Diagnosing Key Problems Ailing Golden State Warriors' Playoff Dreams
There’s a narrative Golden State Warriors fans are prepared to witness.
The franchise started its season better than it has since the introduction of the Internet. But now the Warriors are in a free-fall, and the only chance to survive may come from a parachute provided by the greater struggles of the Utah Jazz.
A season that began as a renaissance of Bay Area basketball could play out as it has 17 of the last 18 years, a Warriors’ campaign that ends without a postseason.
At least if things keep going this way.
The Warriors accelerated to a season-high 13 games above .500 (30-17) in early February, the team’s best start since 1991-92. All was glorious, as the team also celebrated its first All-Star, David Lee, since Latrell Sprewell in 1997.
But since then, the Warriors have skidded, losers of 12 of their last 17 games before throttling the New York Knicks on Monday. The Warriors (36-29) are currently the sixth seed in the Western Conference, 1.5 games ahead of the Houston Rockets and 2.5 games ahead of the Los Angeles Lakers.
There’s no single symptom that reveals a crystal resolution to what the Warriors' issues have been.
Instead, there’s a multitude of reasoning that explains why the Warriors have gone from West Coast darlings to recent flops.
Here’s how Golden State coach Mark Jackson explained the struggles to Bleacher Report during his press conference before Monday night’s game blowout win against the Knicks:
“Playoffs in this land? In this area?" Jackson said. "Thank you for the compliment. Let’s not forget where we are. So it’s exciting to be relevant at this time. And that’s the message to my guys. We are not going to get caught up with what everyone else is saying. We are in a good place and now it’s about correcting what we are doing wrong and winning ballgames."
It has nothing to do with Lee or Curry
Let’s start by letting two offensive guys, who have always been offensive guys, off the hook.
There was a ridiculous mention in Marc Stein’s power rankings that the Warriors’ dramatic fall has been a result of Lee's lessened play since the All-Star break.
With respect to one of the league’s top reporters, that notion is ridiculous.
Lee’s numbers during the team’s last 17 games remain similar to the averages that made him an All-Star: 17.1 points on 50.4 percent shooting, 11.9 rebounds and 3.4 assists per game.
Lee's numbers prior to the All-Star Game were 19 points, 10.8 rebounds and 3.8 assists.
Lee, despite battling through a knee collision with the Houston Rockets’ Thomas Robinson on March 8, is not hurting the Warriors.
Curry has averaged 24.1 points—including 42.4 percent from three-point range— and 7.5 assists during that recent 17-game struggle.
Neither of Golden State’s offensive stars are to blame.
The rookies have vanished
Lottery pick Harrison Barnes has been inconsistent throughout his rookie campaign, so his effect on the team’s slide is slightly irrelevant.
Barnes is incredible when he attacks the basket, but those plays have been too rare, and he disappears and reappears with unpredictability. Similar to second-year shooter Klay Thompson, Barnes has had his share of compelling nights and rough ones—but that’s been the case all season.
It’s not the showcased youngster who has hurt Golden State.
Part of what made Golden State successful early was the surprise play of rookies Festus Ezeli and Draymond Green, both of whose play has declined as the season has progressed.
Ezeli's ability to step in and start as a 30th pick added extra juice to the Warriors' success. While his minutes were always limited, just 14.6 minutes per game this season, Ezeli is down to just 10.5 minutes per game in the stretch of 17 games.
Contributions from Ezeli and Green were never jumping off a box score; however, it was the intangible energy and play that supplemented Golden State’s surrounding talent. Ezeli’s inability to simply catch the ball within the offense is one example.
It’s a smaller fraction of the woes, but Golden State had relied on quality stretches from those two first-year guys.
The Bogut factor
Golden State placed seven-foot expectations on the return of Andrew Bogut.
Then he returned like a homecoming queen back from the dorms, far less of the talent than he was years ago. He’s clearly not at 100 percent, and he may never be again.
The Warriors won in each of Bogut's first three games back on the floor before hitting this 5-12 stretch. He’s taking just 5.8 field-goal attempts per game, just half of his career average.
It’s like any pickup basketball team that adds a new piece; there are hiccups with an adjusted rhythm.
In 24.1 minutes per game, Bogut's numbers are productive. He's averaging 7.1 rebounds and, though it’s a personal decrease, he is shooting 47.3 percent.
The issue with Bogut is how much the heavy-footed center changes the team's defense.
The Warriors’ early success was a result of another fresh element: defense.
Jackson preached early on the importance of multiple-effort plays defensively, primarily returning to help and rotating on open shooters. That isn’t happening with the same success.
How will the Warriors' season finish?
Further proof that defense is key in the Warriors' success came in Monday's win against New York, as the Knicks were limited to 27.4 percent from the field.
Through the team’s first 47 games, Golden State allowed 99.4 points per game by way of a 43.4 field-goal percentage and a 33 percent three-point percentage.
But in the previous 17 games, Golden State is allowing 106.8 points on 46 percent from the field and 33 percent from behind the arc.
Golden State is also turning the ball over with more frequency, putting even greater pressure on its defense.
The Warriors are still leading the league in defensive rebounds, but during this stretch, extra shot attempts are coming by way of 15.9 turnovers per game, fourth-worst in the NBA. Those giveaways have led to 15 fast-break points per game by opponents, fifth-worst in the league in that frame of 17 games.
Inconsistency is to be expected
The Warriors are a young, inexperienced franchise.
When the team is winning, at least against fellow playoff teams, all factors are in sync. They’ve come so far because of All-Star seasons from Curry and Lee, as well as Sixth Man of the Year-quality play from Jarrett Jack and even Carl Landry.
But if one piece is off, they all fail together.
Jackson points out that his team’s inconsistent struggles are to be expected and that simply making the playoffs is stunning from where this team is coming from.
Jackson’s mention of the Oklahoma City blueprint is relevant, as Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook did struggle before coming through the other side.
The Warriors have been built by Bob Myers with a strong plan. Though there will be frustrations, this season has been a huge stride from last year’s 23-43 (.348) record.
The postseason is still likely.
Golden State plays 12 of its remaining 18 games at home, while the Utah Jazz’s recent slide coupled with a tough remaining schedule essentially cements the Warriors fall to an eighth seed at worst.
It will be tough enough against any of the West’s top three teams in the postseason, but if the Warriors are unable to break these kinks, they might be at risk of even getting there.
Advanced split stats were included from NBA.com’s Media Central stats portal.
Jimmy Spencer is an NBA Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him at @JimmySpencerNBA for NBA news and analysis.
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