Last year, the Golden State Warriors ripped off 24 straight wins to start the season before taking their first loss in Milwaukee on December 12. By then, the 2015–16 Warriors were already benchmarked against Michael Jordan’s 72-10 Chicago Bulls. Klay Thompson went so far as to suggest that his team would dominate the Showtime Lakers.
These Warriors, for their part, did go 73-9 before finally being tested in the Western Conference Finals. The Warriors were actually down 1-3 in the 2016 WCF, after being blown out by a combined 52 points in Oklahoma City. Golden State prevailed in seven games after Thompson suddenly caught fire late in Game 6 and swung the balance of the series.
In the Finals, however, the Cleveland Cavaliers that returned the favor and turned the tables on the Warriors, clawing their way back from a 1-3 deficit in their own right. After 52 long years without a championship, The Block and The Shot replaced The Drive and The Fumble atop Cleveland sports lore.
In response, the Golden State Warriors blew up much of its rotation, to make way for Kevin Durant and his two-year, $54 million contract. For many, the NBA is a talent-driven league, where Super Teams are the order of the day. So, the idea that Golden State should have passed on Durant would come off as pure blasphemy. In this case, however, the Warrior franchise has actually regressed. The current 2016–17 roster is worse than the 73-9 team from last season. Here are five reasons why.
5. The underrated Harrison Barnes
For the Golden State Warriors, Harrison Barnes makes for the best one-to-one comparison in terms of what the team lost and got back through the Durant deal. Last year, Barnes started 59 games for Golden State and put up 12 points to go with five boards and two assists through 30 minutes per game of action. In 2014–15, Barnes was called up to start and relegate Andre Iguodala to the bench and a sixth man role, for the first time in his life. Years ago, many actually compared Barnes to Kobe Bryant before he even set foot on the floor at Carolina.
Dallas signed Barnes to a maximum, four-year $94 million contract this past offseason. He was a restricted free agent, and the Warriors did maintain rights to match any offer from another team and retain his services. Still, Golden State let HB walk, in order to clear out a starting spot and cap space for Durant to sign a max deal in his own right.
Barnes is now only 24 years old, and does have time to expand his game further into his prime years. The Dallas Mavericks signed Harrison Barnes with the full intent of the swingman emerging as the go-to scorer on the team. Barnes has not disappointed, upping his statistical performance across the board to now drop in 23 points per game. HB is out on the floor for 38 minutes each contest, without the fear of getting the quick hook for Iguodala after one mistake.
Meanwhile, Durant is putting up his all but standard 28 points per game in Golden State off ridiculous 56% shooting, as one of the more polished scorers in the history of the game. Still, the gap in performance separating these two forwards from each other does not justify gutting the rotation. Real contenders will expose the Warriors for their lack of size and depth.
4. Lack of size
Beyond Harrison Barnes, the Golden State Warriors also parted ways with their entire center rotation — Andrew Bogut, Festus Ezeli, and Marreese Speights — to make way for Durant. As a group, these three players averaged 20 points, 16 rebounds, four assists, and three blocks for 2015–16. Last year, the coaching staff did have the flexibility to rotate traditional and small ball lineups. Bogut was the starter, as the anchor of the defense and willing passer on the low block. Next, Steve Kerr would bring Ezeli off the bench, for his energy and athleticism. Meanwhile, Mo Buckets would remain at-the-ready, for his instant offense and mid-range jumpshot.
To dump salary, the Warriors dealt Bogut to Dallas this offseason, for pennies on the dollar and future draft picks. They let Ezeli and Speights go, so they hit the market as free agents and signed deals with the Portland Trail Blazers and Los Angeles Clippers, respectively. From here, the Warriors were left to fill out their roster with the likes of Zaza Pachulia and a ring-chasing David West. Draymond Green, at 7-foot-7, is now the team’s leading rebounder, with 10 boards per game.
As a group, the Warriors have fallen from the fourth- to the 14th-ranked rebounding team in the NBA. Small ball is now a necessity in Oakland, instead of a change-of-pace novelty. Pachulia, the starting center, is only checking into the game for 17 minutes before being yanked for a lineup featuring Stephen Curry, Thompson, Iguodala, and Durant flanking Green at center. The Cavaliers, Clippers, and Spurs all have the personnel to gash the Golden State Warriors inside, with timely offensive rebounding and post scoring. Size matters the most in the playoffs, when the tempo slows to a halt and outside shots simply stop falling.
3. Weak bench
The mass exodus out of Golden State gutted the second unit, with Ezeli, Leandro Barbosa, Brandon Rush, and Speights all seeking bigger paydays and playing time elsewhere. Last year, these four rotation players combined for 25 points, 13 rebounds, and four assists per game, with each of these reserves checking in for roughly 15 minutes of game time. Now, Iguodala and Shaun Livingston remain the two primary bench holdovers from the 73-9 team. Iguodala has averaged more than 25 minutes per game throughout his time in Golden State, performing more so as a sixth starter out on the floor in crunch time.
Beyond Iguodala, Kerr has dramatically shortened his rotation, with only Livingston, Patrick McCaw, and Ian Clark getting significant runs off the bench. David West looks every bit of 36, and is only putting up four points per game through less than 10 minutes of game time. Last season, the second unit worked itself into the game seamlessly with the starters. This allowed the Golden State coaching staff to experiment with all types of wacky lineups without missing a beat.
Imagine Thompson and Green running a two-man game with the reserves, before whipping the ball around the perimeter to a wide-open Mo Buckets. On the next possession, after forcing the defense to commit, Barbosa would call for the ball at the top of the key to go to work out of isolation. Barbosa once racked up 18 points per game, as a young speedster and provider of instant offense out of Mike D’Antoni’s system in Phoenix.
Now, the Golden State Warriors will rely heavily upon their starters for offensive production, which may make the team more predictable and easier to guard. So far this year, Durant, Curry, Thompson, and Green are putting up 85 points per game, or a staggering 75% of the team’s total offensive production. Without relief, expect the starters to be totally gassed down the stretch of the regular season. From there, a weak bench is a recipe for disaster in the playoffs.
2. Defense wins championships
The Golden State Warriors, like the Dynasty San Francisco 49ers before them, have managed to pair historically high-octane offenses in front of solidly underrated defensive units. We’ll forever associate the Dynasty 49ers with Bill Walsh, Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, Roger Craig, Steve Young and the West Coast offense. On the other side of the football, however, were also the likes of Ronnie Lott, Charles Haley, Merton Hanks, Deion Sanders, and Ken Norton, Jr.
In 2014–15, Golden State limited the opposition to less than 100 points per game. That season, the Warriors were also actually second in the league in blocks per game (with 3.6) and held opponents to a league low .428 field goal percentage. These Warriors went 67-15, ripped through the Western Conference Finals, and took the Finals in six games over a bloodied, but unbowed Cleveland lineup. Last year, the much-underrated GSW defense was back at it again, to close out the regular season third in blocks (4.1) and third in opposing field goal percentage (.435).
The Warriors’ defense, at its best, featured swarming wing defenders that could switch off multiple positions, Curry playing the passing lanes, and the constant wolfing of Green. Bogut would then stand tall as the last line of defense, as one of the better rim protectors and rebounders in the league. Bogut, for his part, was named Second Team All-Defense to close out 2015. Bogut, of course, is now hauling in 11 rebounds per game, while wearing a Dallas Mavericks uniform.
The GSW defense has regressed dramatically, without Bogut patrolling the paint behind waves of perimeter defenders. Opponents are now shooting 45% from the field and putting up 108 points per game, which rank as a rather pedestrian 15th and 23rd in the league, respectively. The 2016–17 Warriors have been especially bad at forcing turnovers and closing out upon perimeter shooters. With time, these reconfigured Warriors will find that the old cliche still holds true: Defense wins championships.
1. The evil empire
For several years running, the Golden State Warriors and their freewheeling, plucky style endeared themselves to fans. In 2007, the GSW took out the Dallas Mavericks in six games, as an eighth seed. In doing so, Don Nelson introduced the world to the concept of small ball, with the likes of Baron Davis, Stephen Jackson, and Jason Richardson running up and down the floor to harass a statuesque Dirk Nowitzki into missed shots and ugly turnovers.
Two years later, in 2009, the Warriors drafted Curry as the seventh round out of tiny Davidson College. At that point in time, a then relatively frail Curry and his weak ankles appeared as if he would be more so comfortable heading up an IT Department than he would be pulling up from behind the arc and draining another three-point bomb. Curry is now competing against himself, after shattering the single-season three-point makes record for four years running.
The wacky lineups have continued at Oracle Arena, with Kerr now at the helm. When going small, Kerr would install Green at center, and flank him with four sharp shooters, ball handlers, and cutters out on the floor. At times, it would appear as if this Death Lineup was actually better than any NBA 2K video game simulation, with Green driving the lane off the high pick-and-roll before kicking the ball out to a wide open Thompson or Stephen Curry. This was the basketball revolution that endeared itself to legions of fans, coaches, and analysts globally.
The irony of any Revolution, however, is that groundbreaking concepts gradually become associated with The Establishment. By the 2016 Finals, it was the 73-9 Golden State Warriors that suddenly found themselves as the matrix and raging machine against the suddenly lovable underdog James. The Warriors, after losing the Finals in seven games, signed the best pure scorer in basketball away from his trusted running mate Russell Westbrook. Expect the Golden State Warriors to now be booed off the floor, as the Evil Empire, especially when Durant makes his return to Oklahoma City on February 11, 2017.
Thompson and Green are already both off their games and repeatedly throw up bricks out of the flow of the offense. In crunch time, Durant will resort to bad habits, pound the ball out of isolation, and clang a shot off the back of the rim late in the clock. Mercenary, hired gun “championship or bust” expectations will take the joy out of the game for KD and the Warriors.