There is more than one formula to winning in the NBA.
The Golden State Warriors of the last two seasons—and particularly of 2013-14—are not hellbent on breaking convention or redefining what a winning basketball strategy can be.
Rather, they are taking a conventional concept—playing to their strengths—and are applying it in the most efficient of ways.
Golden State has what is arguably the greatest shooting backcourt in the history of the game. The hyperbole in that statement is extremely minimal despite the fact that Stephen Curry is 25 and Klay Thompson is 23.
Curry set the all-time record for threes made in a single season with 272 last season. That would be impressive even for a chucker, but you have to look down to No. 26 on the the single-season list to find someone with a higher percentage than Curry's 45.3 clip (Glen Rice shot 47.0 percent in 1996-97, but made 65 fewer threes than Curry).
Pairing any above-average shooter with Curry would give the Warriors one of the better shooting backcourts, but Thompson gives them real best-ever credentials. His 211 threes were third-most in the NBA last year and No. 22 all-time, and his 62 through 18 games this season put him on pace to shatter Curry's record.
Curry is currently second in the league to Thompson with 51 threes made, although he has missed three games.
OK, you get it. They're historically great shooters. But there is still a logical step that must be taken to turn gaudy shooting numbers into wins.
Mark Jackson and his coaching staff have beautifully simplified that step. Essentially, the game plan is to get those two players as many looks as possible.
This strategy has given the Warriors one of the most lethal offensive attacks in the NBA while simultaneously drawing a great deal of criticism. For example, TNT's Charles Barkley and Shaquille O'Neal have repeatedly called the Warriors a "jump-shooting team," and described their style of play as unsustainable.
Barkley, O'Neal and other old-fashioned thinkers are simply wrong. For one, the statistics do not back their claims.
Thompson shoots 41.1 percent from three for his career, while Curry drains 44.5 percent of his triples.
To understand just how lethal those numbers are (remember how often these guys shoot), Thompson's career true-shooting percentage (which takes into account points per shot attempt and free throws) is greater than that of Carmelo Anthony, Derrick Rose and LaMarcus Aldridge, while Curry ranks above the likes of Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade and Chris Paul.
Sir Charles and the Big Diesel would certainly not call a Derrick Rose iso, a LaMarcus Aldridge post-up or a Kobe Bryant mid-range jumper "unsustainable," but the fact is that a Thompson or Curry three is just as effective and consistent.
The other error in this assessment is that the "jump-shooting team" moniker is inaccurate.
Three-Point Klay (and Stephen)
There are several NBA teams that are jump-shot happy, that do live and die by the three and that do not have the ability to consistently score in crunch time or in the postseason.
These clubs vary greatly in their shooting ability and in win-loss record, but all three are most certainly jump-shooting teams. This is best illustrated by a look at who is actually taking the shots.
James Harden leads Houston with 87 three-point attempts (he hits 32.2 percent), but the team has six players who have shot at least 50 threes. Los Angeles also features six 50-plus three shooters, while New York has eight guys who have hoisted at least 30 times (four of whom are below 30 percent).
By contrast, only six Warriors have shot over 10 threes, only four have taken 30-plus attempts and only two have pulled up more than 60 times.
Those two are Curry and Thompson, who have taken 227 combined triples—more than the entire Memphis Grizzlies or Chicago Bulls. More importantly though, they account for over half of Golden State's attempts.
It should then not come as any surprise that the Warriors lead the NBA in three-point percentage, draining at a healthy 43.9 clip. The Miami Heat are second at 41.8, while the Lakers, Rockets and Knicks are at 40.9, 38.9 and 32.2, respectively.
However, this does not simply imply that other teams should follow in the footsteps of Golden State by having their best shooters shoot more and everyone else shoot less.
It takes far more to create the lethal offense that Golden State possesses.
At the root of it, the difference between "jump-shooting teams" and Golden State is that the other teams shoot threes reactively, while the Warriors do so proactively.
Now, shooting reactively is not necessarily a bad thing. It simply means that a team shoots threes because they happen to be the best shot available.
Sometimes, this is because a team lacks the ability to run a good pick-and-roll, penetrate the lane or score in the post. On the other hand, it can be due to a deadly post player that gets double-teamed or a penetrator that causes the defense to collapse, thus leaving wide-open shooters on the perimeter.
No matter how many threes a team shoots, every team in the NBA shoots threes more or less reactively—every team except for Golden State.
As has been previously laid out, the Warriors might have the best shooting duo of all-time. As a result, Jackson and his staff have their team run endless off-ball screens and misdirection cuts all around the court in order to open up Curry and Thompson.
Preventing Curry from getting looks is virtually impossible, since he is one of the best cutters in the league, has the ability to knock down threes off the dribble and can make defenders pay for overplaying with his deadly two-point game and passing ability.
Thompson is 6'7" and can shoot over almost everyone who guards him.
Both have a release so quick that even the slightest bit of separation is enough for them to fire, and the Warriors have such passers at every other position that their guards are sure to be found no matter where they are in relation to the ball.
Defenses know this and therefore prepare game plans that are centered around stopping the Warriors' lethal duo.
This season, Curry has drawn defenders such as Danny Green (a 6'6" shooting guard), Nicolas Batum (a small forward) and Anthony Davis (a power forward). If an opposing point guard is tasked with guarding Curry, they almost always receive help.
Assigning these top defenders and double-teams to Curry creates mismatches and openings everywhere else. This is the number one reason that Thompson has taken and made the most threes in the NBA.
Of course, most teams still do everything they can to limit Thompson's looks at the basket, but this only creates greater problems elsewhere.
What do you get when the opposing small forward is guarding Curry and the two guard is on Thompson? You get a point guard trying to take Harrison Barnes (or Andre Iguodala when healthy). What do you get when the opposing power forward stays with Curry after a screen to prevent an otherwise-inevitable three? You get a wide-open David Lee rolling to the basket.
The Warriors are not a jump-shooting team. They are a team that uses the two best jump shooters on the planet to create and exploit mismatches, get points in the paint, get to the line and still torch their opponents with jump shots.
Before drooling over the Warriors offense too much, its flaws should be noted. They currently rank 24th in the NBA in free-throw percentage, 24th in offensive rebounding, have committed the third-most turnovers and have scored the third-fewest bench points.
The free-throw numbers should come around, as four of their five most prolific foul shooters are well below their career averages, while the bench scoring has been thoroughly damaged by an inordinate number of injuries that have either sidelined the would-be bench scorers or forced them to start.
Either way, the offense is far from perfect at this juncture. But while there are kinks to be worked out, the foundation is as solid as it is singularly unique.
This is not a strategy that should or even could revolutionize NBA basketball. Nor is it an unsustainable system that becomes ineffective late in games or against good defenses.
What it is is an outside-in approach, one where the defense is not forced to concede jump shots but rather is forced to take them away. It's the only offense in the league where the pressure is applied off the ball and along the perimeter, thus creating soft spots on the ball and in the frontcourt.
The real beauty of the Warriors offense is that it works whether or not the three-pointers are falling in bunches or are few and far between.
Defenses have no choice but to make Curry and Thompson the No. 1 and No. 2 focuses. The old defensive adage may be "turn your opponents into a jump-shooting team," but that's the last thing a team can afford to do against Golden State.
We will see, come postseason time, if someone dares to dare Curry and Thompson to beat them.
If so, Barkley, O'Neal and many others may have to change their concept of sustainability.
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