And the dawn comes up like thunder outer China crost the Bay. — Rudyard Kipling
Somewhere in the middle of this game I became convinced that the Warriors are a championship contender. I’ve known for some time that they had the players — I called their roster the best in the Western Conference before last season. But I’ve never had the confidence that they had the right coach, and the right basketball philosophy, to get deep into the playoffs. Until right now.
Unlike the previous two Warriors coaches, Steve Kerr and Alvin Gentry and Ron Adams understand what they have in this Warriors roster. And they know exactly what to do with it. Their performance this season has been incredible, never more so than in this game. This is a championship caliber coaching staff, and they’re leading a team into the promised land. Not just this season, but for many seasons to come. A new era has dawned in the NBA.
The Warriors Era.
THE STEVE KERR BAND
With apologies for what I’m about to inflict on regular readers, here’s a list of some of the major changes Kerr and his staff have made this season, that have turned the Warriors into championship contenders.
Pushing the Pace: Relentlessly, all game long. You could have counted the number of times the Warriors ran after a made basket in their years under Smart and Jackson on the fingers of one hand. They exceeded that number in their first game this season. Gary St. Jean said after the game that the Warriors have the best fastbreak offense in the league. Yes, because they have the finest passers and the finest shooters in the league, right? For some reason, that wasn’t obvious to coaches Smart and Jackson. Or as I like to think of them, “the sins of the past.”
Nellieball: Opening the floor by getting the stretch-four Draymond Green into the starting lineup alongside Bogut. A move that did wonders for Stephen Curry.
Getting Barnes minutes at his best position, the stretch-four, with the second unit. A move that did wonders for Barnes in this game at the very least, giving him the opportunity to get going while being guarded by Anthony Morrow.
And even more extraordinary for a Warriors team in the Joe Lacob era, the forays into all-out smallball. The Draymond Green at center lineups, where the biggest player on the floor is 6-7″. Note that when Kerr and Gentry set this trap for the Thunder, Kendrick Perkins was still in the game. This never would have happened under Mark Jackson. Never. And as usual, Scotty Brooks was slow to react. He didn’t yank Perkins until he’d taken two straight straightaway threes to the face.
Blowing teams out in the second quarter with smallball traps was a hallmark of Don Nelson teams. Do you remember that with RunTMC? When Rooney and Elie would come in, and then Mully would come back to play the four, or even the five, and the young and unschooled feltbot would sit up on his couch and think, What the hell are you doing Nelson, are you nuts, and then Boom and then Oh.
The Warriors have had the personnel to do this from the moment Joe Lacob acquired the team. Ever since they acquired David Lee and Dorell Wright, in fact. And for four long years I have waited. Despairing.
Until Steve Kerr hired Alvin Gentry.
And until I watched the last two games.
Is this something that will end with the return of Bogut and Ezeli (assuming their return is even sustainable)? Will the Warriors be forced back into the standard mold of two bigs on the second unit?
No. I’ll bet my life on it.
The great Alvin Gentry is here, ladies and gentlemen. And Steve Kerr has empowered him.
The Iggynobility of the Showcase: I remain convinced that the Warriors must and will part ways with Harrison Barnes in the near future (probably next summer). His extension before the season was done, I believe, in order to turn him into a trade asset. And it was done, I believe, with knowledge that Kerr would be showcasing him this season with the starting unit.
I have, however, come around to recognize the pure basketball reasons for putting Barnes in the starting unit, and moving Iggy to the bench. Iggy’s great strength in the halfcourt offense is his ability to facilitate. To play point-forward. But that ability is almost completely redundant in a starting unit with Bogut, Green and Klay in addition to Curry. All four of those players are great initiators in their own right. And Kerr wanted to put the ball in Bogut’s hands, in particular.
What Kerr needed in the starting unit was a FINISHER, not a facilitator. A player content to wander the wings, waiting to be fed open threes, and make judicious cuts to the rim, hoping to be fed open dunks. A player, in other words, content to have the lowest usage rate on the starting unit. Which Harrison Barnes does.
Conversely, the Warriors second unit has been (and remains) badly in need of playmakers. Guys who can make something happen off the dribble. And who can create for others. Barnes failed miserably in this role last season — that’s simply not his game. Did you catch the quote from Ron Adams regarding Barnes in this game? “If you keep it simple for him, he’ll give you a sophisticated performance.” There it is.
Another interesting way to look at the Barnes for Iggy swap is from the defensive side. If you’re playing David Lee at the four, with a Curry and Klay backcourt, you need a great defender at the three to balance the lineup, right? A stopper. Iggy.
But if you’ve got Draymond Green at the four? Well then, Iggy at the three is practically overkill. Now you can play Barnes at the three and get away with it.
I have jested about this swap, but the more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve realized that this is just one more thing that Kerr has gotten right.
The Livingston Effect: Watching Steve Kerr run a little post-up play for Shaun Livingston when he comes into the game is starting to make me feel a little sad. Livingston on this Warriors team reminds me of the kid the Little League coach puts in in the last inning. It’s gotten so bad, that SL is starting to press, as we saw several times in this game.
It’s not completely his fault. He is a very limited and peculiar point guard, who was played in a system tailor-made for him by Jason Kidd last season. Not only is he not being played in that system this season, but he’s being played in a system that is literally guaranteed to make him look horrible. A passing offense, in which the ball is rarely in his hands, and even when it is, it’s in a position where he has no choice but to swing it on along.
Except, of course, for when Kerr breaks his offense to get SL a post-up.
It helps SL’s plus/minus to run with the Draymond at center group. Even if he’s not actually playing point guard, he is surrounded by four three point shooters, as he was in Brooklyn. And a passel of great defenders who can pick up for him when he gets beat by the opposing point guard.
So what is Kerr getting right with SL? Well, he’s starting to limit his minutes, at the risk of embarrassing his bosses. The fact of the matter is, in the current role SL is filling, defensive wing, he doesn’t belong on the floor. The much more gifted Justin Holiday does.
The only hope I see for SL on this Warriors team is if Kerr starts letting him run the point in pick and roll with David Lee. We haven’t seen much of this yet. Maybe we will once Lee gets his legs back, if he ever gets his legs back.
That would be nice. I could start calling Livingston a good player, and the bite wounds on my ankles would have a chance to heal.
Defense: I think quite a few people have been startled out of their wits by how good the Warriors have been defensively without Bogut on the floor. I don’t think Fitz mentioned Bogut’s name once in this game, did he?
Ron Adams, I presume, has made some fabulous adjustments with Bogut and Ezeli out. No more funneling to the big man in the middle. That doesn’t exactly work with Speights and Lee, does it? No, the Warriors are now bringing their more mobile centers out of the paint to hedge the pick and roll , and also to help build the strong-side “defensive shell” that I heard Holiday refer to in the post-game. Wing isolations are being funneled baseline, unless the player isolating is Kevin Durant, in which case he is being TRIPLE-TEAMED.
If you want to understand how the Warriors held Durant to 3-16, start by re-watching the first defensive possession of the game. It’s really all you need to see. With speed to recover at virtually every defensive position, and with the Thunder having so few real shooters on the floor, the Warriors coaches realized they could double and triple Durant with impunity.
And if you want to know how the Warriors held Westbrook to 5-21, it was by switching interchangeable 6-7″ defenders. No more Klay Thompson chasing the point-guard around picks. Now the Warriors simply zone the picks. Particularly when Green is at center, how can you possibly free Westbrook with a pick against this defense?
In back to back games, the Warriors have destroyed Kyle Lowry and Russell Westbrook, without the aid of a center. How can you not be impressed by that?
The genius of the Warriors’ coaching staff is not restricted to the offense.
Green: Astonishing how great a player he’s become, just since Bogut went out. His assist totals have absolutely exploded, running the high post. He had a couple of touch passes in the last few games, that made it clear he knows exactly where he’s going to go with the ball, before it even reaches him. He’s a true basketball genius, on a team with, by my count, five others. We could be witnessing the birth of the highest IQ team in basketball history.
On another topic, I need to clear something up for those who are determined to misunderstand me. My opinion that Draymond’s true position is small forward does not mean that I want or expect him to be moved there this season. Nor does my opinion have anything to do with an agenda surrounding David Lee.
Unfortunately, David Lee may no longer be David Lee. Like Iggy last year, he’s had a bad hamstring injury from which he may never totally recover this season. He has before this year had three essentially season-ending injuries in a row (even if his toughness didn’t allow him to quit). All of which were basically for the same thing, in the same area, and all of which required surgery to repair. It is a pipe dream to think that he is still in his prime, and possibly even to think he could ever play full-time and enter the playoffs healthy again. I voiced these concerns even before this latest injury, in the pre-season.
So if injury is a concern for both Lee and the undersized Green, would it be better to move Lee back into the starting lineup to battle the behemoths of the West? You see the conundrum.
There is also the fact that Green has now played a third of the season at the four, and played superbly, and the team around him. The team has acclimated to playing Nellieball with a stretch-four all game, every game. Sticking Lee back in at the four, and reverting to a more
Lacobian old-school brand of basketball at this point, would make no sense. What makes sense is for the Warriors to run with what they’ve been doing.
Lee: Lee at backup center, if he ever gets his legs back, will also help the Warriors run. It’s where Don Nelson always wanted to play him.
It’s pretty sad to see Lee struggling right now. The guy has had incredible bad luck. Struggling for years in bad systems with rookie coaches. Now he’s on the best team in the league, with championship caliber coaches who could run the perfect system for him, and his career might be over.
The Lee and Bogut story lines add a tremendous poignancy to this season. What a thing it would be to see them both healthy and rolling in the playoffs. Grumpy old feltbot might even shed a tear.
Klay: If he hadn’t gotten unlucky on foul calls, he might have had a game for the ages. He had that look in his eye. My favorite sequence was when he missed that driving dunk, then came right back the next play and thundered it home.
What a player this kid is going to be. He’s got Hall of Fame written all over him.
Curry: Westbrook is no joke on defense. But Curry had him on a string. When it’s all said and done, Curry’s ballhandling is going to be discussed in the same breath as that of Earl the Pearl, Pistol Pete and CP3. The love of the crowd poured out of my TV with every dribble.
But he’s not a point guard. Right?
Barnes: A beautiful shooting night, and a solid defensive effort, with a little help from his friends. You could almost hear him exhale in his post-game interview. He needed this one. It’s been a rough couple of weeks.
Hopefully, this will be the start of another nice run for him.
Justin Holiday: Two memorable plays for me tonight. First, that walk-up three. The fact that he’s in a system that would allow that shot, nay, encourage that shot, brought tears to my eyes. Bless you, Steve Kerr. And Alvin Gentry. Both of you.
Two, the defense he played on Kevin Durant at, was it 10:10 2nd Q? Check it out.
Another interesting point about Holiday, beyond the fact that he’s going to be a really good two-way player, is that he might be the Warriors’ best defender against small guards. I believe that’s why Kerr went with him against Lou Williams in the Raptors game.
Ibaka: I’ve been saying it for weeks now, he ain’t right. I don’t know what it is, but he’s injured. That’s a big reason why I’m no longer afraid of the Warriors meeting the Thunder in the first round.
Bogut: And what of the Warriors’ own crippled big man? If this is the dawn of the Warriors era, then I must be sanguine about his return to health, right? No, sadly, I am not. I put the chances of Bogut reaching the playoffs healthy at roughly…
Not that I’m not pulling for him. I am. I admire his talent and fortitude and heart and genius for the game, and I want to see it on display on the biggest stage in the world. And, as with David Lee, I empathize with the suffering and frustration he must be feeling to be on this team, at this time, and not be able to play. But feelings and sentimentality have no effect on reality. I just don’t think he’ll be there for the Warriors, in any meaningful way, in the playoffs.
So that means the Warriors really aren’t going anywhere this season, right? As we all know, the conventional analysis right now is that the Warriors can’t win without Bogut in the playoffs. In fact it’s surpassed conventional wisdom at this point, if that’s possible, to become a full-blown meme.
So you won’t be surprised to learn that I disagree with it.
Do you remember last year’s playoff series against the Clippers? That was with an injured David Lee and a less fit Draymond Green and… no one else on the front line. Oh yes, Mo Speights was there, but Mark Jackson had no idea how to use him, and no confidence in him, and hardly played him. Preferred the crippled Jermaine O’Neal.
If you ask me, if the Warriors somehow get to the playoffs with a healthy Festus Ezeli, Mo Speights, David Lee and Draymond Green, with this team, and this coaching staff, and this system… I think they could go far. Very far.
As Scotty Brooks told us after the game, we’re looking at the best team in the NBA.