When Can We Believe?
Eight-year veteran backup Jarrett Jack probed for options at the top of the key, defended by defending league MVP, Finals MVP, and USA Basketball alpha-male LeBron James. Rookie second-round combo forward Draymond Green set a baseline screen, beating future Hall-of-Famer Ray Allen and two-time All-Defense selection Shane Battier backdoor in the process. Jack, time winding down on the clock and primary options exhausted, saw Green flash to the basket un-checked and threw a perfect strike, finding the husky 22 year-old for an easy layup that put their team up two with .9 seconds left remaining in the game.
And the woebegone Warriors beat the defending NBA Champion Miami Heat on their own floor, giving Golden State five consecutive road victories, nine wins in ten games, and a 15-7 overall record that puts them three games out of first place in the NBA.
A December win only means so much in the standings, and one against a non-conference opponent yields even less tangible impact come April. But this is a win for the new-age, a game and performance on the national stage that confirms what those in the Bay have been watching develop over the last several weeks: the Warriors are good, and perhaps really good.
At what point in a NBA season is something no longer happenstance? A developing trait in a player or team that was unforeseen in the preseason to be expected longterm? Basically, when does reputation cede the way to objectivity gleaned from on-floor results?
It’s a question we ask every year in the league, players, coaches, and fans holding out even the most measured hope for themselves and the team they cheer for before the games officially kick off in late October. That incubation period is longer for some and shorter for others, made so by factors like offseason additions, youth, and past history of franchise success. It’s why most observers still expect the Boston Celtics to right the ship after a middling start, and why that same group washed their hands of the Charlotte Bobcats as a playoff contender right when the season tipped-off.
For the most part, though, you earn the amount of slack in the NBA rope through prudent summer decision-making and on-court improvement or otherwise. Which is why Golden State wasn’t left for dead after a 3-4 start that included a loss against those lowly Royals from up-state.
Offseason additions? Check – Andrew Bogut, Carl Landry, Jarrett Jack. Youth? Check – Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes. Franchise history? Not even close, but second-year coach Mark Jackson continuously preached (literally) culture-change and new accountability through every media channel at his disposal. Not to mention, the Warriors were playing with a limited (now absent) Bogut and lost key reserve Brandon Rush to a season-ending injury in 2013′s opening minutes.
This team warranted more slack than others for the reasons outlined above, and now – after last night’s win and the last month of play in general – Golden State is rewarding those who held their preseason belief firm after an underwhelming start. How they’re doing it, without Bogut and Rush, isn’t exactly how we thought they would, though.
Defense. David Lee. Stephen Curry. Klay Thompson. The league’s best bench.
The Warriors, last season’s 27th-ranked defensive outfit, are playing better and more disciplined defense than the Bay has ever known. They rank 11th in defensive efficiency after last night’s win, and lead the entire league in defensive rebound percentage. If you have faint, painful memories of GS getting killed by second-chance points last season it’s because they did; their improvement here is of the rare worst-to-first variety, thanks to new schemes, dedication, and players. These aren’t your older brother’s “We Believe” Warriors, a fun little team that embraced Nellie-ball to the fullest and always had a relatively low ceiling for that very reason. Golden State is winning on both ends for the first time in over two decades.
David Lee has been a defensive punchline for the majority of his career. He doesn’t understand help concepts, is slow to react, and takes awful angles at ball-handlers. While he’s hardly Kevin Garnett on defense, these days he’s showing enough consistent effort and improvement on that end to justify so much playing time. In the past Lee’s deficiencies outweighed, or came close to outweighing, his considerable gifts of dexterity, skill, touch, and vision best exemplified by his scoring and rebounding prowess. That’s not the case anymore, as GS allows .3 fewer points per 100 possessions with him on the floor and is considerably better on offense, too. Midding defense, awesome offense, five consecutive 20-10 games for the league’s hottest team – Lee, against all preseason odds, is passing the All-Star test as the New Year approaches.
Injury-prone. Inconsistent. Glass ankles. Combo guard. Can’t defend. Too slow, too lithe. That was Stephen Curry for the last three seasons, flashes of offensive brilliance overshadowed by injuries and unfixable flaws that would prevent him from ever being one of the league’s best point guards. The health concerns remain and the frail-looking body does, too. Forget the rest, because Curry’s a player that belongs in the NBA’s overcrowded lead-guard hierarchy. Proof: since a November 14th loss to Atlanta, Curry is averaging 21.0 points, 7.1 assists, and 3.6 rebounds per game while and boasts a robust true shooting percentage of 60.5. Uncoincidentally, the Warriors have gone 11-3 in that same timeframe and effectively crashed the national landscape. If best player with overwhelming numbers on a top-10 team doesn’t scream star, what does? Curry’s at that level, and it’s likely he’ll only get better.
Klay Thompson flew under the radar in college at Washington State and was underrated as the 11th pick in the 2011 NBA draft. He has prototypical size for a shooting guard and combines it with maybe the quickest release and softest touch in the league. But he couldn’t get off the bench last season until the Warriors traded Monta Ellis, and sometimes looked overwhelmed once he finally did. What a difference in-game experience and a summer playing against the country’s best makes. After a strong training camp for USA Basketball, Thompson is enjoying a breakout season as a focal point of the Golden State offensive attack. Maybe most impressive? His tireless defensive activity and beyond-his-years awareness. James Harden aside, there may not be another shooting guard in the league with a brighter future than Klay.
Apart from acquiring Bogut (last March, but he didn’t play) and drafting Harrison Barnes, Golden State quietly made two other offseason moves that indicated potential success. The Warriors, essentially, replaced Nate Robinson and Jeremy Tyler with Jarrett Jack and Carl Landry. Assuming career norms alone that’s a stark improvement; Robinson/Tyler were barely replacement level last season, and Jack/Landry have long been viable NBA players. Jack and Landry, though, are playing the best basketball of their professional lives and have completely transformed Golden State in the process, allowing Mark Jackson unmatched production and lineup flexibility from the bench. The Clippers’ Jamal Crawford and Eric Bledsoe are the more ballyhooed Pacific Division reserve tandem, but there isn’t a more important and impactful one than their neighbors in NorCal.
11th-ranked offense. 11th-ranked defense. All-Star caliber forward and point guard. Breakout, young shooting guard. Two candidates for Sixth Man of the Year. If this was any other team, the Warriors would be receiving national attention as a Clippers-like Western Conference threat. But reputation and preconceived notions – team and individual – prevail for the most part now, and it makes sense given the organization’s recent and decades-old history.
When do they come around, though? When’s the appropriate time for the basketball world to take the Warriors for what they are as opposed to what they were? One win is just that, 10 games don’t a season make, and six weeks isn’t time enough. But Golden State will only get better as the season wears on, the team continues to gel, and Bogut finally returns to action. Thing is, they’re already pretty damned good, reputation preceding or not. We know that, and after last night’s win maybe everyone else will start to believe it, too.
*Statistical support provided by NBA.com
Follow Jack Winter on Twitter @armstrongwinter.