Sunday, December 30, 2012

How the Golden State Warriors match up with the best in the West


The Golden State Warriors have destroyed their reputation for being lazy on defense and merely a bunch of shooters. The revolution by the bay has begun with a tremendous defensive effort—going from a bottom-five team in rebounding to a top-five team. They have an impressive résumé to build off of, most of which is predicated on historic performances that the Warriors franchise has not seen in decades.

Don’t believe that they are a group of players to be reckoned with? Ask Steve Nash, who said after the Lakers came back to beat them on December 22, that the Warriors “have a great spirit…they play with energy at both ends. That’s what we got to do.”

Translation: we need to be more like the Warriors.

If a two-time MVP and well-respected veteran of the league says that, you must be doing something right. With that in mind, how do the Warriors stack up against the best in the West? They are right in the midst of the hunt, not quite comfortably in the upper echelon but clearly better than the vast majority of the Western conference.

Here is a look at how the Bogut-less Warriors (21-10) match up against the four teams that are ahead of them in the standings. (Note: my analysis of each team will end with a semi-concrete conclusion in the form of a prediction for a hypothetical seven-game series matchup.)

Los Angeles Clippers

Like the Warriors, the Clippers have risen fast. The difference is that Los Angeles is riding an impressive 16-game win streak. Again like the Warriors, the depth that supports the strong starting rotation of the Clippers is what makes them a formidable team. Jamal Crawford, Matt Barnes, and Eric Bledsoe have started a combined one game this season but have over 35 points, nine rebounds, and six assists per game total.

The Warriors second squad of Carl Landry, Jarrett Jack, and Draymond Green (who have zero combined starts) all fit in perfectly with the team-first style of play that Mark Jackson has instilled. Jack has been an assassin, nailing clutch jumpers and threes at the most crucial times for the Warriors. But his negative TSR stands up well to moments like this assist to Draymond Green for the game-winning basket against the defending champion Miami Heat:

 

At 6’9” and 6’7” respectively, Carl Landry and Draymond Green provide defensive energy from two forward positions and the ability to knock down shots when called upon (see above).

The big stars on both squads are at the point guard and power forward position. Chris Paul is nearly unanimously recognized as the best on-court leader in the NBA and is one of the best at creating shots for his teammates. What makes him elite is that play-making ability also includes a scorer’s touch and a top defensive effort from the point guard position. Stephen Curry is not quite on Paul’s level from a defensive standpoint, but his offensive firepower is remarkably comparable in his own right. Recently his encore performance of eight three-pointers followed up a night where he hit seven threes (both times his 3PT% was well over 50). Quite simply, Steph Curry has one of the best shots in the NBA.

David Lee and Blake Griffin are both athletic power forwards whose strengths are unique to the NBA and from each other. Lee’s ambidexterity in the post is second-to-none. Blake Griffin lifts off like a rocket when going up for rebounds and dunks. Both are working on complementing their inside games with outside shots and shoot over 50 percent on jumpers (per 82games.com).

The Warriors beat the Clippers back in November, but that is not a reasonable predicate of future success or failure. Both teams have vastly improved from that early season game. A better judge will be the first two games of 2013, where Golden State and Los Angeles begin by playing each other twice. Look for the Warriors to split the pair and end the Clippers winning streak. Even if Golden State can’t pull out a win at Oracle, they are 9-1 after losses and 11-6 away from home. However, in a seven-game series, the favorites have to be the guys with the best record in the NBA.

Los Angeles over Golden State, 4-2


Oklahoma City Thunder

OKC has figured out a way to continue to get the job done in the post-Harden era. But, this hardly comes as a surprise with the reigning scoring champion, Kevin Durant, leading the way. Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka are still doing what has made the Thunder the top dog out West. Harden’s replacement, Kevin Martin, has shot a staggering 47 percent…on threes.

The Warriors are one of the few teams that would be unimpressed by that number considering they have not one but two players shooting 44 percent from downtown (Curry and Jack).

Golden State’s team defense would truly be put to the test with Westbrook and Durant wreaking havoc from every angle, but they will get two opportunities to see OKC before the playoffs. While the Thunder are certainly favorites, the Warriors match up well with Draymond Green, Festus Ezeli, Andris Biedrins, and Carl Landry throwing different looks at a potent offense.

Oklahoma City over Golden State, 4-2


San Antonio Spurs

The Spurs are that pesky team that you always want to count out but never can. Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, and Tim Duncan took a controversial night off in November but combined for 84 points against the Houston Rockets on December 28. They are still playing like a premiere team, as their record shows.

Golden State and San Antonio have remarkably similar recipes for success, both which have remained under-the-radar because of their often lack of national attention. Stephen Curry’s revamped defense could contain Parker and if he got in trouble, the Warriors defensive rotations could provide a safety net. Curry, Thompson, and Jack are certainly better shooters than Parker, Ginobili, and Danny Green which is the only significant advantage either team has.

With that, if Golden State can limit their turnovers—which Steph Curry mentioned is in fact their Achilles heel—they could compete and beat San Antonio. Mark Jackson likely shoots for the culture that Gregg Popovich has created with the Spurs and has the pieces to do it. After taking down the Heat, Golden State knows that they can compete with any team, and the Spurs would be in for a long (hypothetical) series. The young OKC squad took the Spurs down in the 2012 playoffs…maybe the Warriors can do that in 2013.

Golden State over San Antonio, 4-3


Memphis Grizzlies

Memphis beat Golden State in early November, but like the Los Angeles Clippers matchup, that means very little at this point. As easy as it has been to write off the Grizzlies in years past, they are another team that has a legitimate shot at a deep post-season run. Look no further than a three-game stretch where they beat Miami, Oklahoma City and New York—all by at least 10 points.

Both teams average over 15 turnovers per game. Decreasing this is a focal point to success but because the Warriors and Grizzlies are such talented organizations, they have been able to succeed despite those giveaways. Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph lead a very intimidating front line (over 30 points and 20 rebounds per game combined), but the Warriors offensive success does not rely solely on getting to the paint.

Golden State has depth in their bench and Memphis has a reliable starting lineup (four players average at least 34 minutes per game) which are points of contrast. If the Warriors can tire the likes of Rudy Gay, Tony Allen, and Mike Conley, then there may be an opportunity to exploit a weakness. Jarrett Jack thrives in late-game situations and has (and will) add a punch to the Warriors offense.

Oklahoma City, Los Angeles, and San Antonio all have more household names than Memphis but this matchup would be possibly the most interesting because both teams have something to prove this year. They know that early season success means nothing once May and June roll around. That chip on their shoulder(s) makes for some great basketball. Who would come out on top? An early lead for the Warriors with some great shooting would discourage Memphis the most out of the top-four teams in the West. In a seven-game series, that bodes well for Curry and Co.

Golden State over Memphis, 4-3

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Right now, the top five teams in the West are all very competitive franchises, some with reputations as such (San Antonio) and others not (Golden State). The beginning of 2013 only means so much to an NBA team, but these teams will in all likelihood lead the West into the playoffs. The only question mark is the Los Angeles Lakers, who have been steadily improving. For now, I elected to leave them out of this discussion. The Warriors did lose to the Lakers but watching the game there was no question who was truly the better team. That may change in a couple of months, but a .500 record is not impressive in a deep conference.

On that note, the Warriors do have their work cut out for them. The unity and cohesiveness of this franchise will be what carries them as the season progresses. If Mark Jackson can continue to get the best out of his guys and keep an onward and upward mentality the Warriors would do best never looking back. The past couple years says they can’t, but this team has a short memory and a lot of talent.

Without a doubt, their upside is greater than that of the 2007 team.

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