The Oklahoma City Thunder are the NBA’s modicum for patient, earned, and seemingly sustainable success. Just three years removed from a 3-29 start and in-season coaching change, OKC was a Finals participant last season in a closer-than-it-looked five game series. The trade of James Harden not withstanding, they boast a young, versatile roster with two bonafide superstars, a near All-Star big man that’s only getting better, and solid ancillary parts that play their roles to perfection. They’ve got a model lockerroom culture and maybe the league’s most passionate fanbase, too.
So for the perpetually downtrodden Warriors, most any comparison to the Thunder should be welcome and a sign of encouragement. At 8-6 and currently sixth in the Western Conference, that Golden State is even a potential playoff opponent of OKC after the season’s first month is worthy of a small celebration. After all, this franchise hasn’t enjoyed this much pre-New Year winning since the “We Believe” days of 2006.
So before we get to the problem at hand, take a moment to appreciate where the Warriors are right now and realize that the following is the type of nit-picking reserved for teams with legitimate and meaningful longterm goals for this season. Basically, know that the purpose of this discussion is good even though it’s bad.
So other than the shooting woes of their young, star point guards, what do the Thunder and Warriors have in common? Their starters are absolutely killing them.
This is an issue for Oklahoma City that’s well-known; you don’t play in the Finals and have players like Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook without constant national analysis and scrutiny. The Thunder’s opening quintet of Westbrook, Thabo Sefolosha, Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka, and Kendrick Perkins puts them in an unnecessary whole almost every game, for the simple reason that they just can’t score. The hope and justification for this lineup is that that problem is offset by better play on the other end, most notably influenced by the presence of Sefolosha and Perkins. But that wasn’t the case in 2011-2012 and certainly hasn’t been so far this season either, as chronicled here by the always must-read John Hollinger.
The Warriors suffer from the same affliction, and it’s especially comparable to OKC’s because the supposed “stoppers” – rookies Harrison Barnes and Festus Ezeli – play roles similar to Sefolosha and Perkins. Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and David Lee are three of Golden State’s best offensive players, and collectively present a net negative on the other end. Lee is especially poor defensively, and Curry and Thompson – though the latter is improving – are prone to foul trouble. So it makes sense to pair that trio with Barnes, a wing with a rare combination of size and quickness, and Ezeli, a great rebounder and paint intimidator.
The expectation, like the one back East in Oklahoma, is that less give-and-take on one end or another would yield better balance and ultimately an early lead. But that on-paper thought hasn’t come close to materializing on the court, as the Warriors’ starters have been awful on offense and merely average on the other end, a fact best reflected by that group’s relation to the team’s offensive and defensive ratings overall.
Let’s bullet for emphasis.
- GS overall Offensive Efficiency: 100.3 (17th)
- Starters’ Offensive Efficiency: 93.3 (29th)
- GS overall Defensive Efficiency: 100.4 (12th)
- Starters’ Defensive Efficiency: 99.2 (seventh)
- GS overall Net Rating: -.1 (15th)
- Starters’ Net Rating: -5.9 (27th)
Yikes. The trade-off that Mark Jackson anticipates just isn’t there, mostly due to this group’s complete ineptitude on offense; these guys just can’t score. Part of that is likely due to the shooting struggles of Curry and Thompson and the price of playing two rookies simultaneously, but even if they come around on offense it still won’t be enough. Golden State is much-improved across the board defensively this season, so being better by mere percentage points on that end hardly justifies the minutes this ill-fitting quintet is getting right now.
Want more evidence? It’s everywhere. The Warriors plus-minus is comfortably red in the first (-2.3) and third (-6.6) quarters, and the opposite in quarters two (+1.1) and four (+5.1). This group turns the ball over more often (18%) and has the worst true shooting percentage (49.2%) of any regular lineup, and the worst free throw rate (.235), too. No matter where you look, it’s almost impossible to find an objective measure in which Golden State’s starters are succeeding.
And it would all be less of an issue if their other lineups were good enough to off-set the negative influence of this one. Oklahoma City’s, for instance, clearly are; the Thunder boast the league’s second best net rating (+7.3) despite the starters’ mark of +3.9. Golden State isn’t that good, though, so the obvious takeaway is that a change is needed.
Jackson is normally averse to rocking the boat like that, though, so it’s comforting to know one will come once Andrew Bogut is finally healthy. When that will be is anyone’s guess, of course, so until then the Warriors trends of digging holes at the beginning of each half will continue.
There’s no such thing in basketball as a good problem to have, and that’s true with respect to the Warriors starters. But again, it’s a positive thing we’re having a discussion like this at all; doomed, lottery-bound teams don’t deserve this much analysis, so Golden State is clearly headed the right direction overall. And when Bogut returns and that change is inevitably made, don’t be surprised if their ascent gets a bit steeper.
*Statistical support for this article provided by NBA.com.
Follow Jack Winter on Twitter @armstrongwinter