Sunday, June 23, 2013

Golden State will soon be better than OKC


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 Russell 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
only 1.3 TO per game in the playoffs against two great defenses (Spurs and Denver)? This man is a star in the making and the Warriors have him locked up until 2016.

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.

3 comments:

  1. Finally read this. Overall I completely agree with the possibility/idea as a whole, but disagree with some of the points that you make.

    Specifically," Durant is the best scorer in the game, but if he has an off-night or Russell Westbrick the defense locks him down, he can be taken out of a game because he’s lacks a well-rounded offensive skillset"...juxtaposed next to "Curry has the complete offensive game that you want a guard".. wait, what?! Durant is unequstionably the second best player in the game behind LeBron... just made it to the 50/40/90 club behind 28 ppg. Of course, he can have an off night, but he's the best scorer in the NBA - everybody has bad games! Curry is a great player without question, but KD is still better. Additionally, he is still only 25, so he's still improving - look at his assist numbers this year. Obviously Curry is too, but I would still probably take KD over Curry, though its close.

    Following that up, the Thunder have Westbrook, who is a top-10 player, and also a very complete player. He is only 24, and improving as well! In the article, you barely mention him, but he is probably what puts the Thunder over the top. We just saw what happened to the Thunder without Westbrook!

    I agree with the money issues, cause GS will have a lot more $$$ once the Jefferson/Biedrins contracts come off the books, while OKC is paying 3 players ~50 million combined a year. Also, GS does have a better bench and frontline. But, OKC has two superstars who are still young and improving and one maybe borderline all star (Ibaka), while Golden State has one superstar, one maybe borderline all star (Thompson), and one intriguing project (Barnes). I'd still take the sure superstars!

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  2. I'm not doubting the fact that KD is better and as for the quotes that you pointed out from the article, I do stand by them. What I meant by those is that Curry does have a complete offensive game - as a scorer AND a facilitator. Durant is the best scorer in the league but can only rely on his scoring because he is an average or below-average facilitator. The numbers that you brought up all validate his scoring ability (which I do not question).


    Don't disagree with Westbrook but I take a slightly different perspective. The lack of Westbrook exposed just how weak the rest of the Thunder team is - conversely, the Warriors EXCEEDED expectations in the playoffs minus their lone All-Star, David Lee! Young guys stepped up big.


    That's fair to take the superstars. I'm just saying the Warriors have the ability to be more of a Spurs-type (or Pacers-type) team with undervalued stars/superstars and solid role players whereas OKC is going to rely on two players playing superstar basketball even though their playing styles aren't exactly complementary. And the money is a big factor that could really prove to shift the tide to the Warriors in the West.

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  3. Okay, the "complete offensive game" makes more sense now. That's fair.. But in regards to Westbrook, just like you said in your article, injuries can happen to any team, and shouldn't be a factor in influencing the future. So, in this case, we know that OKC has two superstars, both of whom are still likely to improve, and some solid role players. The rookie Reggie Jackson played very well for them in the playoffs - could make a solid 6th man if they don't resign Kevin Martin. So, even though going forward they will be more constrained financially than the dubs, they still have a lot of ways they can improve internally. Amestying Kendrick Perkins and his 8 million a year would free up some paper to use a mid-level exception on someone as solid as OJ Mayo for example (last year Dallas signed him with that).


    At least we can agree that it looks like the tide is finally turning in Golden State! Who would've expected that GS AND the Clippers would be making the playoffs simultaneously for several seasons??

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