The Golden State Warriors closed out their year in style, spanking the Orlando Magic, 94-81, behind David Lee's 22 points. They ended 2013 with a six-game winning streak, their longest in six years, according to ESPN Stats & Info:
Warriors: won 6 straight games, longest streak since Nov. 23-Dec. 2, 2007 (also 6)— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 1, 2014
During the streak, the Warriors swept through the Pacific Division, beating both L.A. teams (Clippers and Lakers) and the Phoenix Suns in a span of six days. This is the Warriors team that Bay Area fans have expected to see ever since the summer, when Andrea Iguodala was added to the already potent mix that had put a scare into the eventual conference-champion San Antonio Spurs in the playoffs.
But the desired results have taken a while in coming. The Warriors coasted through their early-season schedule and were but a single game over .500 as recently as December 19.
Yes, the Warriors dealt with injuries—Iguodala missed 12 games with a hamstring problem, and Jermaine O'Neal is still out after undergoing arthroscopic wrist surgery—but those issues pale in comparison to what their divisional rivals, the Lakers, have suffered, and the Lakers were hanging with the Warriors in the win column until last week.
Meanwhile, Golden State still trails upstart Phoenix by two games in the loss column despite the winning streak. And the Suns were picked by some to finish dead last in the entire conference.
The Warriors are clearly more talented than either the Lakers or Suns and are poised to put some distance between themselves and those two squads in 2014. But before they can take aim at the division-leading Clippers, the Warriors must prove once and for all that they've put their inconsistent ways behind them.
The Turning Point and the Road Ahead
In hindsight, it's not surprising that the Warriors' winning streak began in the wake of their December 19 loss to the San Antonio Spurs. That game was clearly the low point of Golden State's season.
How could losing to the defending conference champs possibly count as such an embarrassment? That's what happens when the team that knocked you out of the playoffs last season comes into your building on national TV, rests its three biggest stars (Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker) and still walks out with the victory.
The Warriors played the kind of lackadaisical basketball they had been playing throughout the season's first two months—falling behind early and relying on their superior talent to rally them to victory.
But the experienced Spurs reserves didn't crack, and San Antonio held on for a 104-102 win.
After the game, coach Mark Jackson was harsh on his team, according to Carl Steward of the San Jose Mercury News: "They are not playing well right now. I'm not going to sit here and make excuses for them."
But center Andrew Bogut was even harsher, putting it bluntly: "We can't lose this game at home, period."
And the Warriors haven't lost. Tuesday's win at Orlando was the second game of a season-long seven-game Eastern Conference road trip. Of the next five road games, the Warriors should be favored in every one except the January 2 game in Miami.
The Warriors currently have the fifth-hardest strength of schedule, but their conference competitors have similar schedules. The Warriors need to take advantage of the games against the weak sisters of the East and pack on the wins before heading back west.
What Do They Need to Work On?
The Warriors have made some strides from last year. Their middle-of-the pack defense has improved to sixth in defensive efficiency in 2013-14. But the Warriors still have a few critical weaknesses they must work on if they want to win consistently in the next year.
The biggest problem is their bench. The Warriors rank 28th in the league in the efficiency difference between first and second units, according to Hoopstats.
The Warriors are also dead last in the league in turnover ratio, and even casual observers can tell that the Warriors are extremely loose with the ball. Stephen Curry leads the NBA in turnovers per game, and reserve guard Kent Bazemore is second among qualified guards in turnover ratio.
But a high turnover ratio does not necessarily doom the Warriors to failure. Three top competitors—the Miami Heat, Indiana Pacers and Houston Rockets—are ranked 24th, 25th and 26th in turnover ratio, respectively. The 2011-12 Heat were 24th in turnover ratio when they won the title.
But the Warriors combine their sloppy ball-handling with another glaring weakness: a massive free-throw discrepancy. Golden State ranks 25th in free throws per field-goal attempt and 23rd in opponents' free throws allowed per field-goal attempt.
On offense, the jump-shooting Warriors clearly have a problem getting to the line. But they make up for it with their second-ranked three-point percentage.
On defense, the Warriors' tendency to foul stems from the same reason they turn the ball over too much: sheer laziness. Too often, the Warriors cavalierly throw the ball away on offense. Too often, they reach in and foul on defense. These are not talent issues; these are effort issues.
Head coach Mark Jackson has called out his team for lack of effort before. If the Warriors don't make any in-season acquisitions, then the best these players can do is simply listen to their coach's advice.
This six-game winning streak is a good start, but the season is long. The Warriors need to maintain their focus and energy throughout the long season if they want to take advantage of their considerable talent and compete in the West.
*Unless noted, all stats are courtesy of Basketball-Reference.