When the Golden State Warriors are at their ball-moving, three-point-bombing best, this team seems destined for a prolonged postseason run or something even sweeter.
But this squad's struggle with split personalities is serious enough to deny it membership from the NBA's elite.
Truly elite teams have at least one consistent weapon in their arsenal. The San Antonio Spurs never lose their depth. The Indiana Pacers don't forget to defend. The Miami Heat never cave to ball-stopping temptations.
But these Warriors change faces like a cheesy science-fiction character. The offense boils, then it freezes. The defense builds a wall in front of the basket, then that wall collapses.
The Warriors are exciting to watch. Supremely talented, too.
But they're not ready for the big stage.
Slow Starts, Frustrating Finishes
Given the offensive firepower this team possesses, the Warriors should be burying opponents from the moment the opening tip gets tossed.
But Golden State has been a slow-starting team.
The Warriors have trailed after the first quarter in seven of their last eight games. During that stretch, they've dug themselves an average hole of 6.4 points in the opening period.
Now, they're not stumbling all the way to guaranteed losses. The Dubs have split those eight contests.
But this isn't a recent trend, either.
On the season the Warriors are just plus-2.4 points per 100 possessions in the first quarter, via NBA.com (subscription required). That number climbs all the way to plus-8.6 in the second period and plus-6.8 in the third.
That high-powered offensive machine has sputtered, not sprinted, out of the gate. Golden State's 100.7 offensive rating in the opening frame is by far its lowest 12-minute output.
Sometimes those sluggish starts can be corrected over the next 36 minutes. Never was that more evident than when Golden State erased a 27-point second-half deficit and stole a 112-103 win over the Toronto Raptors on Dec. 3.
But the lowly Raptors (7-13) are measuring sticks of competence, not contention. The Warriors (13-10) can't expect those same resurrections against better competition.
"Against these teams in the Western Conference, these good teams, you dig yourself a hole and it's awfully tough," coach Mark Jackson said after a 19-point first-quarter deficit led to a 22-point drubbing by the Houston Rockets on Dec. 6, via Alex Pavlovic of the San Jose Mercury News.
When the Warriors offense sputters, everything becomes affected. The ball movement slows or even stops. Defensive assignments are missed or never received. You can actually see the wind escaping their sails:
Lot of slumping shoulders and shaking heads on that #Warriors squad.— Jeff Caplan (@Caplan_NBA) December 12, 2013
These listless openings are compounded by the fact the Warriors are more Carlos Marmol than Mariano Rivera in closing time.
The Warriors hold a net rating of minus-0.4 points per 100 possessions in the final frame of regulation, good for just 17th league-wide.
Golden State's late-game woes can be traced to its inability to generate prime scoring chances.
This team is mediocre with pick-and-roll plays, as ball-handlers have generated just 0.77 points per possession (17th) and roll men have managed only 1.00 (16th), via SynergySports (subscription required). The Dubs get next to nothing from their post game (0.76 on post-up plays, 25th) and find only marginal success out of isolations (0.83, 13th).
Sometimes this team still finds a way, evidenced by Curry's late-game barrage (16 fourth-quarter points) and coffin-closing 19-footer to seal a badly needed 95-93 win over the Dallas Mavericks on Wednesday.
But the Warriors can't keep praying for miraculous finishes. "You can’t bank on getting 7 points in 2 possessions as a reliable strategy for closing late-game deficits," the Bay Area News Group's Adam Lauridsen wrote.
This team desperately needs an identity, and one that comes free of crippling ebbs and flows.
These Warriors can terrify the opposition or terrify their fans. Sometimes in the same night.
Predicting which team makes it to the arena is nothing more than a guessing game:
The Warriors look like either Halle Berry or Precious. There's no in between.— Jesse Taylor (@JesseTaylor74) December 12, 2013
The Warriors often play the worst brand of risk-reward basketball. They take chances that don't need to be taken, push limits that were long ago set in stone.
For all the flair this high-wire act can produce, it can strip the team's function just as easily.
These aren't Don Nelson's run-and-gun Warriors. They'll still push the tempo, but not to that same extreme (98.43 possessions per 48 minutes, sixth overall).
Yet, they still seem to value quantity over quality. Only two teams have coughed up more giveaways than the Warriors (17.3 turnovers per 100 possessions).
The Dubs looked headed for another untimely Mr. Hyde showing on Wednesday night. They shot just 25 percent in the opening frame, finishing the quarter with more turnovers (seven) than field goals (six).
When their offensive struggles inevitably extended to the defensive end, a seven-point first-quarter deficit grew to an 11-point gap by halftime.
Then, and only then, did the Dubs find some fight. Rusty Simmons of the San Francisco Chronicle captured the scene perfectly, writing that "Stephen Curry punched the back of a courtside chair, Mark Jackson's voice apparently echoed outside the halftime locker room, and Klay Thompson showed the slightest glimpse of on-court emotion."
The Warriors, of course, eventually found a way to eke out a victory on their home floor. They never had that Halle Berry look, but at least left the Precious resemblance inside the locker room.
But it's impossible to take much of anything away from this game. It only reinforced the fact that this team struggles mightily with consistency.
A thinning rotation hasn't helped.
Andre Iguodala (hamstring) hasn't suited up since Nov. 22. Jermaine O'Neal, a 35-year-old with a history of injuries, has looked like a 35-year-old with an injury history and been sidelined six games already. Stephen Curry (concussion) and Harrison Barnes (foot) have each missed a handful of games.
But all teams feel the bite of the injury bug. Elite ones find a way to respond to adversity.
What they've found is a steady stream of long-range attempts, a stream that offers no guaranteed success. They've discovered a defensive mean streak, but it seemingly comes and goes on a whim.
The Warriors have looked like contenders at times this season. But consistently wearing that label hasn't happened yet.
Championship Ceiling Still in Place?
So, is this team really built to make a title run? Not everyone's convinced it is:
It's hard not to like the individual pieces.
Curry's already a star, and his game is still developing. Andrew Bogut is a top-flight rim protector and a gluttonous glass-eater. Barnes and Iguodala are two-way Swiss Army knives. Draymond Green has the tools to become the same.
But there are holes that need filling.
Are the Warriors too reliant on long-range shots?
Golden State's options off the dribble are limited. This team can't afford to let its ball movement stop.
There's still an uncomfortable number of sieves on the roster. Defensive rotations can't be missed.
Depth is an issue, and one that won't necessarily be solved by just a clean bill of health. Either the young guns (Kent Bazemore, Nemanja Nedovic) show something, or the team has to start looking for outside help.
The Warriors need to find a championship-level focus. Their energy can't be an optional part of the game plan. They have to be the same team on a nightly basis, regardless of the competition.
There's still a path to the podium for them follow, a championship window that hasn't closed.
But there's so much work to be done to reach that stage.
If the Warriors are really up for that challenge, it's time they start playing like it.