The latest triumph in a surprising season came Jan. 2 when the Dubs took it to a Los Angeles Clippers team that won every single game it played in the month of December. Unfazed by the challenge, Golden State dominated both ends of the court en route to a decisive 115-94 victory.
The win was yet another “hey, look at us” moment for the Warriors, who still aren’t being counted among the NBA’s elite teams, despite a sterling 22-10 record.
Maybe it’s the two decades of losing, or perhaps it’s the hackneyed notion of an “east coast bias” that keeps Golden State from earning the recognition it deserves. Whatever the case, it’s time to give the Dubs their due. Consider this your primer on exactly why the Warriors really are one of the NBA’s best teams.
Last season, the Warriors were the fourth-worst defensive team in the league. They played small, gambled too much and generally didn’t defend with any sort of commitment.
That’s all changed this year, as the Dubs have climbed into the top 10 in defensive efficiency despite playing without Andrew Bogut or Brandon Rush, who are arguably the team’s best defenders.
The improvement has two root causes.
First, the Warriors have undergone a complete strategic overhaul in the way they defend the pick-and-roll. Last year, Golden State’s bigs consistently blitzed the ball-handler, which allowed opposing guards to easily blow past the bigger, slower defender and into the lane.
The result was a parade of layups, kick-outs and easy buckets.
All of that has changed this year, though. Now, the Warriors’ guards force ball-handlers away from the directions they want to go. Usually, that means toward a weak hand or down to the baseline. Unlike last season, Golden State almost never allows dribblers to get into the middle of the floor on the pick-and-roll. That’s not the only defensive change, but it’s the most notable.
The second cause has been an obvious, top-down emphasis on defense. The coaching staff, led by defensive guru Mike Malone, is preaching defensive intensity and discipline ad nauseam. And to the credit of the Warriors players, everyone has bought in.
The days of trying to outscore the opposition with gimmicky lineups and free-wheeling play are over in Golden State. Defense comes first now.
If you thought the Warriors made a big improvement on D, prepare to have your socks knocked off. On the glass, Golden State has made the most drastic improvement of any team in the league.
Again, the change has come about as a result of the organization, coaching staff and players making it a priority. Head coach Mark Jackson summed up the team’s rebounding philosophy when he spoke to Carl Steward of the San Jose Mercury News on Jan. 3:
"We realized we have to do it by committee and that the last line of our defense—which we have preached from Day 1—is securing the basketball. If you don't rebound, it's a poor defensive trip, it's a reset. So now we've got a bunch of guys—small guys and big guys—committed to gang rebounding" (via Bay Area News Group).
It’s true, the Warriors are getting boards from everyone. David Lee (11.0 rebounds per game) has always been good on the glass, but the Warriors’ starting backcourt is combining to pull down 8.5 boards per game. Heck, even the much-maligned Andris Biedrins is doing his part by snatching 19.8 percent of all rebounds when he’s on the floor. If he played enough minutes to qualify, that rate would put him sixth among NBA centers.
What’s really amazing about the Warriors’ work on the glass is that they’re doing it with an undersized lineup. David Lee and Carl Landry play as the only bigs on the floor down the stretch of most games, and they’ve somehow managed to be one of the league’s very best rebounding units.
Jarrett Jack and Carl Landry should both be in the running for Sixth Man of the Year for their performances with the Warriors this season.
Jack is often the primary ball-handler in the fourth quarter, which allows the Warriors' shooters to play off of the ball. His averages of 12.3 points and 5.1 assists in under 29 minutes per game are spectacular, but his leadership in the locker room may be just as valuable.
Carl Landry gives the Warriors what they haven't had in years: a post-up scorer. As the anchor of the second unit, Landry goes to work on the block, drawing fouls and punishing opposing bigs with a bevy of spin moves and up fakes.
It's just too bad that nobody seems to be talking about either of them.
There's just too much to discuss when it comes to the post defense of Festus Ezeli, the athleticism of Harrison Barnes and the grit of Draymond Green. All three Warriors rookies have been integral parts of the team this year. So, just know that Barnes did this to Nikola Pekovic:
It’s appropriate that the Warriors’ two biggest stars are also among the league’s most underrated. Even on an individual basis, there’s no love for the Dubs.
David Lee is the only player in the NBA averaging 20 points and 10 rebounds per game. And unlike in years past, he’s not just piling up empty stats; he’s scoring efficiently and sharing the ball. In fact, his 3.7 assists per game are the most among all power forwards.
Despite that, his name is almost never mentioned among the league’s elite 4s. If he can’t make the All-Star team in a year when he’s the most productive player at his position and he’s on one of the league’s best teams, it might be time to take the vote away from the fans.
Not to be forgotten, Stephen Curry is also worthy of (but probably won’t get) an All-Star nod.
Finally healthy after a year of ankle injuries, Curry is shooting nearly 46 percent from long range and is one of just 10 players in the league averaging more than 20 points per game.
He’s the guy who makes Golden State’s offense go, and his growth as a point guard and continued brilliant shooting simply shouldn’t be overlooked any longer. It was just one game, but against the Clippers in that Jan. 2 whooping, Curry badly outplayed Chris Paul.
Everybody had doubts about Mark Jackson’s coaching aptitude before this season (yours truly included), but there’s no denying it now: The guy can coach.
His players trust him, he’s showing great creativity and wisdom in his rotations and he’s making solid in-game adjustments. For a guy who seemed like he was all talk last season, Jackson has made colossal leaps forward as a strategist and motivator.
Perhaps a Coach of the Year award will help elevate the Dubs’ national profile.
Andrew Bogut: The Missing Piece
Ladies and gentlemen, behold the Warriors’ biggest wild card.
As we’ve already mentioned, this is a team doing elite work on the defensive end and on the glass. The offense has star-quality players and the coaching staff is top notch.
But what happens when Andrew Bogut returns?
Imagine inserting a phenomenal rebounder and world-class defensive center into the middle of what are already the Warriors’ greatest areas of strength.
Sure, there’s no certainty that Bogut will play this year, and there’s definitely not a guarantee that he’ll be his old self. But what if he is?
If the Warriors get the Andrew Bogut they traded for last spring, he’ll immediately propel them from being a nice story and a middle-tier playoff seed into the stratosphere of truly elite teams.
If and when that happens, it’ll be impossible for the Warriors to remain the league’s most underrated team.
Because they’ll be right in the thick of championship contention.