By Robert Petrosyan
After winning 51 games last year and losing in seven to the Clippers in the first round, the Golden State Warriors fired head coach Mark Jackson and replaced him with Steve Kerr. While many fans expected improvement, surely no one could have expected this much of a leap. The Warriors won an amazing 67 regular season games this year, tied for sixth in NBA history with the 1996-97 Chicago Bulls being the last team to have more regular season wins. Not surprisingly, the Warriors are also wrecking their way through the playoffs. They dispatched the Pelicans in four games, had an almost competitive six game series against the Grizzlies, and just when it looked like they would have a close series against Houston, the Warriors ravaged the Rockets by more than thirty points on the road and look poised for a sweep. The team’s efficiency on the floor (1st in defense, close 2nd in offense), has been almost as cartoonish as some of Steph Curry’s threes yesterday. With seemingly endless depth and no major injuries, stopping the Warriors just seems next to impossible. So now its time to just ask, how did this happen?
In 2009, the Golden State Warriors were hardly the epitome of sustained success. They finished 29-53 that year, which is bad, but not bad enough for a high draft pick needed to grab a perceived franchise centerpiece, like the much hyped trio of Blake Griffin, Hasheem Thabeet and Ricky Rubio. They did have a magical run in 2007, getting the 8 seed and somehow beating the 67 win Dallas Mavericks in dominant fashion. But that Baron Davis-led core never led to sustained success, which the Warriors sorely lacked since 1992, the last time the Warriors had consecutive playoff appearances.
The Warriors were picking seventh in the 2009 draft, and needed a point guard. There were a lot of talented prospects that year, and even with the much hyped Ricky Rubio and very intense Jonny Flynn taken by Minnesota, the Warriors had many choices at point guard to replace Baron Davis. Rumors initially tied Brandon Jennings to Golden State, and despite the upside, the Warriors went with Steph Curry, who was acknowledged as the best shooter in the draft but wasn’t seen as a future superstar due to size and positional concerns. Nevertheless, Steph made sure the Warriors did not regret the pick, and delivered in his first year, averaging 17.5 points, 5.9 assists, and 1.9 steals and contending for the Rookie of the Year Award, losing to Tyreke Evans. Steph was even better the next year and dominated the NBA Skills Challenge, showing the world a glimpse of what we would see now. However, the Warriors would still struggle as a team, winning a combined 62 games in the next two years. Golden State needed more.
In 2011, the Golden State Warriors seemed to lack a direction, and there were even rumors they might trade away Steph Curry or Monta Ellis in order to obtain a starting center. The Warriors picked eleventh that year, and since there weren’t good centers available at that point, Golden State chose Klay Thompson, another great shooter who slipped in the draft due to a marijuana bust. While putting Steph Curry and Thompson together is a perimeter defense nightmare for opposing teams, the backcourt logjam in Golden State meant that the Warriors could not develop with their current core and their lack of defense in the middle would prevent them from reaching the next step and becoming a playoff team. A change must be made.
The Trade No One Wanted
In the midst of another unsuccessful season, the Golden State Warriors pulled the trigger on a very controversial trade. In March 2012, the Warriors traded away fan favorite Monta Ellis to the Milwaukee Bucks for center Andrew Bogut. The Warriors faithful was furious, enough to boo their owner Joe Lacob in a ceremony for team legend Chris Mullin’s jersey retirement, which made another legend, Rick Barry, call out the fans. Who could blame the fans though? Losing a fan favorite and a key player from the 2007 playoff run and getting back an oft injured center who was a borderline draft bust and wouldn’t begin playing until the following year? Of course the fans would be upset.
It didn’t help that Andrew Bogut suffered more injuries the following year, playing only 32 games. But when he played, Bogut was exactly what the Warriors needed; someone who could provide a defensive balance to all the offensive prowess of the Splash Brothers. From 2011-12 to 2012-13, the Golden State Warriors climbed from the bottom five to above average in terms of defensive efficiency. Coach Mark Jackson tried to bring on a more defensive minded system when he took over in 2011, but it took the upgrade from Andris Biedrins to Andrew Bogut at the five to properly execute the new system. When Bogut played 67 games the following year, the Warriors reached new heights defensively, climbing to third in defensive efficiency. On the surface, Bogut’s 7.3 points, 10 boards and 1.8 blocks per game seem good but not particularly impressive. However, since he isn’t the best player on his team at Golden State like he was in Milwaukee, Bogut has far less pressure on himself and can focus on efficient shots and paint defense. Bogut’s 62.7% Field Goal Percentage (2nd among starters), 29.7% Defensive Rebound Percentage (2nd in the league), and league leading 5.6 Defensive Box Plus Minus shows his importance to the Warriors.
Bringing it All Together
Despite the improvements on both sides of the ball, the Warriors ended the 2013-14 season with a first round exit. Having back to back playoff appearances for the first time in more than 20 years was not enough to prevent coach Mark Jackson from being fired. Owner Joe Lacob cited conflict with the front office and a lack of initiative to bring together a better staff as reasons for firing Jackson. New coach Steve Kerr spared no expense in bringing in the best assistants available, hiring former head coach Alvin Gentry and the defensive minded Ron Adams. With their work, the Warriors rose to the peak of the league in defensive efficiency while also rising from twelfth to second in offensive efficiency.
One of Steve Kerr’s most consequential decisions was to rework the forward positions. On the three, Kerr replaced last year’s big free agent acquisition, Andre Iguadola, with the young but regressing Harrison Barnes. Barnes’ development hit a brick wall last year when he was demoted for Iguadola, who did a decent job as a starter and had the stature that came with a large contract. However, Kerr cares first and foremost about on court production, and made the gamble to bench Iguadola for Barnes. That gamble paid off as Harrison Barnes’ positional flexibility and occasional work as a stretch four in small lineups contributed to the Warriors’ dominance. Barnes isn’t being asked to do a lot, especially when the Splash Brothers are on the floor, but he stepped up efficiency-wise this year, and has proven himself as a more than viable secondary option.
The most significant lineup change, however, lies in the four spot. David Lee was the longtime power forward in Golden State and is the highest paid player on the team. Lee averaged 18.3 points and 10 rebounds as a Warrior in the four years prior. However, he was a liability on defense and didn’t offer much in terms of blocks, steals or three pointers. Lee is a type of player that’s good enough to be a starter on a mediocre team, but isn’t the type of player you’d win titles with. He also wasn’t the best option to put next to Andrew Bogut. Enter Draymond Green. Green was a project player taken in the early second round, and after showing glimpses of his potential, Green started in place of the injured David Lee and he ran with the starting job ever since. Green averaged 13.3 points in the first two months of the season, and ended the year as a candidate for a max contract this summer. Green was second in the league in defensive win shares and was a contender for both the Defensive Player of the Year and Most Improved Player awards, so its easy to see why he’s getting paid this summer. In addition to his defense, Draymond is also an adept three point shooter, and can take advantage of the space provided by Andrew Bogut, adding yet another threat from deep to the already superb Splash Brothers.
Arguably one of Steve Kerr’s best decisions was the one he did not make. Before Kevin Love was swapped for Andrew Wiggins, a popular destination for the sharpshooting forward was Golden State. Love was offered to the Warriors in exchange for Klay Thompson and David Lee/Harrison Barnes, and since the Warriors were having trouble locking Klay down for an extension, it looked like bringing in Love would be the right thing to do. After all, Steve Kerr was brought in to make these kinds of moves that make a team better, and having an MVP caliber stretch four next to Andrew Bogut could bring the Warriors to title contention. However, Kerr chose not to pull the trigger and instead managed to ink Klay Thompson to a 4 year $72 million contract. The way Thompson is playing right now makes that deal a steal, as he exploded this year for 21.7 points per game, 3.1 threes per game, and a 20.8 PER and became a superstar in his own right. Also, bringing in Love would have ruined Draymond Green’s development, and even though Love is a better shooter than Green, Love is questionable as a defender, while Green is stellar on defense and capable of locking down the best player on the opposing team (those LeBron vs Draymond matchups will be fun).
Flash in the Pan or Dynasty in the Making?
The combination of successful drafts, a bold trade, great coaching and an excellent supporting cast made the Golden State Warriors the gold standard (pun intended) of analytic basketball. In a league that puts a premium on three point shooters, no team shoots them better (39.8%) than Golden State. They have lockdown defense not only from the usual suspects (Bogut/Green), but also from Klay Thompson and even Steph Curry, whose defense improved tremendously thanks to Steve Kerr. And apart from the 30 year old Andrew Bogut, most of the core is at or entering its prime, which means there is no reason to suspect a large drop off from the Warriors next year. Draymond Green, the defensive catalyst of the Warriors, is approaching restricted free agency, and even though the Warriors have the right to match any offer Green gets, they may be timid to go deep into the luxury tax to retain him. However, the Warriors have already claimed they will match any offer Green gets in order to retain him. Some salary dumps, like that of David Lee, should free up some money lessen the impact of the luxury tax.
If the Warriors can retain their core, they can contend for the rest of the decade, especially if they can develop a center that can eventually take over for Bogut or fill in whenever Bogut is hurt. The West is a meat grinder of a conference, but unless Draymond is gone or there is a major injury, there’s no reason not to expect the Warriors to be title contenders. A season this dominant is almost impossible to replicate, and it probably won’t be replicated, but they should straddle around 6o wins for the next few years if all goes right. As fans, we should just sit back, relax, and appreciate the greatness as it occurs.