By: Ken Cheng
After last night’s dismantling of the rival Houston Rockets, and with the first half of the NBA season nearly in the books, the spotlight continues to shine brightly on the Warriors and their league-best 34-6 record. The improvements head coach Steve Kerr and his staff have finagled out of this year’s squad has them on track to become the best Warriors team in franchise history*. The Warriors’ dominance, however, was not a sure thing going into the season, despite coming off 51 wins last year. Butterflies and caterpillars and whatnot. After head coach Mark Jackson was fired last summer, there was a palpable anxiety among fans that the team could regress, due in part to the unpleasant way the regime change occurred. Ironically, this anxiety contradicted a yearlong frustration with the team’s offensive shortcomings, most of which were blamed on Coach Jackson. The drumbeat of complaints about sub-optimal player utilization, isolation-heavy sets, and substitution patterns reverberated throughout the season — even though the Warriors finished with their best mark in 21 years. It was because of this achievement that some fans were wary about such a high-risk change.
*The ’75 Championship team won 59 regular season games. This season, the Warriors are on pace to win 70.
Forty games in, though, the Warriors’ gaudy record has alleviated any fear about rookie coach-caused backsliding like a “Best Team In The League” Xanax pill. In fact, as the team flirts with near historic statistical numbers, it’s hard to describe their improvement as anything less than dramatic **. The shift to a pace-and-space offense predicated on ball movement has vaulted the Warriors to the top of the NBA’s standings and put Steph Curry – whose brilliance the offense most hinges on each game – at the forefront of the league MVP discussion. This year’s team, of course, is different than last year’s — which, at various points, had to rely on Jordan Crawford (ugh!), Steve Blake (yikes!), and Toney Douglas (lol!)*** for significant minutes. But even if you just focus on the eight returning players from last year’s roster (excluding Festus Ezeli, who missed all of last season), you still have to wonder at just how much the change in offensive philosophy has impacted them, both on an individual level and as a group.
*Last year’s record after 40 games was 25-15, a 9 win improvement.
**The Warriors boast a +11.7 point differential (up from +4.8 last year), rank #1 in points scored, field goal %, and field goal % allowed among many other metrics.
***I do not have a single memory of Toney Douglas on last year’s team. It’s possible I had them “Eternal Sunshined” out of my brain.
The change, offensively, for these eight players* can be summarized most simply by saying they are taking (and making) more easy shots.** The ball movement and up-tempo pace the Warriors have employed all season has led to an average of nearly 6 more field goals with 6 more assists despite only 4 more attempts for this group, per 100 possessions, over last year. They’re collectively scoring 14.4 more points; which is remarkable considering they’re playing fewer minutes per game this season in aggregate.*** The effect of the new offense can also been at the free throw line, where this group is taking 2 more freebies. The biggest beneficiaries of all the fast breaks, back cuts, and wide open 3s unleashed by the Warriors’ offense? It’s currently a three-way race between Klay Thompson, scoring 7 more points on 3 more attempts, Marreese Speights, living up to his nickname with 7 more points on 3 more attempts, and Harrison Barnes, who’s been a model of efficiency and improved decision making, shooting nearly 10% better on 3 less attempts.
*Curry, Thompson, Bogut, Green, Barnes, Iguodala, Speights, and Lee
**All stats cited Per 100 possessions
***The biggest exception to this is Draymond Green, who – as if answering Warriors fans’ prayers – is playing 10 more minutes per game as a starter this season. Marreese Speights and Harrison Barnes are also seeing more PT.
Obviously, there’s no predicting how these trends will hold up over the course of 82 regular season (and hopefully more post season) games. But the results, so far, have validated the notion that this team was not operating at maximum offensive efficiency, much less potential, in previous seasons. Mark Jackson was too often made the focal point of unreasonable fan vitriol and deserves a ton of credit for turning a perennial loser into a perennial playoff contender. But it’s become very clear, at least after 40 games, that the Warriors have evolved into a team, under Coach Kerr and his staff, much better prepared to utilize the roster’s wide and deadly range of offensive skills — and much less inclined to cause bouts of anxiety in its fan base.
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