Looking at the Golden State Warriors’ sparkling 64–15 record amidst a historically great Western conference it becomes exceedingly hard to point out any shortcomings this squad may have. A cursory look at the Warriors’ standings in statistics such as points per game, offensive efficiency, pace, point differential, opponent points per game, and defensive efficiency attests to the strength of Stephen Curry and Co. compared to the rest of the league. The results of such astounding accomplishments have been All-Star appointments for Curry and Thompson, Defensive Player of the Year talks for Green, Sixth Man of the Year rumors for Speights and near certainty of Coach of the Year for Kerr. Strategically speaking, Coach Steve Kerr’s professional coaching staff led by defensive guru Ron Adams and Alvin Gentry, a disciple of Mike D’Antoni and torchbearer of the Seven Seconds or Less Offense, has started a small revolution in the league by indulging in positionless basketball. The Warriors feature a roster with wings upon wings (Thompson, Barnes, Iguodala, Livingston, Holiday, Green) with their average wingspans reaching approximately six feet nine inches long. This allows for constant switching on the defensive end, both on ball and off ball, with little fear for a mismatch as switching defenders goads opponents into taking contested midrange jumpers. Several other teams that support multiple wing players and have put out positionless lineups to great defensive success include the Bucks (Knight, Middleton, Antetokounmpo, Dudley, Mayo), Spurs (Ginobili, Belinelli, Green, Leonard, Diaw) and Rockets (Terry, Brewer, Harden, Ariza, Jones). Offensively, Kerr has evolved beyond the isolation-heavy sets characteristic of the Jackson-era Warriors to incorporate elements of motion and triangle offense. While most of the actions Kerr opts to run are productive and efficient, some tend to stagnate and ball movement stalls as a result. These curious play calls should be scrutinized and we begin to see that the problems with the Warriors begin and end with Steve Kerr. Nonbelievers of the Warriors’ magical run into the postseason may have some credence in their argument against this newly arisen Western powerhouse.
If one were to take a deeper look into the team, one would find troubling inconsistencies with how Kerr manages his players. The most egregious of Kerr’s mistakes was his chronic misuse of David Lee throughout the season. It is surprising how quickly fans and critics have forgotten about David Lee’s 2012 to 2013 All-Star season that spawned a playoff berth for the Warriors, only the second time in over 20 years. Lee was a nightly double-double threat as he established himself as one of the most dominant pick-and-roll big man in the league. When given the space to roll and finish, Lee flourished as Curry’s sidekick in their two-man games. And Jackson would regularly provide Lee the space he needs to operate in small-ball situations, albeit sometimes unknowingly as Lee would usually play the center position only when Bogut was in foul trouble. Barnes or Green would commonly play the stretch-4 position in a spread floor offense, affording Curry and Lee the opportunity to destroy opposing defenses with their unguardable pick-and-roll schemes. Hedging, or any form of blitzing the point guard using a high screen, would not work because Curry is too unselfish to force a shot when Lee is open to run a 4-on-3 break. Switching is out of the question because very few teams have defenders capable of guarding multiple positions. The only hope teams have of stopping such a deadly combination would be to play the pick and roll conservatively, utilizing ice defense, having the screener’s man sag to contain dribble penetration, or relying on adjacent wing defenders to help briefly on the drive and then recover back to the shooter. All of these options require precise rotations by the defense, but can be further nullified by smart ball movement. Theoretically, there is no solid defense for a tag-team play like a Curry-Lee high pick-and-roll in a spread floor because both are too skilled in their respective roles. But with the regular season winding down, Kerr does not seem to realize this weapon that he has in his arsenal. The rookie coach stubbornly traps Lee in the triangle’s pinch post, while occasionally allowing Lee to roll after dribble handoffs. For example, take a look below at how Kerr wastes Lee’s talents by having him stand idly in the high post on the weak side (left side), effectively ruining the spacing on that side of the floor while Barnes isolates on Scola.
There are no clear passing angles for Barnes to make a bailout pass should he run into trouble in the paint. The problem is further compounded when Kerr’s play does not call for any weak side movement at all. No flair screens, back screens, or any kind of movement from the shooters behind the arc to take advantage of the Pacers’ ball-watching. As for Lee, he is completely out of position to fight for the offensive rebound when the shot goes up.
But when Lee is given the chance to complete a pick and roll, the spacing is equally horrendous. In another instance, Curry and Lee run a sideline dribble handoff against the Mavericks, who ice the play beautifully. The only play Curry can make is the pocket pass to the cutting Lee, which Parsons predicts and steals.
Once again, the spacing is off on the weak side. You can tell Iguodala is signaling for Thompson to use his flair screen, but it is of little use due to Green’s position. Looking at the lineup the Warriors have put out, Lee is the small-ball center with Green as the stretch power forward. However, Green is standing idly in the low post allowing his defender, Aminu, to have both feet planted in the paint with no consequences. Where Green should be is in the weak side corner behind the 3-point line to force Aminu to vacate the lane to respect Green’s shooting. While we may never know how the play would develop because of Parson’s steal, it is safe to assume that Chandler and Aminu would collapse on Lee’s roll, effectively stopping his drive and the play. These examples of wasted offensive possessions paint an unflattering picture of Lee and Kerr is the one to blame.
Another problem with personnel for Golden State involves the offseason pickup Shaun Livingston. Kerr has struggled to fit Livingston into his motion offense and rightfully so. Livingston was deemed the savior for the Nets last season when Coach Kidd used the lanky point guard as a sort of point forward. Livingston would play alongside four shooters (Williams, Johnson, Pierce, Teletovic) who could space the floor while Livingston would go to work on the block and feed his teammates open looks when opponents opted to double him in the post. Unfortunately, the Warriors lack shooters in the second unit and spacing suffers as a result. Take a look at the 3-point shooting percentages of the Warriors’ bench players:
The only accountable shooter off the bench for the Warriors is Barbosa. Iguodala has improved since the All-Star break but is still streaky. Speights is a good pick-and-pop partner while Lee does have a decent midrange game. But the most alarming issue with the second unit is that its primary ball handler, Livingston, has no range. This is the same problem the Mavericks face with Rondo, as opponents simply do not fear non-shooting point guards. Kerr slightly remedies this dilemma by having Livingston play alongside the Splash Brothers, utilizing their gravity away from the ball to create open looks for teammates. Here are Livingston’s numbers when he plays alongside Curry:
These are pretty impressive stats even for such a low usage rate. Livingston’s offensive efficiency is clearly above average when Curry shares the floor with him. But Livingston wasn’t signed to play with Curry. He was signed to play without him. Here is Livingston’s output without Curry:
Livingston’s numbers drop significantly across the board. What contributes to his decreased efficiency would be the decreased pace with which he runs the second unit. Pushing the pace allows for more fastbreak opportunities as defenses are struggling to get into position, which lead to greater offensive efficiency. Livingston is reluctant to play at a faster tempo, opting to hold onto the ball and allowing the opposing defense to settle. As a result, Livingston and the team’s effective field goal percentage, points per possession, and field goal percentage suffer.
Overall, Kerr has done exceptionally well in his first year as a head coach in adopting a motion system to propel the Warriors to unprecedented heights. However there is clearly room for improvement, specifically in managing the multitude of talent on the roster. Once Kerr works out the kinks in the Warriors’ second unit, Dubs fans could have something truly special to witness in the upcoming months.
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