The amateur GM of the Warriors has given his rookie coaches a lot of difficult puzzles to solve over the years. Veritable Rubik’s Cube rosters of mismatched pieces, that Keith Smart and Mark Jackson struggled to color coordinate. One-way defensive centers who were poor offensive partners for one of the most talented pick and roll point guards to ever play (The Kwame Brown Era, Bogut, Ezeli). Backup power forwards who weren’t power forwards (Lou Amundson, Jeremy Tyler, Jermaine O’Neal, Mo Speights). Defensive wings who couldn’t shoot the three (Dominic McGuire, the rookie Green), or actually defend (the rookie Barnes). Backup point guards who couldn’t shoot the three (the rookie Jeremy Lin, Ish Smith, Acie Law, Charles Jenkins, and yes, Shaun Livingston), or run the team (Charles Jenkins, Nate Robinson, Tony Douglas, Kent Bazemore, Jordan Crawford), or both.
Let’s call these perplexing Warriors rosters Lacob’s Cubes. They proved largely unsolvable to Smart and Jackson, even as the Warriors’ increasing overall talent level led to better and better records.
Steve Kerr has quite a bit more talent to work with than did even Mark Jackson, largely due to the extraordinary development of Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. But even Steve Kerr is faced with a heck of a Lacob’s Cube this season. The perpetual problem of Bogut’s offensive fit with Curry and Lee. The apparently mandated return of Harrison Barnes to the starting lineup, most probably in an effort to raise his trade value, and the disruptions that is causing. And the renewed and now long-term problem of having a non-shooting point guard trying to run the second unit.
This season’s Lacob’s Cube had me a bit worried to start the season, particularly since it was being set before Lacob’s third rookie coach in five seasons, one who was making disturbing noises about the triangle, while Lacob’s nominal GM and spokesmodel, Bob Myers, was making disturbing noises about playing big whenever possible.
My worries may have been misplaced. It’s very early, but I am very encouraged by what I’ve seen out of Steve Kerr and his coaching staff so far this season. Ecstatic even. Kerr has set to work on Lacob’s Cube with a fury, and to my eye, the returns have been impressive. There appears to be a fine and aggressive intelligence at work on the Warriors’ bench right now, that has me extremely optimistic that we’re on the verge of a breakthrough season.
Here is how Steve Kerr has set about solving Lacob’s Cube:
THE BOGUT BLITZ
Remember when Stephen Curry was the most heavily blitzed point guard in NBA history? It’s no longer happening.
Remember when Jerry West said that the blitzing of Curry was “on the coaches”? After last night’s game against the Hornets, I now think I understand completely what he meant.
I confess West’s comment was a bit of a puzzler to me at the time, because I was pretty sure Joe Lacob wasn’t going to tolerate the benching of Andrew Bogut — whose inability to shoot and refusal to roll and attack the rim were the chief causes of the blitz (along with Curry’s own supernatural shooting ability) — and also because I simply couldn’t conceive of the Warriors depriving the player I consider the second coming of Steve Nash of his ability to run high pick and roll.
Steve Kerr has opened my eyes a bit. Here’s what he’s done so far this season to avoid the constant blitzing of Stephen Curry:
1) Point-Bogut — Rather than creating penetration of the enemy’s defenses via the traditional method, the ground flanking attack, Bogut achieves penetration from the air. He uses his great length to hold the ball up over the defense, and his great vision, intelligence and passing ability to drop bombs behind enemy lines with perfect timing and accuracy. He truly is an extraordinary passer from the high post, a pleasure to watch.
2) The High Hand-off and Roll — I was completely blown away by this variation of Bogut high-post action that I witnessed for the first time last night against the Hornets. Bogut caught the ball in the high post, and Curry took his man around the Bogut screen. We’ve seen this before. Usually at this point, Curry cuts down the lane, looking for a Bogut feed, or Bogut hands the ball off to Curry as he comes around, and Curry drives the lane or pulls up for a jumper.
But this time something different occurred: Bogut gave Curry the hand-off, and then rolled himself. He was wide open in the lane, and Curry fed him for an easy layup.
Think about this play for a second. Is it not another way to play high pick and roll, that makes it almost impossible to blitz? Bogut’s man can’t blitz Curry coming around the pick, because the ball isn’t yet in Curry’s hands. It’s still in Bogut’s. Now Bogut hits the second coming of Steve Nash with an easy return pass, rolls to the hoop, and… the defense is dead.
3) Side Pick and Roll: If the defense is blitzing the high pick and roll, why not move it to the side? By doing so, you make it much more difficult for the defense to trap Curry effectively. Why? First, because there’s a big difference between leaving Bogut wide open at the top of the key, and leaving him open a few feet from the rim. Second, because it’s far more difficult for the weak-side defenders to give help after Bogut catches.
This was also run very effectively last night in the Hornets game. The beauty of these last two solutions over the first is that they don’t take the ball out of Curry’s hands. I’m pretty sure that Steve Kerr doesn’t want to Keith Smart Stephen Curry. Besides being bad basketball, there’s no future in it.
4) Big Money: Moving Draymond Green into the starting lineup has had a big effect on the Warriors’ spacing. Lee works on the elbows and under the basket, Green draws the defense all the way out to the three point line. Quite obviously, this helps open the floor both for pick and roll and high post action. When Bogut is out of the middle, the basket is ripe for attack.
Will Green continue to start once Lee returns?
5) Kicking Bogut’s Ass into Gear: This is a very underrated aspect of what we’ve seen in the last few games. Steve Kerr has somehow gotten Bogut interested in rolling to the basket, and attacking the rim on the catch. He’s gotten some easy layups and dunks out of it, and some not so easy where he demonstrated an unusual willingness to take the foul and go to the line.
This has quite a bit to do, obviously, with the ingenious tweaks to the Warriors offense that have Bogut operating in spaces where it is far easier for him to attack the rim. But it also involves a radical change in Bogut’s mindset.
Steve Kerr is attempting to de-Biedrinize Bogut, and if he succeeds, it will do wonders for the Warriors offense. If Bogut can keep defenses honest, for real, then the Warriors could achieve a Spurs-like efficiency in the half-court.
Will this take? Will it survive the Hack-a-Bogut that is most assuredly coming?
THE LIVINGSTON EFFECT AND THE SHOWCASE
Joe Lacob’s curious off-season signing of the non-shooting Shaun Livingston to a major deal set another incredibly difficult problem before Steve Kerr, one that I predicted from the start: how to achieve spacing on the second unit?
Little did I know how bad this problem would actually be. I was envisioning the difficulty of playing Festus Ezeli and Livingston together with Draymond Green on the second unit. I simply couldn’t imagine that The Harrison Barnes Showcase would cause Andre Iguodala to be added to the mix.
The result has been an unmitigated disaster, with the Warriors’ second unit getting worked in virtually every significant game. It simply can’t score.
Well, almost unmitigated, because in the last two games Kerr has taken significant steps towards solving this particularly tricky part of Lacob’s cube:
1) The Iggynobility of The Showcase:
It should be obvious to everyone by now that Iggy and Livingston can’t play together. They are essentially the same player. Long defensive wings, whose offensive shortcomings are overcome by their great playmaking ability off the dribble. But only one of them can dribble at a time, no? And when one of them is dribbling, the other is wasted. Neither of them is a credible enough threat off the ball to provide a decent scoring outlet, nor to prevent their defender from cheating off of them.
Iggy and Livingston don’t complement each other, they cannibalize each other. This is a major reason why both of them are performing way below expectations this season.
So what has Kerr done about this? In the last two games, he’s started subbing Iggy for Barnes earlier than normal. This has had several positive effects. First, it’s getting Iggy some run with the starters, helping to get him going in his normal complementary role. Second, it has enabled Kerr to bring Barnes back with the second unit, which desperately needs his three point shooting. Third, it has enabled Kerr to play Barnes at stretch-four on the second unit, which is not only his best position, but an absolutely essential configuration for a Shaun Livingston-led second unit to thrive.
Bravo. What else?
2) Mogut: Formerly Mokur, but with Speights’ recent explosion of defensive prowess at center, and continued futility from the three point line, he will until further notice be known as Mogut.
In the last two games, Mogut has replaced Festus Ezeli as the first center off the bench. Kerr has stated that he simply wants to reward Speights for his great play, but there is more to it than that. The second unit desperately needs the shooting ability and spacing that Mogut provides. It literally can’t function with Ezeli on the court.
This has the added benefit of preserving Ezeli’s health until Bogut goes down, and he’s needed on the first squad.
3) Blurred Lines: So far this season, the most capable initiator of offense on the Warriors second unit has been Leandro Barbosa, aka The Brazilian Blur. In fact, if it weren’t for his penetration, the unit would be getting blown out. He’s saving their bacon.
So who is the true point guard of the second unit? In the last 5 games, Livingston is averaging 1.6 assists. Barbosa 1.8. And Iggy 2.4.
Who will be the true point guard of the second unit going forward this season? There is a lot of solving left to be done here. A lot.
So far this season Steve Kerr has had the good sense and strength of will to defy Joe Lacob’s desire (reiterated by spokesmodel Bob Myers before the season) to play big at all times. (The return of David Lee will put that to a real test.)
Now Kerr is beginning to chip away at The Showcase. Will he do away with it altogether? Since Shaun Livingston is now “healthy”, Iggy is no longer needed to run the second unit, the Iggy/Livingston pairing is such an obvious disaster, and Barnes has shown signs of grasping his new role in a motion offense, and gained confidence by being force-fed wide open looks with the starters, perhaps Kerr will soon consider moving Iggy back with the starters, and Barnes to the second unit where his shooting is badly needed. I would frankly be surprised if The Showcase lasts much longer, and amazed if it continues past the trading deadline.
THE LEE LINCHPIN
With so many plots and subplots already boiling and bubbling in Steve Kerr’s underground laboratory, it’s fascinating to think about what he might do with the Warriors’ lineup once two-time All-Star power forward David Lee returns to action.
Kerr has already indicated some reluctance to return Lee to the starting lineup, because “we’re winning with Draymond starting.” I think what he means to say is that Lee and Bogut occupy the same spaces and roles on the court, cannibalizing each other to a degree, and congesting the Warriors’ spacing.
And it’s undeniable that Lee’s offensive ability could prove a godsend to the second unit. Particularly if he’s played at his best position — center — in a smallball unit with a stretch-four.
Could Livingston/Lee pick and roll with a spread floor be a thing? Unless you like watching Livingston post up, you better hope so.
I have an even better idea, because I’m not convinced it’s a good idea to start Draymond Green 82 games against the Randolphs, Griffins and Loves of the league. An idea I have been advocating for over a year, and that Kerr is now employing with Barnes and Iggy.
The early sub.
Let Lee start the first and third quarters, and absorb the opening impact of the bruisers, the way Bogut and Ezeli have so usefully done against the opponents’ frontline centers. But then sub Lee out early for Green, giving the opponents’ first team a completely different look.
Then bring Lee back for Bogut, along with the rest of the second unit, so that he can get some minutes playing pick and roll center on the second unit alongside Green.
The Lee-Green front line has been by far the most effective unit by plus/minus on the Warriors in the last two years, even though virtually all of its minutes have come in crunch-time. By far. Look it up.
It also happens to be the unit that in Bogut’s absence beat Lebron’s Heat, in Miami, twice. A feat no other team was able to accomplish.
Throw in a little Barnes, a little Rush, a little Barbosa, and even Shaun Livingston might start looking good.