Last year’s Mark Jackson-coached Golden State Warriors went 51-31 and took the Los Angeles Clippers to seven games in the first round. This year, under a coach with an actual offensive strategy, I expect them to be significantly better. Going into the new season, they are the team I am most excited to watch.
Their offense was difficult to stomach last season. Somehow, a team with the most deadly catch-and-shoot bomber in recent history (Steph Curry), two of the best-passing big men in the game (David Lee and Andrew Bogut) and a top-five offensive player at every position conspired to play a distinctively bland and unimaginative brand of isolation-heavy basketball. It left me feeling empty inside. When others bemoaned Jackson’s firing, I rejoiced on behalf of all basketball purists.
Jackson, despite being good for a well-rehearsed motivational speech whenever the microphone was on him in timeouts, was not a good coach for this team. His religious ramblings and us-against-the-world sermons clearly hit home with several of his players, but some actual X’s and O’s beyond “give the ball to Steph” and “post up Klay” would have given them a greater chance of succeeding on the floor.
They were a top-five team defensively, for which Jackson deserves credit. But they were just 12th in offensive efficiency – a criminal underachievement for a lineup with this level of talent. Their inability to play offense as well as they played defense cost them a chance at contending.
Imagine how good this team could be at playing a San Antonio-inspired offense predicated on constant movement and passing. The roster is crying out for it. Lee and Bogut can each get their Boris Diaw on (what a player) and be devastating as passers out of the high and low post in a fluid offense of whirring motion and ball movement.
New head coach Steve Kerr gets it: “I want to put (Lee and Bogut) in passing situations. I want the ball to move. That’s the biggest thing. We’ve got to get more ball movement, more passes per possession.”
This is music to the ears of any basketball purist who endured countless Warriors possessions where Curry was left to create something out of nothing at the top of the key or Klay Thompson was continuously posted up on the block whilst teammates stood and watched. The Warriors were third in the league in isolation plays and according to Bleacher Report’s Howard Beck, their internal analytics showed that they were among the league leaders in “possessions in which the ball never changed sides of the court.” It was severe coaching malpractice by Jackson.
None of Jackson’s strategic shortcomings came as any surprise to those who listened to his occasionally-unbearable commentary on ABC before he got the Warriors gig. “Hand down, man down!” was the closest he ever came to offering intelligent or insightful analysis of the game.
Kerr is Jackson’s polar opposite. He has consistently impressed TNT viewers with his basketball knowledge and his ability to think outside the box. He is a thoughtful, analytical observer who clearly recognizes the importance of in-game adjustments and of playing to a roster’s strengths. He is a basketball junkie who will not fly off to Los Angeles mid-way through his team’s practice to deliver church sermons. He is busy studying advanced statistics whilst Jackson is standing on a street corner screaming “His name is Jesus! What’s his name?! What’s his name?!” (seriously).
I expect his coaching to produce an improved, more efficient Steph Curry – a scary thought for opponents.
Across the league, 84 percent of threes were assisted last season but of Curry’s 261 makes, only 46 percent led directly from a teammate’s pass. Curry led the league in off-the-dribble jumpshots, shooting a batty 7.4 of them per game – a product of iso-ball and a lack of movement. Certainly, he hit a decent number of them and indeed he led the league in unassisted field goals, but this is not the type of player Steph should be. Jackson simply did not institute enough plays to make life easier for his star. Curry’s game could resemble Ray Allen’s on steroids, but we rarely saw him freed via off-ball screens for open looks.
And then there were the plays in crucial moments where Curry was not involved in the action at all. Look no further than one of the most important possessions of the Warriors’ 2013/14 season, down one with 2:50 remaining in Game 7 of the first round:
It should be a different story this season.
Assistant coach Alvin Gentry confirmed that Kerr and his staff will be “running some pin-downs for (Curry) where he can come off and catch and shoot … to create easy baskets for him.”
In theory, the ball will move from side to side, the bigs will be trusted to make reads and find cutters, everyone will be involved, players will set off-ball screens, good shots will be passed up for great shots, and Curry will light up the league. This is a mouth-watering prospect, but this kind of offense is the natural fit for this team. Even Harrison Barnes should be productive and at ease.
Jackson failed miserably to get the best out of Barnes last season by miscasting him as the iso/post-up king of the second unit, a role that saw him lose his confidence and shoot 39 percent from the floor. Kerr is cogently re-inserting him into the starting lineup to re-engage him, putting Iguodala on the second unit where he can thrive as a primary scorer and ball handler.
Kerr’s offense will be an instant upgrade stylistically and statistically, allowing them to be contenders rather than pretenders.
The Warriors put up 111 points per game on 51.3 percent shooting over their eight preseason games, comfortably leading the league in both categories. I expect them to be at minimum a top-three team in offensive efficiency and thus a top-three team in the West. They have too much talent to play blah offense and finish with another 6th seed and first round exit. That is ultimately why Jackson was fired.
Of course, health will undoubtedly be a factor. Whilst Curry’s ankles have earned the benefit of the doubt after putting together back-to-back 78-game seasons, Bogut is forever a question mark, and the Warriors cannot compete without his rim protection on the other end. If they can get 65 games and a healthy postseason out of him, the sky is the limit.
Though the Spurs must remain Western Conference favorites by default, the Warriors have the best chance to de-throne them if all goes well. They will continue to play elite defense – Kerr knows not to mess with a good thing and Bogut, Thompson and Iguodala remain elite defenders at their positions – and combine it with a drastically improved offense. Elsewhere, the Thunder are still coached by Scott Brooks, the Rockets have regressed, CP3 still needs to prove that his style of play is conducive to winning playoff series, and if the Blazers win 54 games again I shall eat my hat.
Vegas has the Warriors pegged at 50.5 wins. I’m putting my faith in them avoiding any disasters health-wise – if any franchise is due some good fortune historically, it is probably Golden State – and blowing that number out of the water. I’m all in on them winning at least 55 games. Cavs/Spurs is my conservative Finals pick, but at 12/1 the Warriors are great value to win the West.
It is impossible to predict postseason outcomes with any certainty this early in the year, but I am thankful that they are Jackson-free and confident that they will be the team they were meant to be: an exciting offensive juggernaut that plays basketball the right way. Couple this on-court potential with their excellent broadcast team and boisterous home crowd, and they are my run-away choice for League Pass darlings of 2014/15. They open their season at Sacramento tonight. I shall be watching.