Why Aren't the Golden State Warriors Better Right Now?

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Why Aren't the Golden State Warriors Better Right Now?
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There are only two NBA teams with six players on the All-Star Game ballot.

One is the 18-3 Indiana Pacers. The other is the 12-9 Golden State Warriors.

We all know that the top All-Star vote-getters are not always the top players. Likewise, teams with the most nominees are not necessarily the most successful.

Still, having more All-Star candidates than starters says something definitive about a roster—that it's stacked, and the Pacers are performing just how you'd expect such a talent-laden team to play. 

Why, then, are the Warriors currently in the middle of the Western Conference, hovering only slightly above the playoff threshold?

 

Early Fragility

The most apologetic, played-out excuse for the team's early rough patch is its injury woes—particularly Andre Iguodala's strained hamstring.

It is also the most accurate reason.

The Warriors cannot complain about injuries to Toney Douglas and Festus Ezeli; every team in the league has a couple of bench players out. The problem is that Iguodala's absence exacerbates that of the others—particularly Douglas.

Iguodala served as the team's backup point guard when Douglas went down. Without either of them, the Warriors are forced to run with Nemanja Nedovic or Kent Bazemore—two youngsters who should not be in any title-aspiring team's rotation.

In addition, filling in for Iguodala at starting small forward is Harrison Barnes, thus depriving the Warriors of their extraordinary second-year sixth man.

This is all secondary to the fact that Iguodala's game is invaluable to the Warriors. The team only became a "championship contender" when he was added this past July, and every utterance of the phrase since then has been predicated on his presence in the lineup.

Rocky Widner/Getty Images

The 29-year-old small forward positively impacts each and every game he plays in, something that cannot be said for any other player on the roster and very few other players in the league. This is because he is both one of the top five perimeter defenders in the world and an incredibly effective offensive player with or without the ball.

It's safe to say that the absence of Iguodala's defense costs the Warriors at least two stops a game, while the removal of his offense costs the team at least one fast-break score and one half-court bucket.

In other words, the Warriors are facing at least an eight-point handicap every night without Iguodala.

Every team battles injuries throughout the season, and every team's record suffers for it. But everything gets magnified early on, so Golden State's 4-5 record without Iguodala has a far bigger impact on its winning percentage than a similar skid would in January or February.

 

Rotational Woes

The Warriors have struggled to put a high-quality lineup on the court for 48 minutes a night, even when Iguodala and Douglas were healthy.

As special as a starting lineup of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Iguodala/Barnes, David Lee and Andrew Bogut is, all five play together for roughly half of each game.

No lineup can put away the league's better teams in 24 minutes, and that's where the Warriors have struggled. With bench players on the floor, they have blown leads, expanded deficits and undone the work of their starting five.

While Barnes, Draymond Green and Jermaine O'Neal have been a quality threesome, none take pressure off the players around them by drawing double-teams on offense or locking up elite players on the other end. This allows teams to exploit their weaknesses, while taking even greater advantage of the underwhelming Bazemore, Nedovic and Marreese Speights.

Barnes' move to the starting lineup has of course amplified these problems.

Bench depth is not solely to blame, though.

Golden State's roster was constructed with versatility and flexibility in the forefront of general manager Bob Myers' mind. Thus far, Mark Jackson and his coaching staff have done a poor job of using these inherent advantages.

For instance, take Barnes. A natural small forward, he has the quickness to defend many of the league's shooting guards and the size to exploit them offensively. Similarly, he is a superb stretch 4 due to his ability to score from the post, knock down threes, rebound and defend bigger players.

Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

The team could conceivably sub Barnes in early—about five minutes into the game—along with Toney Douglas to play alongside Curry. This would slide Thompson to the 3 and Iguodala to the bench. Barnes would enter for Lee at the 4.

A couple minutes later, O'Neal would be subbed in for Bogut. That would give the Warriors a lineup of Curry, Douglas, Thompson, Barnes and O'Neal—a group that could run, defend the perimeter and score inside and out.

Fresh to enter the game early in the second would be Iguodala, Lee, Bogut and Green. As the half continued, Speights could spell any big man facing foul trouble.

This type of substituting has disadvantages. The bench unit has less opportunities to form chemistry, and it shortens the time that the starters are all on the floor together.

However, playing this way forces the opposing coach to do the same or face having his bench players go up against starters for much of every game.

Not only could the Warriors play this mix-and-match style more effectively than just about every other team in the league (the substitution pattern outlined above is just one of many possibilities), but the Dubs would also get better and better at it the more they employed it.

Since this strategy would force other teams to play the same way, the Warriors could gain a competitive advantage by getting creative with their lineups while simultaneously masking their relatively weak bench.

 

November Gauntlet

Last year, the Warriors entered the final month of the season reeling.

They had lost 10 of 13 games and were sitting at 33-27. While panic was setting into the minds of some, optimists noted that eight of those 13 games were against playoff teams and 10 of them were on the road.

The hope was that a lighter schedule down the stretch would provide relief, and it did. The team went 14-8 to close out the season, enjoying 16 out of 22 at home with 12 games coming against non-playoff teams.

This season's club has faced a similarly difficult early slate.

Fourteen of the Warriors' first 22 games have been on the road. Ten of the games have been against teams currently in playoff spots—seven of which include the four established Western Conference powers (the San Antonio Spurs, Los Angeles Clippers, Memphis Grizzlies and Oklahoma City Thunder).

Rocky Widner/Getty Images

Traversing this grueling stretch at any point would be difficult, but it is especially challenging early on. The Warriors have had only one homestand all season (all other home games have been one-game pit stops), and the one they did have was still only three games long.

With five new faces and injuries to six key members (Iguodala, Curry, Barnes, Douglas, Ezeli and O'Neal have all missed at least four games), the lack of time in Oakland has given the team little chance to jell or establish any sort of momentum.

However, the Warriors will play 20 of their next 33 at home. While 19 of these games will come against current playoff teams, only 10 of those will be Western Conference opponents.

They will also enjoy eight homestands during this time, including three in the final three weeks of 2013.

 

Permanent Damage?

The Warriors currently occupy the No. 8 spot in the Western Conference. While a playoff berth still seems incredibly likely for an endlessly talented roster that has still won more than it has lost despite several early-season hurdles, the team already finds itself slipping behind the top of the conference.

San Antonio, Oklahoma City and the Portland Trail Blazers are all four to five games ahead of Golden State.

This should be no cause for concern.

What is most responsible for Golden State's early struggles?

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While the difference between a 17-4 record and a 12-9 record may look significant, the sample sizes are simply too small to carry any weight.

The Spurs, Thunder and Blazers do not appear to be slowing down anytime soon, but that does not mean a mini slump will not plague each team at some point. Even if it's simply a 4-6 stretch, the Warriors can all but erase their deficit with a corresponding 7-3 record.

Besides some coaching struggles, the Warriors' inability to separate from the pack early on has been perfectly acceptable, even for an aspiring championship contender.

The best way to answer the question of "Why aren't the Warriors better right now?" is probably, "They are."

If the record, playoff seed and health don't improve by New Year's, it will become a different story.

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