With the Golden State Warriors sitting 10 games over .500 and comfortably holding on to the No. 6 spot in a brutally competitive Western Conference, now might not seem like the time to question head coach Mark Jackson's strategic shortcomings.
After all, the Warriors dropped a 123-116 home contest to the Denver Nuggets on Wednesday largely because Stephen Curry made a careless turnover, Harrison Barnes committed a silly foul and nobody on the roster could haul in a defensive rebound when it mattered—all in the final minute.
Surely, those mistakes aren't ones we can pin on the coach, right?
Then again, maybe we can.
The Dubs' reputation as a high-flying offense is actually more myth than fact.
They can certainly shoot the ball, and they get into grooves where their movement and spacing are beautiful to behold. But turnovers, some ho-hum sets and the inability to consistently do damage from the foul line result in an offensive rating that ranks just 13th in the league, per NBA.com.
The Warriors didn't have trouble scoring against the Nuggets until it really mattered, but their offensive production was streaky throughout the contest.
The problem, as it has been all season, is twofold.
First, Jackson is far too enamored with the concept of wholesale substitution. He's been putting five-man bench units on the court all year and has met with dreadful results. Those units simply can't score, and their ineptitude has dragged the team's overall offensive production down.
That wasn't as much of an issue against the Nuggets, as Jackson finally embraced a staggered substitution pattern that mixed starters and reserves more evenly. But it's not a stretch to say that those players' unfamiliarity with one another—due to the fact that starters and backups haven't seen much time together this year—could have led to the inconsistency against Denver.
The second problem for which Jackson is responsible is the Warriors' lack of offensive continuity beyond their initial actions. Sets need counters and secondary options. The Warriors don't seem to have many of those, though.
It's easy to understand Jackson's reliance on players as skilled as Curry and David Lee to manufacture points. But late in the game, when the first option isn't available, the offense has been stalling out.
We saw that in spurts throughout the game against Denver, especially when the Nuggets went small and goaded Jackson into another of his favorite flawed tendencies.
Warriors were deliberating between a bad Barnes iso possession or a bad Klay iso possession. Ends in a Fournier buzzer beater the other way— Ethan Strauss (@SherwoodStrauss) January 16, 2014
Here's some background, courtesy of Grantland's Zach Lowe, who pointed out the following earlier this week:
The Warriors have a lot of solid post players, including Thompson and Barnes, who often have exploitable size advantages. But they fall too much in love with attacking matchups that appear favorable, taking the offense out of rhythm, and forcing plays that often lead to contested midrange jumpers.
When Denver put its appropriately named "smurf" lineup on the court, Jackson tried to exploit mismatches at the expense of the Dubs' offensive flow. Things slowed down, post-ups increased and the ball stopped moving.
And as Andrew Bogut told Lowe, that's a dangerous way to play:
“Once you start really trying to go after matchups,” Bogut says, “it can take you away from what you do well.”
If you were so inclined, you could probably draw a connection between Jackson's reliance on mismatches and one-and-done sets to Curry's fateful turnover with just under a minute remaining. Instead of running any kind of equal-opportunity action, the Dubs managed to get J.J. Hickson switched out onto Curry.
The point guard, exhausted after 40 minutes of sprinting around and in the midst of one of the worst shooting slumps of his career, had his pocket picked by Hickson. It was the second time Curry lost the ball in an isolation set; Wilson Chandler did him the same way earlier in the game.
Aren't these the same uninventive strategies we bury Mike Woodson and the New York Knicks for employing? Don't the Warriors have the talent and dynamic passers to do more than chuck the ball into the post or isolate up top?
The answer to both questions, obviously, is "yes."
Like a true pro, though, Curry took responsibility for the defeat:
Tough loss. That's on me. Gotta make a play. Stay even keel!— Stephen Curry (@StephenCurry30) January 16, 2014
Even though Curry's turnover swung the game, there's still more blame to toss toward Jackson.
When other teams go small up front, the Dubs have a tendency to do the same, which subtracts Bogut, their best defender and a key ball-mover on offense, from the equation. So when Denver went to a tiny lineup that featured Hickson as the lone big, Bogut hit the pine.
Ummm...where was Bogut?— Ethan Strauss (@SherwoodStrauss) January 16, 2014
To be fair, the Warriors got themselves back into the game with Lee at center for much of the final period. But in that last minute, it sure would have been nice to have Bogut on the boards—especially as the Nuggets hauled in a pair of offensive rebounds that ran precious seconds off the clock and forced the Warriors to foul.
Bogut logged just 24 minutes in the game, and even if he'd played just one more—the final one, to be exact—the outcome could have been different.
Maybe We're Overreacting
But hey, the Warriors lost a game that could easily have gone either way. They made a spirited rally against a red-hot Nuggets team that got an incendiary fourth quarter from Nate Robinson. The former Warrior poured in 14 points in the final period, slipping into one of his unconscious bucket binges nobody can stop.
Maybe the Warriors just missed the recently traded Toney Douglas. Maybe Curry's shooting slump is to blame.
Perhaps we should just credit the Nuggets, who came into a hostile building, stared down the Dubs and beat them. And let's not forget that Golden State surrendered 123 points. It's tough to pin that defensive failure on the coach.
Then again, maybe we're seeing some of Jackson and the Warriors' key problems come to a head.
BShaw outcoached Mark Jackson here. This Denver team is really fun to watch.— Chris Herring (@HerringWSJ) January 16, 2014
There's no doubt the Dubs have the talent on hand to pursue a championship. And Jackson is a remarkable leader who has earned the complete trust and total respect of his players. That's something you can't say about every guy with a clipboard.
But until Jackson irons out his rotations, fine-tunes an offensive system that stalls too easily and recognizes that his best defensive players (like Bogut) need to be on the floor regardless of matchups, we can't be sure the Warriors will reach their full potential.
There's plenty of time to address these issues and, again, Golden State is still in excellent shape overall. It's just that it could be in even better shape if Jackson would make a few changes.