Two weeks without Harrison Barnes has showed the Warriors’ incredible strength in terms of results but also illuminated a few of their potential weak spots.
What makes Golden State different than other great teams is that they have an incredibly vast assortment of players that significantly contribute to their success and arguably no player is more reflective of that concept than Barnes. While he may be the fifth-best player in the team’s best lineup, Barnes’ specific talents and mentality helps make this team function in various iterations.
Even though Barnes is far from the team’s best creator for himself or others, his absence in the starting lineup creates massive ripple effects throughout the rotation. Luke Walton starting Brandon Rush in HB’s stead makes a degree of sense as it allows the bench units to maintain some form of continuity but it also takes some of the bite out of a portion of Stephen Curry minutes if he were anything less than superhuman right now.
More interestingly, Walton is still using lineups featuring Draymond at center. In last season’s playoffs, the Curry/Livingston/Thompson/Iguodala/Green unit actually outperformed the “Death Lineup” (a name we should work on improving, for the record), presumably due to the additional passing on the court with Livingston. As a big supporter of the Curry/Livingston/Thompson trio getting minutes, it has been thrilling to see them play together again, even though they have not been particularly successful in a small sample size (-1.2 points per 100 possessions in 53 minutes this season).
The problem with playing the Curry, Iguodala and Livingston trio together at any time other than the end of a half is that it puts minutes on all of the team’s playmakers at the same time. The all-bench unit of Livingston, Barbosa, Iguodala, Speights and Ezeli helped close the Nets game but even that grouping includes two players in the current Draymond at center lineup.
Blowing teams out consistently helps ease this burden but it is worth considering all the same, especially in light of Klay Thompson injuring his ankle as well. In today’s NBA, it is functionally impossible for a team to have enough depth to withstand a series of injuries to starter-level players and the Warriors have done a very good job this season handling absences of players with varying levels of importance but this stretch of time reinforces the fact that focusing on having the team healthy at the end of the regular season must be the biggest priority from the All-Star break on.
After all, Golden State has absolutely nothing to prove in the regular season. While making history would be nice and they have plenty of different opportunities to do it, for better or worse the NBA (and North American professional sports more broadly) has an understanding that players and fans alike define success in terms of championships. New England’s 18-0 start in 2007 has a place in history to be sure but it is altogether different than even a 15-1 regular season and another Super Bowl ring.
Of course, it can be argued that it should not work this way and that pushing for regular season success has its own admirable qualities. I truly get that. If an organization was on board with that from the players to the staff to ownership, it would certainly be interesting and the Warriors should be having that conversation internally considering their dominant start. However, from my time covering and watching the Association, it feels incredibly unlikely for this or any other team to make that choice.
As such, the coaching staff and players will likely be defining success in May and June for better or for worse. That context means that having their full complement of players proves pivotal because the teams at the top are strong enough to capitalize in ways that the rest of the league cannot, particularly in a series of one-off games like we see in the regular season.
Even with Barnes out the Warriors have an embarrassment of riches but it does make the margin for error meaningfully narrower.