After years of agonizing failure, the Golden State Warriors exploded onto the scene as legitimate NBA contenders. In their second playoff appearance since 1995, Golden State made a huge statement behind their young nucleus and coach (which, despite the fact that ESPN gave the Warriors no chance in the first round of the playoffs, I was in the minority who thought the Warriors would pull it off.)
And if Game 1 didn’t become the tragic disaster that it did once Klay Thompson fouled out, Richard Jefferson choked on two free throws, and Manu hit the second of nine three-point attempts to pull off the stunner, it might have been a very different Western conference finals and NBA Finals. As a Warriors fan, I felt knifed by that dagger in Game 1, especially considering Manu finished off the series below 30 percent beyond the arc…
A significant portion of the Warriors fate rides upon this summer (can they re-sign Jack and/or Landry for below market value? If not, can they pick up another solid veteran?) BUT the core that they have to build around is as good as it gets.
If everybody can remain healthy (forever the qualifier with Steph’s ankles), I believe that the Warriors will be better than the Oklahoma City Thunder in the very near future. Before you say that I’m crazy, let me explain why I have so much faith in this young Dubs team.
The Warriors have infamously seen their fair share of injuries, but Russell Westbrook going down with a torn meniscus in the playoffs was a debilitating blow to the Thunder. Kobe Bryant going down (against the Warriors, ironically enough) with an Achilles rupture crippled an already injury-laden Lakers team. Andrew Bynum, well…who knows what his deal is. And Derrick Rose didn’t play a minute in the 2012-13 season.
So if we’re going to pull out the injury card, you could make an argument for the Bobcats winning the title. Not to mention that the Warriors proved that they could win playoff games without their lone All-Star, David Lee. Dwyane Wade also battled knee injuries throughout the post-season and ended up en route to a second consecutive NBA championship. For the sake of argument, let’s assume a healthy NBA and take it from there. If you want to put an asterisk saying assuming no injuries that’s legitimate…but it’s also legitimate for 29 other NBA teams.
Now that we’ve set the injury qualifier aside, let’s talk about why I predict the Warriors will be better than the Thunder in the next two to three years—maybe even sooner.
Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook vs. Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Harrison Barnes is more complicated than the success of a young duo over an up-and-coming trio who have just started to prove themselves.
As LeBron James has shown (over the past two years, in particular), great players need to have more than a one-sided ability to score. In Game 7 of the 2013 NBA Finals, LeBron put on a shooting clinic with five threes and countless jumpers, a far cry from the driving and passing mentality that he showed earlier in the series. Great players have plasticity—that ability to exploit the changing weaknesses of the opponent from game to game. Durant is the best scorer in the game, but if he has an off-night or
Westbrick the defense locks him down, he can be taken out of a game because
he’s lacks a well-rounded offensive skillset.
Curry has the complete offensive game that you want a guard. He looks to get teammates involved as much as he looks for his own shot, and when you have a guy who can shoot off the dribble or take you off the dribble, it’s nearly unstoppable. At his best, Curry can compete with any scorer in the league—his 54 points at MSG was the mark for most points in a game this season (2012-13). 30 from 30 for 30 is no joke when the Warriors star makes threes look like layups.
And Curry’s supporting cast is better than OKC’s. This mellows the pressure on Steph to score 25 or 30 a game because he has Klay and the Black Falcon. Mark Jackson said it best: he has the best shooting backcourt in NBA history. And in a “make-or-miss” league, when you have great shooters, you always have the opportunity to pull off incredible comebacks.
That lights-out shooting got Golden State into trouble sometimes. They lost games during the year where they built healthy double-digit leads only to gift the game away to opposing teams—none of course, more nationally recognized than Game 1 of the Conference semis where a double-digit fourth quarter lead evaporated in minutes. With experience, those losses will disappear. Learning to win is something that the Oklahoma City Thunder know all about.
Part of their success is the development of rookie standout, Harrison Barnes (aka Black Falcon or Bad News Barnes, take your pick). His ability to get to the rim has been constantly improving, and he looks like the guy who you can go to when your team needs a bucket. His jump-shot improved even within his rookie year, and his monster posterization of Nikola Pekovic exhibited his phenomenal athleticism. What he loses to Westbrook in quickness, he beats him in strength, and if he develops his post-game (something that he went to in the playoffs)…watch out.
His defense has also improved a ton and his versatility on that side of the ball is almost LeBron-esque. Barnes is a perimeter defender by trade, but the Warriors (and their small lineups) morphed him into a post-defender when needed—which he is capable of, at 6’8”. 16 points, 6 rebounds, 86 percent from the line and
There is no real comparison between the front lines of the Warriors and Thunder. Bogut led the league in rebounds during the first two rounds of the playoffs despite having played few regular season games. David Lee was a nightly 20-10 threat before dropping to injury. Ibaka and Perkins don’t have nearly the offensive potency of the Vanilla Towers. Sure, Iblocka will get you some impressive plays on that side of the ball, but he is to defense what Blake Griffin is to offense: flashy and entertaining, but not as great as he is often made out to be. In 2013, Ibaka and his 7.7 RPG didn’t crack the top-10 in defensive win shares.
Defensively on the front line, it may be closer but considering the Thunder can expect no offense from Perkins (4.2 PPG in 2013), the Warriors bigs are better. (The one problem for Golden State being Bogut's free throw shooting.)
Golden State also has a superior bench. Even though they may lose Landry and/or Jack, Brandon Rush will help boost the starters as will Ezeli, Draymond Green, and possibly the 12th man of the year, Kent Bazemore. This gives the Warriors shooting, defense, veterans, and youth in their second squad. With Kevin Martin a free agent, the best that OKC can expect from the bench is Nick Collison and…Hasheem Thabeet? Meanwhile, if Draymond’s three-point stroke looks anything like it did in the playoffs, you’re looking at a Shane Battier-type who can hit big outside shots and play lockdown defense. For less than $1 million a year through 2015, Bob Myers struck gold with this pick.
The other thing is the salaries involved. Because Westbrook and Durant are both bona-fide superstars, they are paid as such. Over the next three years, the OKC duo will make upwards of $40 million a year with a salary cap at $58 million. Not much flexibility there. In 2014-15, David Lee, Curry, Barnes, Thompson, Ezeli, and Green are set to be paid less than that duo combined. Bill Simmons even went so far as to rank Steph at No. 3 in the NBA on his trade value series.
If given those salaries, I would take those seven guys over Westbrook and Durant. With the money that OKC has locked up in their top-four players ($57 million) in 2014-15, and $48 million in 2015-16 for three guys (KD, RW, and Ibaka), they will struggle to support their stars. Unlike Miami, OKC doesn’t have the ability to woo free agents with beautiful beaches. As for the Warriors, the sacrifices in stardom will be made up for chemistry and the complimentary skills that each player brings to the team.
Don't forget the Dubs will soon be able dangle the beauty of San Francisco and a new arena in front of wandering free agents. It was no mistake that a big name like Dwight Howard was linked to the Warriors already, and who knows what the summer of 2014 will bring in the Bay Area.
Both OKC and Golden State have brilliant young coaches and savvy front offices. To Sam Presti’s chagrin, the Warriors will vie for a top seed in the West much sooner than he would have liked. Golden State has two of the best three-point shooters in the league (both who have offensive games more developed than just that aspect), an up-and-coming scorer who can play defense, a post scorer (maybe two), post defenders, and a reasonably deep bench that has a good combination of youth and experience.
It may happen next year or it may take another year or two, but look for the Warriors to surpass OKC in the wild West.