garnett’s Celtics showed it from the opening tip in 2008, the 2009 Thunder oozed new comfort and confidence all season long, and the 2010 Bulls were buoyed by Tom Thibodeau’s leadership from the very beginning. I didn’t see that from the Warriors last night. And it’s especially disconcerting because I wasn’t conditioned to assume the otherwise like longtime Golden State faithful.
One game does not a season make, obviously, and a win really is a win. But expecting something more from a team with a roster so balanced and talented and a front office pumping so much sunshine is hardly a stretch. Whether or not we get it is in part up to Lee and perhaps mostly up to Jackson. After last night, though, I’m not so confident.
Follow Jack Winter on twitter @armstrongwinter