By: J.R. Smooth

As many of you know, I am based out of Denver, Colorado. If it seems strange for a Warriors blog in San Francisco to welcome a writer who specializes in the Denver Nuggets to write a weekly feature, it is.

With that said, my readers in the Bay Area can take this week’s edition of Smooth’s Starting Five as a token of my appreciation for allowing me a seat at your table.

  1. There’s not enough being said about the job Mark Jackson has done in Golden State.
  2. There’s even less being said about the job Rick Carlisle is doing in Dallas.
  3. Do the Warriors have the best fans in the NBA and what kind of home court advantage should be expected in the playoffs?
  4. If the playoffs started today, the Nuggets and Warriors would meet in the first round. Who ya got?
  5. Who’s better? Steph Curry or Ty Lawson?

There’s not enough being said about the job Mark Jackson has done in Golden State

Warriors’ head coach Mark Jackson has been pretty phenomenal during his second year on the job. Golden State has been without the services of Brandon Rush for the duration of the season. Andrew Bogut has only played in 660 minutes of live-game action. Klay Thompson has undergone a severe sophomore slump. Yet Golden State – the league’s eighth-youngest team – keeps trucking along. Among likely playoff participants, only the Houston Rockets are cumulatively younger. Currently the sixth-seed going into the final month of the season, a favorable home-heavy schedule should give the Warriors just the confidence they need heading into the playoffs.

But how did they do it? Defense. The answer is defense. And it’s not Andrew Bogut’s defense that did it. It’s scheme changes by Mark Jackson and his coaching staff. The Warriors finished 2011-12 with the league’s 29th-ranked defense, allowing a ridiculous 109.1 points per 100 possessions. Only New Jersey, Sacramento, and Charlotte were worse. This season, Jackson currently has the Warriors on pace to finish with the league’s 14th-best defense, as they’re allowing 105.5 points per 100 possessions – a nearly four-point improvement (-3.6) from the prior year.

Consider: The Golden State Warriors haven’t finished in the top-half of the league defensively since the 1998-99 season (10th-best). Not even 2006-07’s “We Believe” team finished with an above average defense. As a matter of fact, in the twenty-nine years since the league began ranking teams on both sides of the floor, only eight times have the Warriors finished with a better than the league-average defense: 1973-74 (7th), 1974-75 (5th), 1975-76 (1st), 1977-78 (4th), 1978-79 (5th), 1988-89 (12th), 1993-94 (13th), 1998-99 (10th).

That Jackson was able to overhaul Golden State’s defense in one year, while covering up for the sieve that is David Lee inside, while only getting 660 minutes from Andrew Bogut, and while depending on Steph Curry and Klay Thompson on the perimeter, is a marvel that modern science can’t explain.  He has taken this team into uncharted territory and deserves praise for doing so.

There’s even less being said about the job Rick Carlisle is doing in Dallas

While we’re on the topic of coaching, let’s touch on the Dallas Mavericks. Rick Carlisle is so underrated it’s sickening. It’s a miracle he’s kept his sanity through the 2012-13 season. Currently 1.5 games out of the eighth and final playoff spot, Mark Cuban owes the lion’s share of commendation for his team’s success to Carlisle.

Cuban gave Carlisle the league’s fourth-oldest roster. Cuban gave Carlisle Darren Collison as his starting point guard. Cuban gave Carlisle Chris Kaman. Cuban gave Carlisle a 36 year-old Vince Carter, a 34 year-old Shawn Marion, a 33 year-old Elton Brand, and an unbelievably effective but still 34 year-old Dirk Nowitzki. Mark Cuban gave Rick Carlisle a 30 year-old Eddy Curry. Eddy Curry.

Eddy Curry.

That Dallas is even sniffing a .500 record and a possible berth in the playoffs is another one of those things modern science can’t explain.

Dirk has only played in 44 games this season, averaging his lowest minute total per night since his rookie year. He has his lowest usage rate since 2003-04 – his sixth season – but is shooting a career-best 43% from beyond the arc while getting to the free-throw line just 3.6 times per game (only his rookie year is worse). When he should be handling the ball more because of the severe lack of talent surrounding him, he’s handling it less. But that trend is reversing itself as we head into the final month of the season.

In a heart-stopping victory this past Saturday over the Chicago Bulls, Dirk had as close to a perfect game as you will find in the NBA. In just over 33-minutes, he scored 35 points on 17 shots, corralled 7 rebounds, dished one assist, blocked one shot, and had only two turnovers. He finished with a .979 TS% and a .971 EFG%. 35 points, 7 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 block, 2 turnovers. He’s a 34 year-old man going on 24. No joke. This was a game the Mavericks, by and large, played without a point guard, as O.J. Mayo and Vince Carter shared the duty with Collison only seeing 19 minutes of action.

What’s more? Just three players since 1985-86 have put together a similar game, with only Kyle Lowry’s 2011 effort as a member of the Houston Rockets approaching Dirk’s efficiency.

While Dirk’s return has been a major catalyst towards Dallas’ success, it was Carlisle who kept the Mavs afloat in the absence of his star player, going 13-16 to begin the season. In this year’s Western Conference, what Carlisle has done is no small feat. And he deserves recognition commensurate to his success.

Do the Warriors have the best fans in the NBA and what kind of home court advantage should be expected in the playoffs?

While we’re giving recognition to those who aren’t receiving enough this season, I would be remiss not to mention the Golden State Warriors’ fan base. Currently ranked fifth in the league in overall attendance, the Warriors have always had a formidable home court advantage that’s been put to sadly little use during the playoffs. That’s all going to change this year, as Golden State is primed for their first post-season appearance since 2006.

What you may not know is the Warriors play in the oldest arena in the NBA. Oracle Arena was originally built in 1966. Only New York’s Madison Square Garden comes close in age, as it was built in 1968. Oracle, then known as Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, was completely renovated during the 1996-97 season. Yet, while other fan bases and team owners clamor for new stadiums and the next best enhancement for their existing stadium, Warriors’ fans pack the stands regardless. The last time Golden State finished in the bottom-half of the league in attendance was following the 2004-05 season when they took 22nd. The number of playoff appearances they’ve had in the time since: 1.

Golden State has gone 25-11 at home in 2012-13 – good enough for the Western Conference’s eighth-best home record. While the Warriors do share the Conference’s fifth-best road record with potential first round playoff foe Denver, the bet here is Golden State will need to perform much better at Oracle to make the semifinals regardless of their opponent.

If the playoffs started today, the Nuggets and Warriors would meet in the first round. Who ya got?

Playoff seeding in the Western Conference will be in constant flux until the season ends, however, the Warriors appear to be locked in for a battle over the sixth-seed and the right to play one of three teams:  Nuggets, Grizzlies, and Clippers.

Denver is in control of its own destiny. As long as they take care of business in the final month, they *should* hold onto the third-seed in the Western Conference. Furthermore, Denver holds the tiebreaker over virtually everyone they’re in competition with for the third spot (except in the case of the Clippers, who are division-leaders). If the Nuggets finish with the same overall record as the Clippers, the Clippers will get the nod and Denver will fall to fourth as Los Angeles leads its division. Denver could do everyone including themselves a favor by finishing with the third-best overall record. Seedings are very complicated and highly-convoluted. I’d much rather someone smarter than myself explain the situation.

If it does end up being a Warriors-Nuggets playoff series in the opening round, then fans are in for a real treat. While Denver did win the regular season series between the two teams (3-1), Golden State was without Andrew Bogut in all four meetings. That fact alone should put a pretty big scare into Nuggets’ faithful, as Denver has very little answer for Bogut inside. Aside from that matchup problem, the Nuggets also found themselves unable to contain David Lee. In his four games against Denver, Lee averaged 23.3 points, 10.3 rebounds, 5 assists, 2.3 steals, 0.75 blocks, and 3 turnovers. Denver also had little answer for Lee’s backup, Carl Landry, as he averaged 13 points, 6.5 rebounds, 2.75 assists, 0.5 steals, 1 block, and 1.25 turnovers. If only Denver hadn’t traded Nen … never mind.

Can Denver’s perimeter players outperform their counterparts to such a degree that it makes up for the severe disadvantages they face inside? I don’t know. I really don’t know if that’s possible. Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler will win their matchup at small forward going away. What will be interesting is seeing how much time Chandler gets at the four. He’s Denver’s wild card.

Who’s better? Steph Curry or Ty Lawson?

Asking Ty Lawson – if he’s available – to dominate Steph Curry is asking an awful lot.

And if George Karl decides to put Iguodala on Curry, Lawson will be forced to check Klay Thompson. That’s not a good matchup for Denver in the least. While Ty is productive for Denver, he, like Kenneth Faried on the interior, is a defensive sieve. And against a team with such diverse and varied perimeter threats, Lawson comes up woefully short – in more ways than one. The best possible Nuggets playoff lineup will be Andre Miller, Andre Iguodala, Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, and Kosta Koufos. Anything else is playing with fire. Production gets you nowhere if it also can’t defend. Ask JaVale McGee.

Denver will face these matchup difficulties regardless of opponent. There’s just no easy way around it.

Which brings me to my final point of the week: Steph Curry or Ty Lawson? Who would I choose if given the choice?

That’s a very difficult question to answer. I love Ty. He’s done great things for Denver. But Steph Curry is a burgeoning superstar in this league – a bona-fide top-5 point guard for years to come.

Consider: Curry is one year younger. Curry isn’t totally reliant on his athleticism for success. He shoots the lights out from 3-point range. He’s a better rebounder. And he’s maintained a 4-point higher usage rate over the duration of his career while turning the ball over at the same rate and shooting 6.5% better from distance. The fact Curry was locked up for a cheaper deal than Lawson is bemusing to say the very least.

In twelve head-to-head meetings going back to each’s rookie season, Lawson holds nine victories over his counterpart. While Curry has taken the losses, he has without a doubt, been the better player.

What will be interesting to see should the two meet in the playoffs is who can out-produce the other, because neither can defend a lick. If Curry has the upper-hand in the matchup, Golden State has a very good chance to take the series.

One Response

  1. SayHiToYourMom

    I realize that you’re writing on a Pro Warriors blog, but are you insane?

    1 – The Nuggets have the best home record in the NBA.

    2 – The Nuggets legitimately go 10 deep, and their 11th man is currently scoring 17.4 ppg while Lawson heals. The Warriors go about 4 deep.

    3 – The Nuggets have no answer for Andrew Bogut inside? Andrew Bogut and his 6.5ppg? Both of the Nuggets centers average 20% more ppg than Bogut, who makes 4x more than Koufos, and 3m more than McGee. So hey, for the SAME price, we get 2 players with better numbers than Bogut, without Boguts injury history, and who can both run the floor – something that Golden States offense requires and which Bogut is incapable of doing.

    4 – For the 10th year in a row, the Nuggets will make the playoffs. That is the third longest streak in the league – and this is a team that has been completely rebuilt, and were it not for the seasoned legs of Andre Miller would be the youngest team in the league, with all important players locked up for years.

    5 – You predicted that the Nuggets would win 47 games – they will likely win 57 games – that is a significant difference that you defend as saying that “Even the experts couldnt predict…” etc. Analytics has not been easy to apply to the NBA, coaching and front office matter a great deal – and Denver has by far two of the best in the biz.