The key to playoff success for the Warriors hinges on Bogut's return/no return.
The title in itself assumes this year's version of the Warriors will not only finish with its first winning record since the 2006-07, 2007-08 campaigns and the 1993-94 season before that, but also a playoff spot.
To put that into context, the Warriors have already matched last year's win total (23) in 30 less games. Tank City or not, it has been an impressive turnaround on both sides of the ball.
The goal in the offseason was for the team to make an underdog, nobody-believes-in-us playoff run for the 7-8 seeds. Now almost midway through the season, fans are starting to readjust their expectations and perhaps looking ahead to what matchups are better suited for the team.
But even if they make the playoffs, how far do us fans, bloggers and writers really expect them to do? Will it be with or without Andrew Bogut? Does Curry's ankle hold up? Is David Lee's newfound defensive energy sustainable?
Assuming most or all of these factors fall on the right side for the Warriors, we must take a look at likely opponents, coaching comparisons, then the matchup analysis, and finally their aggregate chances with or without the big Aussie in the middle.
Likely first-round opponent
As it currently stands in the Western Conference, the Warriors would face off against the Memphis Grizzlies in a seven-game series. As I wrote the other day, it is unlikely that the Dubs will finish near the fourth or fifth seeds, so this may not be as likely as it presently appears.
Barring some catastrophic injury to a star player, the top four seeds will assuredly consist of a combination of the San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder, Los Angeles Clippers and Memphis Grizzles.
Since the Grizzlies will be unlikely given that they are entrenched as the No. 4 seed, it is between the top three teams. If the Warriors finish with about 48 wins, they should clinch the No. 6 or 7 seed. They did win 48 games in 2008, but in typical Warriors fashion they failed to even clinch a postseason berth.
If the Spurs are able to stay healthy, and this may not be the case given the age of Tim Duncan and Manu always nicked up, they will finish as the No. 1 seed. However, the Thunder and Clippers are hot on their heels with young, athletic benches and MVP-caliber players.
The finishing top three seeds will most likely be the Thunder (behind Durant's MVP-caliber season), Spurs (lingering injuries a bit too much to overcome) and the Clippers (best bench in the NBA perfect for a long season).
With Denver most likely locking up the No. 5 seed, the others are up for grabs between Portland, Houston, Utah and Minnesota. The rest of the season is still to come, but the Warriors appear that they are a bit stronger than those teams, making the Clippers their most likely opponent, with the Spurs coming in second.
It is harder to see the Warriors finishing eighth because of Portland's bench issues, Kevin Love's injury and Houston's inexperience.
How they match up
In the event that the Warriors finish eighth, they match up surprisingly well against the Oklahoma City Thunder. And by well, I mean it in the not-getting-swept-immediately way. Seeing that Scott Brooks continues to play Kendrick Perkins down low, this makes the game a true 4-4 game (Festus Ezeli) on offense.
In a seven-game series, getting hot from distance provides a significant amount of variance when evaluating the matchup. LIke March Madness in college basketball, getting hot from three might win you a game or two and even a series. The Warriors can do just that with Klay Thompson, Stephen Curry and Harrison Barnes (two 40-plus percent three-point shooters along with a developing Barnes) bombing away from deep.
Not only are the Thunder athletically dynamic on offense, but they are suffocating on defense as well. They are 10th-best guarding against the three, allowing 35.2 percent per game.
In a seven-game series, the Warriors would steal a couple games at home, but the greatness of Kevin Durant and an offensive rebounding machine in Serge Ibaka should make it a short series.
If the Warriors slump a bit but recover to finish to finish seventh, they would face off against the San Antonio Spurs. This would be a terrible matchup with or without the return of Bogut.
Fact: the Warriors have not beaten the Spurs since December 11, 2007—a span of 15 straight losses. Matt Bonner was the leading scorer in that game, with 25 points and 17 rebounds. Safe to say the Warriors haven't matched up well with the Spurs in half a decade.
The pick-and-roll spread offense and prolific three-point shooting of the Spurs will do the Warriors in, in about five games. These aren't the old Spurs, where defense was key to the championships, but they can outscore you too if you want to play up-and-down. They even prefer it with Danny Green, Gary Neal and Kawhi Leonard providing a lethal blend of athleticism and shooting.
The matchup the Warriors want and may get might be the one against the Los Angeles Clippers. Even though they boast the MVP candidate and best point guard in the land, Chris Paul, the Dubs match up extremely well. Having already beaten them twice this season, it isn't Da Vinci Code-tough to figure out the Clips as it is the Spurs and Thunder.
Curry has played some of his best ball against Paul, and they have the players down low to guard Blake Griffin and offensively weak DeAndre Jordan. If Vinny Del Negro doesn't unleash Eric Bledsoe's suffocating defense, and it doesn't look like he will anytime as evidenced by Bledsoe's 18 minutes per game, players like Barnes and Klay will play well.
The key to the two victories over the Clippers was the Warriors' ability to outrebound them in both games, and only losing on 30-41 on the boards in the blowout loss.
Griffin has also been exposed defensively against the Warriors because of his inability to guard the pick-and-pop and Lee's diversified post game. This can be said the other way as Blake can simply overpower Lee, but Lee's ability to pass makes the rest of his team much better.
But as we can see from Chris Paul in the third matchup and last year's brutal slugfest against the Memphis Grizzlies, when he decides to turn it up it's nearly impossible to stop him and the Clippers.
With Curry, Klay and Barnes heating up to win a couple games at home and one on the road, this series should easily go six games, and maybe even seven.
Going into the playoffs mean that Mark Jackson, one of the leaders for Coach of the Year, will have to face off against the likes of Gregg Popovich (great), Scott Brooks (very good despite the Perkins problem) and Lionel Hollins (a very solid coach despite the anti-statistics sentiment).
Jackson himself is having a great year by revamping the defense, playing pick-and-rolls more aggressively, and making the offense revolve around precise passing. With the defensive rebounding rate up along with their usual stellar three-point shooting, his work with the coaching staff (Mike Malone) is understated.
While he may not necessarily out-coach the names above, he will fare much better than some may realize. And if it's Vinny Del Negro in a playoff series? Well, you never know.
Odds they have of getting out of first round with/without Bogut
But this is the time where we start to seriously take into account the Warriors' chances of truly defeating a team without the big man in the middle. As of now, Festus Ezeli is costing his team nearly five points per 100 possessions on offense, according to 82games.
Even though he has been solid on defense, a plus-0.9 per 100 possessions, the hands/finishing ability, defense (don't discount Bogut's ability to cover for Lee's defense) and passing would make the Warriors one of the scariest teams to play.
In any round.
Without Bogut, the Warriors will still be exciting and provide one of the greatest fan atmosphere in all of basketball but their run will be short-lived.
With Bogut, it becomes a different story. If he can come back to around 85 percent, he will present problems for every single team in the playoffs. Take the Spurs, for example. Much of that offense is predicated on what Tim Duncan is able to create when he has the ball. They don't run the offense for him, necessarily, but for what plays develop around him.
With either Lee or Festus guarding Duncan, the Dubs would have to send doubles and traps, which gives shooters like Manu, old friend Stephen Jackson and Gary Neal open areas to shoot. Running out to shooters just keeps opening up lanes around the perimeter and inside, therefore collapsing the defense.
However, if Bogut were able to play, they could stay in passing lanes and not watch their defense break down possession after possession.
Having Bogut on offense would also mean that Duncan wouldn't be able to sit around the post area and deny what little ball penetration and post moves that Curry and Lee would try. Bogut would turn a quick five-game series against the Spurs, Thunder or Grizzlies into a close seven-game affair.
How far will the Warriors go in the playoffs?
Simply put, he would provide a transcendent improvement on a team having a transcendently magical season.