Golden State: Better or worse than 2015?
From Splash Brothers to Superteam, the Golden State Warriors have lived up to (almost) all the hype this season as they roll inexorably towards yet another NBA title tilt.
If Dubs 1.0 were able to catch everyone unawares during their championship chase in 2015, then the upgraded version has had the burden of living up to sky-high expectations.
Not just two extraordinarily gifted shooters but three. Not solely two burgeoning All Stars but four current behemoths in their absolute prime.
This isn’t the Cavaliers of LeBron’s first run in Cleveland or the Thunder of Kevin Durant’s past life. Reaching and hoping. The Warriors of 2016-17 were constructed with greatness, and nothing less, in mind.
“Strength in Numbers was legitimate,” ESPN-BT Sport pundit Jalen Rose declares. “Now it’s strength in All-Stars.”
And yet, even if Golden State edge onwards to a second ring in three years, we ask the question: will we ever love this team the way we loved the original? Feel as much affection we had for the group climbing to the top in unison rather than the one who parachuted in a little help to make the next ascent? Regard them with as much admiration as the original, and perhaps the best?
Because everyone roots for an underdog.
“Mark Jackson kinda lit the fire, then Steve Kerr came in but no-one said this is the best team,” recalls NBA TV analyst Kenny Smith. “They were pretty good but they became the best team.
“Klay Thompson was not a child prodigy. Steph Curry was not a prodigy. They developed into the best players. And they won 73 games without Kevin Durant. And they were winning a couple of series without him this year. That’s developing.”
As dominant as the Warriors have been this term, we’ve struggled to warm to them, even as much than the 73-win crew that came up short to the Cavs last June.
They finished ’15 with 67 victories, identical to the current regular season. Their points differential was a little less then, +10.1 compared to +11.6 (both league-highs by a clear margin) but that’s commensurate with a slightly quicker pace.
But old GSW was as accustomed to strangling you as they were at shooting you down. “I would say they were a tougher team to play two years ago with Andrew Bogut's passing and defence,” one Western Conference assistant coach told me.
“He was an elite paint protector and passer. They don't get near the amount of lay-ups in the half court as they used to and most of that is because (Zaza) Pachulia isn't the playmaker Bogut is.”
There’s something wholly admirable about teams whose defence is the yang to the offensive ying. And the Australian’s departure – along with fellow rim protector Festus Ezeli - hasn’t ultimately cost the former crew too much at their own end of the floor.
Durant’s shot blocking is at a career-high 1.6 swats per game. Unseen and under-appreciated, a lot of that is down to the freedom Draymond Green – often guarding the best opposing big – affords his team-mates to take small chances in the knowledge the effervescent colleague is on patrol.
“For Draymond’s career, we’re going to look at all the other things he does: how he talks, how he comes to the game, inappropriate or appropriate statement,” NBA TV analyst Chris Webber offers.
“But don’t fall for it, because it’s about him coming through and being selfless. The biggest factor is the team know they have depend on him to do a job every day.”
If Durant has evolved as a defender, he has retained his position as a supreme scorer.
Overall, Golden State’s efficiency rating has increased with a notably higher conversion rate in the paint. However it’s the amount of uber-options which have led to occasionally ridiculous numbers (try 37 games so far with over 120 points).
During the past two post-seasons, the Warriors didn’t always have it easy, primarily because opponents were able to push Curry into a box and dare his team-mates to be the ones to break free.
Now, if you stop the point guard, can you also corral the point forward? “That’s the beauty of this golden State Warriors team,” former Timberwolves coach Sam Mitchell declares.
“You can talk about all the assists and all the floor spacing. But they have two guys in Steph Curry and Kevin Durant who can go one-on-one and flat out get it done.”
Evidence was clear in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals against the San Antonio Spurs when Curry and Durant combined for 74 points on 25-47- shooting, the most they’ve contributed as a one-two punch all season.
Hard to stop.
Yet, not for the first time, it was not so much Strength in Numbers, as the t-shirt / marketing campaign proclaims.
Draymond Green had just nine points. Thompson a mere six. The bench barely registering. “For me the key to their team is still Thompson, the second best two-way player in the league behind Kawhi,” the NBA assistant affirms.
“But with Durant, Thompson sometimes get a little more squeezed out and has been more streaky.
Less Splash, more dash. And that was the big reason why championship Dubs had an historic Fun Factor, seeing the backcourt brethren toy with opponents, trade unbelievable long-range bombs and tell us the game was evolving before our very eyes.
Yet the reality is maybe we’re already under-rating these Warriors, caught in two minds between Durant’s addition and the clamour over his ruthless departure from Oklahoma City. Focusing too much on the small imperfections and not relishing the marvels of a roster which still adores reads and passes as much as it ever did - and has maintained its focus on the ultimate goal in the face of integrating an additional A-Lister and the unfortunate absences of Kerr from the sidelines.
It’s illustrative that of the leading nine four-man line-ups measured by net efficiency, eight involve a quartet of Golden State players, including a shut-out of the top six. Team, first, always.
Perhaps Dubs 2.0 is like when Windows went from XP to Vista. Initially hard to glean whether it’s an upgrade but on closer examination, subtly enhanced.
“(With) the Houston Rockets,” Rose argues, “we get enamoured with their offense because they have three guys that can get you 40 on a given night, and four guys that can make five threes on a given night at least. We get enamoured with their offense.
“But the depth line-up on defence with Draymond playing fours and fives and K.D. being a true defender, rebounder, and shot blocker. I think that’s what looks a lot more different with this year’s team.”
The most significant constant? They still badly want to win. Go inside the locker room in Oakland, and there’ll be little caring about the entertainment value on offer, especially not if the Larry O’Brien is wrestled back next month.
Judge us on titles, they’ll say.
If they add another, that will be all that counts. Sure, these Warriors haven’t reinvented the wheel, nor chased records or snuck up on the blind side.
But that doesn’t stop them from being really, really super.