This is Part Five of a five-part series featuring the most likely contenders for the NBA Championship. In case you missed it, Part One (Cleveland Cavaliers), Part Two (San Antonio Spurs), Part Three (Houston Rockets), and Part Four (Boston Celtics). Much more on these five teams and the rest of the playoff contenders starting this weekend.
I have an image burnt into my mind when thinking of last season’s 73-9 Golden State Warriors. An image of a high screen set on Stephen Curry’s man by Draymond Green. An action that would consistently spur defensive fervor born out of the idea that if this action was not guarded perfectly it would certainly be exploited by the Warriors. Curry’s defender would know that if even a fraction of his shoulder were to be caught on the broad shoulders of a Draymond screen, his team would fall a crucial second behind.
In that brief window of time, Curry would load and launch a projectile from his sternum before the defender had time to so much as raise a hand. An action that worked so many times, Curry became to develop an air for flair before, during, and after the shot.
Curry’s balletic pirouettes, crossovers, behind the back passes, and eighteen-foot floaters tranquilized the 2015-16 audience in awe of something they had never seen before— unstoppable offense.
The quick death of that pick and roll action and the enumeration of tweaks infuriated opposing defenses. Curry was iconic in the pick and roll but it was Green who was the engine of the action. The weapon of the roll would spur an equal quotient of fear in the defense. With two defenders on Curry, those possessions would instigate another opportunity— a four-on-three affair headed by Green.
Here, you can see Green steps ahead of the defense when he waves Andre Iguodala to the corner. Green and the Warriors know exactly how the Kings will guard this pick and roll— two defenders on Curry leading to a wide open roll for Green. Omri Casspi will obviously help in preventing a Green layup which then leaves a wide open corner three for Iguodala, who shot 43.3 percent from the corner last season.
When you have a transcendent talent in Curry and an almost flawless offense, what do you do when another transcendent talent is brought aboard? That was the question posed to head coach Steve Kerr and the entirety of the Warriors organization when Kevin Durant was signed this offseason. The beauty and effectiveness of the Warriors’ pick and roll action could not simply be deleted, but it also could not be the mainstay of the offense with Durant. He was not going to be content simply waiting in the corner for threes, a la Kevin Love in his first year with the Cavaliers.
And he has not.
Kevin Durant > Harrison Barnes
Durant replaced Harrison Barnes at the small forward position where the haul, as expected, has been demonstrable. Barnes simply is not the shooter Durant is and levels behind in off the dribble penetration. This was most notable when the offense would start swirling around a Curry-led pick and roll.
An example presented itself in last season’s Finals. Barnes began passing up open threes, he lost confidence in his shot and looked to drive almost exclusively.
Playing much of his career with a ball-dominant guard like Russell Westbrook, Durant has been primed to play a similar role off the ball on offense. Durant has always feasted off the catch, either shooting or penetrating when the defense would attempt to run him off the three-point line.
Durant’s presence also gives Curry the opportunity to play off of the ball in the pick and roll. Last season, when Curry was given a break off of the ball, the ball handling duties would occasionally go to Barnes, who again was simply not Durant.
When Durant is used in ball screen action, with Curry instead of Barnes, the play is much more of a weapon. In the previous clip, you see Barnes taking a rainbow of a route to the basket, here you can see Durant’s ability to go straight to the rim where he has exponentially more ability to draw contact and finish.
Finding Shots For Durant
As the Warriors were still going to still be restricted to playing with only one basketball, another tweak was requisite for Golden State. Durant was obviously going to remain a high usage player, after averaging 19.2 shot attempts per game in 2015-16. The Warriors not only had to clear salary cap space for Durant, they also had to clear shot attempts.
In clearing space, stalwarts of the rotation were shown the door. Barnes, Andrew Bogut, and Leandro Barbosa were let go in the offseason. Those three players serendipitously combined for exactly 19.2 shots per game last season with the Warriors.
19.2 shots out, 19.2 shots in. Not so simple when Durant can not cover the 4,572 minutes Bogut, Barnes, and Barbosa combined to play last season. Recreating the roles of Bogut and Barbosa would prove to be crucial in maintaining the Warriors’ identity.
Zaza Pachulia was added to the roster in lieu of Bogut and Ian Clark (a free agent signing the previous summer) was inserted into the rotation spot of Barbosa. Pachulia is a low usage center but was still going to occasionally shoot (6.2 shot attempts per game in ‘15-16 with Dallas) and Clark was somewhat of a volume shooter himself the previous season when he would crack the rotation (12.6 shot attempts per 36 minutes).
Kerr has made it work. Pachulia, while a completely different player, has almost perfectly mirrored Bogut’s minutes and usage. Clark has also molded himself to the Barbosa role in an almost identical fashion. While Durant has come in and almost doubled the shot attempts of Barnes, the other seven main spots in the rotation have stayed fairly status quo. A testament to Kerr’s lineup massaging and buy-in from the team as a whole.
‘15-16 Warriors Rotation vs. ‘16-17 Warriors Rotation
|Shots per Game
|Shots per Game
|Shots per Game
|Shots per Game
As you can see, Pachulia is Bogut on offense and Clark is Barbosa. The real adjustments have come from last year’s engine, Curry and Green, who have cut their per game shot totals by 10 and 15 percent respectively.
But the 3.5 shots per game that Curry and Green sacrificed are not enough. With Kerr deciding Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, and Shaun Livingston’s roles were invaluable they have not been adjusted substantially— Those three have maintained their usage almost identically. The rest of the shots created for Durant have come from a lower usage bench.
This season’s fringe rotation players for the Warriors are different than last season. That team gave shots to Marresse Speights, Brandon Rush, and Festus Ezeli. This season’s non-starters, headlined by David West, Patrick McCaw, and Javale McGee, play just as many minutes but shoot less. This has opened up, even more, shots for Durant without pinching the essential rotation pieces.
'15-16 Warriors Bench vs. '16-17 Warriors Bench
|Shots per Game
|Shots per Game
|Shots per Game
|Shots per Game
For the Warriors to be able to say they have lost very little from the players surrounding Durant, is a coup. In some ways, the new roster better fits this iteration of the Warriors and the NBA in 2017.
Zaza Pachulia a better Andrew Bogut?
Replacing Barnes with Durant was an obvious uptick in every aspect of the spreadsheet, but the other change in the starting lineup presented concerns. In 2014-15, when the Warriors won the championship, Andrew Bogut was a defensive force. Bogut averaged 2.6 blocks per 36 minutes and only trailed Kawhi Leonard Defensive Rating, per basketballreference.com. He would beckon guards into the lane only to alter if not swat away any layup attempt.
But this defensive style has fallen out of favor in the NBA. Imagine if Bogut defended a Curry pick and roll that way today. The invitation to the lane would be countered with a barrage of threes. With Curry’s style now in vogue, the majority of NBA ball handlers would just pull-up and Bogut would not be able to contest. Against Kyrie Irving and the Cleveland Cavaliers, Bogut was exposed in last year’s Finals where he only saw the floor for 60 total minutes.
In today’s NBA a rotation big almost needs to be able to show on the pick and roll if not switch the screen completely. Zaza Pachulia is a mountain of a man himself, but he has shown the willingness and ability to attack the pick and roll ball handler.
Pachulia profiles as a hacking goon who can barely jump over a credit card, but parsed out defense has historically been his calling card. After leaving the Milwaukee Bucks in 2014-15, their defense became a massive ten points worse than they were with Pachulia. A similar disparity has become apparent in Dallas after leaving the Mavericks this offseason.
He is simply a smart defensive player who knows when to attack and when to lay back. He makes up for his lacking athleticism with excellent use of his feet arms and hands. Pachulia is also a master of two-nineing in the paint— A practice where big men help off their men to clog driving and passing lanes for just long enough to avoid a defensive three-second call. He plays free safety flawlessly, shutting off countless potential openings and ensuring he doesn't need to move far to address a threat.
On the offensive end, Pachulia does just enough. He isn’t the alley-oop threat Bogut was but he makes up for that by being a better shooter— 77% from the free throw line and has at least some ability to shoot jumpers outside of the restricted area. From a simple statistical perspective, the Warriors have found a Bogut doppelganger for the affordable price of $2.3 million.
Andrew Bogut vs. Zaza Pachulia
|Per 36 Minutes
|Per 36 Minutes
|Field Goal Attempts
The Andre Iguodala Weapon
Pachulia is far from perfect. While he is the de facto starting center, he only plays 18 minutes per game. Excellent footwork can only hide so many warts, he is often a weakness on both ends and opponents treat him as such.
When Pachulia and Curry share the floor that pairing is often attacked in the pick and roll. Neither of the two can last more than a moment in a switch and they know it, this makes their pick and roll defense particularly awkward. In recognition of their trepidations, adept ball handlers exploit the pair, one exploitation is the splitting of the pick and roll, sliding directly between the two.
Unsurprisingly, the best team in the league has an elixir for this as well. Andre Iguodala is the classic example of the stat sheet not equivocating to on-court impact. Averaging 7.6 points, 4.0 rebounds, and 3.6 assists in 26.3 minutes per game Iguodala is anything but remarkable statistically. But, he can and will fill in wherever necessary. There simply are not statistics that annotate what Iguodala brings to this team.
A specific example comes from the same game, Curry and Pachulia were getting burnt by Damian Lillard and the Portland Trailblazers. After the Blazers perpetually targeted the side pick and roll, Steve Kerr went to the 6’6” Iguodala in place of seven-foot Pachulia. Iguodala has clearly been paying attention to what the Blazers have been running and brings a tenacity to his defense as he knows it is his job to stymie this action.
The athleticism brought to hedging the screen high forces Lillard to back the ball out and lets Curry recover. Iguodala has the awareness and speed to retreat to his man in the passing lane where he deflects the pass. This ability to pester the ball without fouling is an elite skill of his. The seemingly little things like this that hide both Pachulia and Curry’s inability to switch make Iguodala yet another invaluable piece.
The Championship Favorite
The elephant in the room is, of course, Durant’s health. Before returning to action April 8th, he had missed just over a month and 19 games with an MCL sprain. The first six Durant-less games were scary as the Warriors won only two of those games. But as we should come to expect, the ship was again righted. Following those first six games, Golden State went on to win 13 straight games without Durant. This has led to a narrative that the Warriors are the best team in basketball even if Durant were to be deleted from the picture completely.
That narrative has some credence, but it also has an undeniable caveat— the Warriors are better with Durant. There is not a convolution of personality idiosyncrasies and getting Durant shots has also proven to be a problem. The sacrifices have already been made, the surrounding pieces know their role around Durant.
Whether that is Pachulia and Clark who have embraced the Bogut and Barbosa roles or the brand new bench pieces (West, McGee, McCaw) who shoot less, it works. That is because the most crucial sacrifices have come from last season’s engine, Curry and Green.
The leadership those two have shown in sacrificing for the greater good has had an undeniable trickle-down effect throughout the team. Curry is completely out of the MVP considerations this season and Green is often considered a glorified role player, but I would argue they are the most valuable pieces in this season’s calculus. Not only but what they do, but in what they concede. If the Warriors win the championship this season, it will come not only from a plethora of talent but from an optimization of the entire roster. Steve Kerr has worked wonders, again, and the Golden State Warriors are again the contender for the NBA championship.