Golden State is one of the NBA's emerging franchises, the owner of one of the most complete lineups in the game. However, while the Warriors are fully expected to make the playoffs, the majority of the hype surrounding the legitimate Western Conference title contenders excludes the club.
So what is holding some people back from viewing them as a legitimate threat in the West?
It starts with defense.
Last season, the Warriors gave up 102.6 points per 100 possessions to opposing teams—13th in the NBA per Stats.NBA.com. Not bad, but that’s worse than the Milwaukee Bucks, Denver Nuggets, Atlanta Hawks and Washington Wizards. If the Warriors want to be considered contenders for the NBA Finals, they’ll have to be better than that.
In the playoffs, when defenses typically get better, the Warriors got worse, giving up 103.4 points per 100 possessions. The San Antonio Spurs—the team the Warriors lost to in the semi-finals—improved from 99.2 points per 100 possessions in the regular season to 98.8 in the playoffs. The Champion Miami Heat improved from 100.5 to 99.8.
Much of the Warriors' struggles on defense had to do with the lack of a defensive stopper—someone who can eliminate, or at least subdue, the opposing team’s best scorer.
In the aforementioned Spurs series, Tony Parker torched the Warriors defense for an average of 22.5 points per game, almost two points better than his entire postseason average of 20.6 points per game.
Worse still, despite beating the Nuggets in the first round, the Warriors gave up 28 points to Andre Miller in the first game, 35 points to Ty Lawson in Game 3 and Andre Iguodala (who averaged just 13 points per game during the regular season) put up 25 and 24 points in Games 5 and 6.
Fortunately for Warriors fans, the team acquired Iguodala during the offseason, which could prove to be one of the most important acquisitions in the West. Iguodala, who finished ninth in the NBA's Defensive Player of the Year voting, is one of the league’s top defenders and can defend the opponent’s top scorer on a nightly basis.
Ethan Sherwood Strauss of ESPN.com’s TrueHoop Network outlined how Iguodala impacts his team’s defense:
“Denver was 20th in defensive efficiency before Iguodala arrived and 11th when he left. Philadelphia was third in defensive efficiency in Iguodala’s last season there. Last season, they sunk to 15th.”
Strauss asked Iguodala how much credit he believes he deserves for the defensive leap that Denver took last season:
“I would say I had a lot to do with it, because I had a lot of responsibility, especially in the pick-and-roll coverage on the weak side and having to guard two guys, the diver and the 3-point shooter.”
Add Iggy to a Warriors team with a healthy Andrew Bogut, and the defense should be improved.
The Thunder have Kevin Durant, a do-it-all scorer with the length to shoot over any defender and the ball skills to get to the rim and the foul line on any possession. The Clippers have Chris Paul, who is as deadly facilitating and defending as he is scoring, and the Rockets have James Harden, who can drain a jumper from anywhere on the court or blow by a player with one step.
The Warriors have Stephen Curry, possibly the hottest of the NBA’s rising stars, but one who is somewhat more limited than the others just mentioned.
Of players who attempted at least 400 three-point shots last season, Curry was second with 45.3 percent shooting, behind only Kyle Korver, who shot 45.7 percent from beyond the arc. (Curry was also the only NBA player to shoot 600 three’s, while Korver had 414 such attempts.)
But aside from his deadly three-point shot making, what else about Curry strikes fear into opposing teams? He certainly is a crafty passer, as evidenced by the video below.
Continuing to develop as a passer and find open teammates when defenses creep up to defend his shot could be a way to counter his relative lack of penetrating ability compared to other young point guards like Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook. Curry won't beat you by driving to the basket. He doesn’t have elite athleticism like Rose and Westbrook either. His staple is his jumper.
His game is inherently less efficient than those guys who rely on basket drives and getting fouled.
And so is his team.
Last season, the Warriors relied on the three point shot. A lot. The Warriors, however, took streaky to a historic level last season. According to Stats.NBA.com, since 2001 only three teams have shot 40 percent or better from three—the 2009-10 Phoenix Suns (41.2 percent), 2003-04 Sacramento Kings (40.1 percent) and the 2012-13 Warriors (40.3 percent).
Moreover, Golden State led the NBA in percentage of unassisted three-point shots made at 23.1 percent, and they were last in the league in assisted three-pointers made at 76.9 percent. You can either read that as the Warriors had some really great shooters who could create off the dribble, or that they didn’t rely as much on ball movement for open looks as the rest of the league. Either way, you would be correct to a degree.
Chances are they won’t be as efficient as last season and will need to lean more on more efficient means of scoring.
Not to mention that two of the best players on the Warriors, Curry (played in 26 games in 2011-12) and Bogut (played in just 44 games the past two seasons) have significant injury issues. Both look fine and healthy going into the season, but it is a concern. This may be the biggest road block on the way to a title.
The Warriors are a young team with question marks, but they have positioned themselves to answer them with offseason acquisitions and depth of promising talent. Warriors fans have every reason to be excited.
Saying this team will go as far as Curry will take them would be a bit of a stretch. It will take an improved defensive effort, the development of young guys like Harrison Barnes, Draymond Green, and Klay Thompson and the prolonged health of key players.
One thing is for sure, though. As long as Curry and the Warriors get into the playoffs, they have a chance.