The Golden State Warriors came achingly close to history on Wednesday night, only to see it slip through their grasp.
Per ESPN Stats and Info:
Via @eliassports A Warriors win would make them 1st team in NBA history to go unbeaten on road trip of 7 games or longer.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 9, 2014
But the Warriors fell just short of that goal, losing 102-98 to the hometown Nets. Golden State didn't lose because of a questionable call on Stephen Curry down the stretch, or because Kevin Garnett provided a turn-back-the-clock 11-point performance in the fourth quarter for the Nets. Even this shot by Mirza Teletovic wasn't the nail in the coffin for the Warriors:
Instead, the blame falls squarely on those usual whipping boys seated on the Golden State bench.
The starters set a dominant tone early, as usual, jumping out to a quick 27-12 lead. But the reserves came on near the end of the first quarter and gave nearly all of it back. By the time the starters returned in the second quarter, momentum had completely swung Brooklyn's way.
In the second half, Golden State head coach Mark Jackson made a fascinating decision—a decision that said a lot about how much he valued the record, and how little he thought of his bench.
Per Grantland's Zach Lowe.
I believe Curry and Klay have played the entire 2nd half. Dubs want this unbeaten trip, and have a bunch of days off after Friday's game.— Zach Lowe (@ZachLowe_NBA) January 9, 2014
Indeed, Klay Thompson played all 24 minutes of the second half; Curry fell one second short at 23:59. Keep in mind, this was the second night of back-to-back games, the culmination of a season-long seven-game road trip.
Those minutes certainly seemed to affect Curry and Thompson by the end of the fourth, Curry in particular. With 20 seconds left in the game and the Warriors down three, the exhausted point guard passed up a game-tying three and threw a poor pass that was easily intercepted by Garnett. A fresher Curry probably would have shot that ball.
After the game, Jackson tried to play off the woeful bench performance as a one-time incident. Per NBA.com.
Our bench last game was very good. I thought tonight, they did not do the job. We established a rhythm, and I thought going to the bench affected the game. It happens. They're going to get plenty of opportunities going forward, but just a tough night overall for us.
But "last game" came against Milwaukee, the worst team in the league. Brooklyn is not a great team by any means, but with Andrei Kirilenko leading the way, their superior bench exposed the Warriors' second unit.
Wednesday's game was a look into the nightmares of Warrior fans everywhere: a potential worst-case scenario, in which the starters are forced to cover for their bench just a few minutes too many and run out of steam in crunch time. It happened in January; could it happen in May?
Invincible Starters, Embarrassing Reserves
As every Warriors fan knows, their team has one of the best starting units and sorriest reserve units in the entire league. This is one of those situations where the data backs up the visual test. When the starters sit, the Warriors hemorrhage points.
|Bogut,Andrew - Curry,Stephen - Iguodala,Andre - Lee,David - Thompson,Klay||23||436||117.6||97.3||+20.3|
|Barnes,Harrison - Bogut,Andrew - Curry,Stephen - Lee,David - Thompson,Klay||25||264||98.2||104.2||-6.0|
|Barnes,Harrison - Bogut,Andrew - Iguodala,Andre - Lee,David - Thompson,Klay||7||76||85.0||81.5||+3.5|
|Barnes,Harrison - Bazemore,Kent - Douglas,Toney - Green,Draymond - Speights,Marreese||11||63||88.6||97.5||-8.9|
|Barnes,Harrison - Curry,Stephen - Green,Draymond - Lee,David - Thompson,Klay||19||58||102.1||98.6||+3.4|
|Barnes,Harrison - Curry,Stephen - Lee,David - O'Neal,Jermaine - Thompson,Klay||10||53||96.5||122.4||-25.9|
Those are some stark numbers. Two things in particular stand out. First, the Warriors were very smart to pursue Andre Iguodala in the offseason. His impact on this lineup has been beyond the loftiest expectations of even the most optimistic Warriors fan.
Unfortunately, Iguodala and his buddies in the starting lineup can't play every minute of every game. And when they sit, the team suffers. According to HoopStats, Golden State has the league's second-worst difference between starting and bench unit efficiency.
There is no one culprit for the Warriors' bench troubles—they've all been bad. Per Basketball-Reference, all six of Golden State's key reserves—Harrison Barnes, Marreese Speights, Toney Douglas, Kent Bazemore, Draymond Green and Jermaine O'Neal—have a Player Efficiency Rating of less than 12.5, with 15.0 being average. O'Neal had given the Warriors some decent minutes at the center position, but he's out after undergoing wrist surgery.
Not surprisingly, this second-unit incompetence has resulted in massive minute totals for the starters. Thompson (first), Curry (sixth) and David Lee (ninth) all rank in the top 10 in the NBA in total minutes.
Will those minutes add up in the spring? Perhaps Thompson can take all this playing time, but Lee is no longer young (he turns 31 on April 29) and Curry has a history of ankle problems. When the starting five are on the court, Golden State looks like a legitimate title contender. But the bench could be responsible for wearing down those starters to the point of ineffectiveness or injury.
Live in the Moment; Fix the Bench
The Warriors are in the enviable position of being a fairly young contender. Compared to an older team like San Antonio, they don't face the pressure to win a title this season.
But being a young contender doesn't guarantee future success—injury, in-fighting and the salary cap can fell even the best young team. Another Western Conference contender, Oklahoma City, was once a sure bet to win a title. Now, their fanbase is worried to death after star point guard Russell Westbrook's third knee surgery. Fate can be cruel.
And few fans understand the capriciousness of fate better than the good people of the Bay Area. The Warriors haven't won a title since 1975, and their fans have seen good teams collapse in truly ridiculous fashion over the past four decades or so.
The 2013-14 version of the Warriors have shown during this 10-game winning streak that they're a team to be reckoned with. But they need to develop their bench. Players like Barnes, Green and Bazemore are young, and they might not develop into solid bench players this season.
Golden State might want to consider trading future assets for bench help. They have a chance to make history in the postseason, and they shouldn't let it go to waste.