We’ve heard a lot in the press lately about the raging battle for the Warriors’ starting small forward role. It appears to be a two-way battle between last year’s standout reserve guard Brandon Rush, and the promising rookie lottery pick, Harrison Barnes. Aging all-star Richard Jefferson is apparently not in the running, despite the fact that he’s been the starting small forward on some pretty good teams every single year of his career.
Today’s news adds some fuel to the fire, as Barnes is slotted to start tonight’s exhibition against Maccabi Haifa, after Rush started the first two preseason games.
I’m not buying the hype on Barnes starting though. Jackson probably does want to get a look at Barnes playing with the first unit. But it is Maccabi Haifa. And the argument against Harrison Barnes starting for the Warriors this season is simply too strong. But that’s not the right way to put it. Here’s a better way:
If they want to win this season, the Golden State Warriors absolutely must start Brandon Rush.
Why? Jump for a two word answer.
There’s my two word answer.
What do Dwayne Wade, Jason Terry, Eric Gordon, Marcus Thornton and Monta Ellis all have in common?
They are all starting two guards that Klay Thompson has absolutely no prayer of staying in front of.
No prayer. And these are only the most obvious examples. There are plenty of other guards in the league who will give Klay Thompson fits with their quickness.
What the Warriors aren’t acknowledging right now about the small forward position battle, is that against quite a few opposing teams they will need a defender of two-guards more than they need a defender of small forwards. With Klay Thompson at starting two-guard, the Warriors starting small forward absolutely must be able to cross-match and pick up Klay’s man when necessary.
Brandon Rush is the only player among the three starting small forward contenders with that ability. He is versatile between the guard and small forward positions (while Jefferson and Barnes are versatile only between the 3 and the 4). For that single reason alone, Brandon Rush must be Klay Thompson’s partner on the wing.
There is no question that Klay Thompson has the size and ability to play small forward. (Klay Thompson 6-7″ 205; Chris Mullin 6-6″, 200) In fact, I happen to think — and have said so repeatedly from day one — that “point” small forward is hands-down his best position, given his defensive liabilities. The sooner the Warriors front office wakes up and allows Mark Jackson to recognize that, the better the Warriors will be.
Mark Jackson has already stated that Thompson will see some time at the three this season, when the Warriors go with a small backcourt. It needs to be more than just that. The Warriors success this season hinges greatly on Jackson’s ability to recognize that against many opponents, Thompson should slide to the three to start the game.
David Lee and Stephen Curry
Two more reasons why Brandon Rush must start for the Warriors.
I happen to think that Curry and Lee are far better defenders than they are given credit for. Particularly against bigger players, where their quickness isn’t an issue.
But it’s obvious to all that defense isn’t their forte. Lee is not a power forward in the Kevin Garnett mold, and Steph Curry is not Russell Westbrook.
Put together, Curry and Thompson are one of the worst defensive backcourts in the NBA. It’s hard to think of a worse, unless the TWolves start Ridnour and Roy. And Darren Collison/ OJ Mayo certainly won’t strike fear. But you get my point.
Add David Lee to the equation, and you have three-fifths of a lineup that couldn’t deny penetration to a WNBA team.
What this means for the Warriors is that what they need from their remaining starting position is not just good defense. They need great defense.
They have a desperate need for a STOPPER.
Harrison Barnes is not a stopper. Certainly not yet. As Mark Jackson recently mentioned, defense at the NBA level takes time to learn. Not even Kawhi Leonard — whom Greg Popovich recently anointed in print as the next Spurs superstar — was a stopper when he entered the league. Nor was he a starter until Jefferson was traded. And Harrison Barnes is a long way from Kawhi Leonard on the defensive end.
Richard Jefferson is no longer a stopper. That was made clear by Popovich, who spent one first round pick drafting his replacement, and another first round pick getting rid of him.
Brandon Rush is the best wing defender the Warriors have. That’s not just my opinion, but the opinion of the Warriors coaches and players who have been quoted on the subject this season. And he’s the only wing defender who gives Mark Jackson the ability to slow down the other team’s best player, when that player happens to be a guard.
Some commentators have argued that Rush should remain a bench player because he was so good in that role last season. Others feel that Harrison Barnes should start because he’s so promising, and has greater upside.
Neither of those arguments carry weight. The Warriors bench is far deeper this season than in the last two Joe Lacob tank jobs. And Brandon Rush is simply not that important to the Warriors bench. He’s not a sixth man. Never was — he’s neither a ballhandler nor a playmaker. Last year’s sixth man was Nate Robinson. This year’s will be Jarret Jack (in the hopeful event that Curry can play). Jack, Barnes, Jefferson and Landry off the bench is more than enough firepower to carry the second unit.
Nor is it important that Barnes has so much potential. This is a Thabo Sefalosha — James Harden situation. A Danny Green — Manu Ginobili situation. An Adrien Griffin — Nick Van Exel situation. The examples are legion in league history, all pointing to the same inescapable conclusions:
Barnes can still get all the minutes he needs, as he earns them, off the bench. (And if the Warriors want to win, he should get many of them at the spread-four position. But that’s the subject of another post.)
It is of paramount importance to hound the opposing team’s best player with your best wing stopper right from the opening tip.
And as the Warriors are currently constructed, they simply have no choice but to do so with Brandon Rush.