Crunch Time, Mismatches, and Mark Jackson
Mark Jackson lives for the mismatch. He shouldn’t.
As obviously and frequently as any team in the league, Golden State attacks the specific link of the defensive chain it believes is weakest. More often than not, that approach is manifested via isolations – for David Lee in the post, Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes, and Andre Iguodala after a switched screen, or Steph Curry alone at the top of the key. It’s a sound strategy on the surface. The Warriors boast a litany of talented back-to-basket options, and their wholesale threat from beyond the arc forces opposing defenses into concessions otherwise mostly avoided.
And as stagnant as Golden State’s offense sometimes appears due to its undying preference to exploit the mismatch, it’s tough to argue ball movement has suffered overall. The Warriors’ 17.3% assist ratio ranks eighth league-wide, less than a point below passing mavens like Portland and Dallas. This roster boasts several players with keen court sense for their respective positions, and the numbers, if just marginally so, support that analysis.
But does that confirmation have to be underwhelming? Golden State’s sinking offensive rating of 103.5 is just 14th-best in the league, after all. Shouldn’t a team so wrought with shooters, passers, and finishers of all shapes and sizes be better? And what’s the aspect most negatively contributing to that mediocrity?
The Warriors just made a move that improved their talent on the bench, and the all-reserve unit that’s drawn the ire of fans throughout the Bay Area didn’t take the floor in last night’s loss to the Nuggets. Golden State will run out of excuses for its surprisingly tepid offense soon enough, and the players can only shoulder so much of the blame – especially when a potential fix seems so readily apparent.
It’s time you abandon supreme loyalty and dependency to outdated rules of the mismatch, Coach. And on both ends of the floor and at all times of the game, too. Fortunately, there’s an easy, sensible cure to avoid that natural inclination.
First, though, more evidence to combat Jackson’s favorite strategy: the Warriors have struggled in crunch time this season, as well. Golden State has played 21 games in which the score has been within five points in the final five minutes of the fourth quarter, and gone a middling 11-10 in those contests. What’s troubling is that the numbers suggest the Warriors are lucky to have fared even that well: their -4.0 net rating in the clutch ranks 20th in the NBA.
That’s worrisome, obviously, but to properly understand the gravity of Golden State’s labors down the stretch we need to dig deeper. It may shock due to lingering stink from the Denver game, but the Warriors are faring worse offensively than defensively when it matters most. Said defense is hardly spectacular at 100.7 points per 100 possessions and 12th overall, especially considering how near-dominant it is – a rating of 98.2 and third in the league – over the course of a full game. But the offensive numbers border on downright depressing: a 96.8 rating, good for 19th overall.
For those following at home, here’s what we’ve learned: Golden State’s offense is average overall, and nearly one of the league’s 10-worst in the waning moments of close games. The biggest contributor to that poor clutch performance might be the lineups employed during those harrowing times. Remember, it’s the Warriors #fullsquad starters that’s absolutely blowing doors off the league – Curry-Thompson-Iguodala-Lee-Bogut rates as basketball’s top oft-used quintet – and was most responsible for the team’s recent record-breaking winning streak. However, a direct corollary of Jackson’s devotion to coach with mismatches in mind – on offense and defense – is that his starting quintet rarely takes the floor in the clutch: they’ve played just 16 minutes of crunch time all season long.
As JM Poulard noted yesterday, it’s Andrew Bogut who’s most often left on the bench in these situations. After opting to sit his center in the final minutes of Wednesday’s loss to Denver, Jackson defended that decision in reactionary tones.
They spread the floor with the high pick-and-roll and their one big set the screen so that eliminated (Andrew) Bogut out of the picture and took him out of the paint. Our best option was to go small and try to contain them. We did not do that. It’s been successful at times and tonight we did not have the multiple effort plays.
Jackson hates the mismatch on one end just as much he loves it on the other, basically. And though that’s not surprising, it still flies in the face of all the success his team has enjoyed this season. It’s the starters that have Golden State thinking bigger than ever these days, and it’s been Jackson’s preference to play them together as much as possible that’s led to unusual amounts of floor-time for those unplayable bench mobs.
In close games, though, Jackson too often forgoes that reliance to avoid what he deems a defensive mismatch. And the Warriors need points in these instances, too, making Bogut the victim to his obstinacy instead of David Lee. The Aussie has played only 53 minutes of crunch time this season, and failed to appear at all down the stretch in four of the 20 close games he’s been active. Iguodala has played in just 12 such games due to injury but still amassed more playing time than Bogut, and Barnes has 67 clutch minutes of his own despite splitting time in these situations with Draymond Green (38 minutes). Thompson (100 minutes, every game), Lee (96 minutes, every game), and Curry (86 minutes, 19 games due to injury, and recently subject to defense-offense substitutions), meanwhile, are fixtures of Golden State’s late-game lineups.
The sample size in the clutch for the starters is small enough to be rendered mostly inconsequential. But that the Warriors best lineup is rebounding and defending like absolute gangbusters here at least confirms that its all-game success can indeed be enjoyed in the closing moments. The same goes for ball movement: Curry-Thompson-Iguodala-Lee-Bogut assists on a bigger ratio of baskets than any of Golden State’s other regular units, an indicator of Bogut’s influence as passer and screener.
There’s a way for the Warriors to avoid succumbing to mismatches offensively throughout the course of a game, and it’s by utilizing their awesome starting lineup. Bogut begets player movement and extra passes, all while offering help defense and rebounding no other post player on the roster can match. And as for individual defense down the stretch, teams have grown ever-comfortable “hiding” a big man on the opposition’s least threatening perimeter player; this seems as good a defensive role for Lee as any other.
In advance of facing the Miami Heat in last season’s Eastern Conference Finals, Pacers coach Frank Vogel famously remarked on his team’s commitment to its power-ball identity. “We don’t adjust to other teams adjustments,” he said. “We’re ready for their big lineup, small lineup – [what Miami does] has no big impact, really.”
The Warriors can adopt a similar philosophy – Jackson’s starters are so dominant that there’s simply little need to adapt for the sake of an opponent. Developing such a thought won’t only breed strength in psyche, but allow Golden State to play to its natural advantages on both sides of the ball. But first, Jackson and company will have to cede their adherence to the mismatch. And if the fruits of this season are any indication, that will be far easier said than done.
*Statistical support for this post provided by nba.com/stats.
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