What We Learned About the Golden State Warriors During the Season's First Half

Wes Goldberg@@wcgoldbergContributor IIJanuary 22, 2014

What We Learned About the Golden State Warriors During the Season's First Half

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    Rocky Widner/Getty Images

    Watching some NBA teams over the years, like the San Antonio Spurs, is like watching the same [awesome] movie again and again every season. Like Die Hard. Other teams, like the Golden State Warriors, is like watching a Martin Scorsese film—different in intent, but something inherently the same.

    This year's version of the Warriors is especially like that. Stephenardo DiCurrio remains the star but is joined by some new cast members that fundamentally change the way the season has played out.

    The Warriors and general manager Bob Myers found a co-star in Andre Iguodala, created the space for a young Klay Thompson to develop into a better all-around player, maintained the singular nature of its three-point shooting and improved its overall defense.

    We know the players, but a few things about this Warriors team is different than last season's. That makes for a learning experience and, boy, have we learned a lot about this team. It's a bit like Shutter Island, in that you have to think about it and analyze the tar out of it, but the lessons are there to be learned.

    Statistics are accurate as of January 21, 2014.

Defense Is Better Than Offense

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    Ben Margot/Associated Press

    Going into the season, you may not have expected that the Golden State Warriors would be better on defense than on offense. A little more than halfway through the season, however, that seems to be the case. The Dubs rank 13th in points per possession and are fourth in the NBA in points allowed per possession.

    Head coach Mark Jackson has masked the defensive weaknesses of Stephen Curry and David Lee with the defensive prowess of Andrew Bogut, Klay Thompson (more on him later) and Andre Iguodala (him too).

    Jackson has integrated a pick-and-roll-defense scheme that puts less responsibility on Curry. Rather than have Curry try to stay between his man and the rim, Curry’s job is to chase down the ball-handler on pick-and-rolls, pressuring him while taking away one side of the court. Jackson has his defenders sag and take an extra step into the lane.

    “We understand what the numbers say: The deeper the offense gets into the paint, the less success you’re going to have defensively,” Jackson told Grantland in 2012.

    That quote was recorded before Bogut, Jackson’s Manhattan Project of an defensive disruption, returned healthy. Bogut is one of the five best defending big men in the league, allowing just 44.2 percent of field goals at the rim (behind only Larry Sanders, Brook Lopez, Serge Ibaka and Roy Hibbert among interior defenders with significant playing time.)

    The addition of Iguodala gives the Warriors defense the added element of a lockdown, on-ball defender.

    While its offense can sometimes struggle hitting its three-point shots, Golden State's more-consistent defense is built to last the 82-game marathon. During the team's 10-game winning streak from Dec. 21 to Jan. 6, the offense ranked 14th in the NBA with 1.031 points per possession. The defense ranked second with 0.921 points allowed per possession, a mark better than the season rate of the Indiana Pacers.

Andre Iguodala Is the Difference

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    Rocky Widner/Getty Images

    The Warriors are 21-9 with Iguodala in the lineup. Without him, they are 5-7. To give you a better idea of how Iguodala impacts the Warriors, I have prepared a chart.

    With Iggy1.133 points per possession0.974 points allowed per possession
    Without Iggy1.005 points per possession1.067 points allowed per possession

    Stats via NBAwowy.com

    Last season, before Myers acquired Iguodala, the Warriors scored 1.042 points per possession and gave up 1.033 points per possession. Iguodala has improved the numbers across the board.

    Their complete starting five is outscoring opponents by nearly 20 points per 100 possessions, best in the league among lineups that have played at least 200 minutes, per NBA.com statistics. With Iguodala out and Barnes in, the Warriors are being outscored by 6.6 points per 100 possessions. That's almost a 27-point swing.

    As mentioned before, Iggy gives the Dubs a defensive stopper on the wing. On offense, he is an additional facilitator and slasher. Myers made a great move in nabbing Iguodala.

Klay Thompson Deserves to Start

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    With three major wing players, a big question facing the Warriors before the season was whom Jackson would use to start and end games.

    Iguodala, Thompson and Barnes all had reasons to start or sit. Ultimately, Jackson went with Iggy and Klay with Barnes coming off the bench.

    In hindsight, that was the right decision. You already read about the impact of Iguodala, and Thompson's development has been a major asset to the Warriors too. Thompson is more than the sidecar on the Splash Brother-cycle. He's an effective post-up guy and a solid defender, too. Where Curry's advantage is his ability to get up decent shots from anywhere in any position and ride a hot streak like a squirrel on a jet ski, the 6'7" Thompson presents a physical mismatch and can get the ball over his defender on a jumper or post-up.

    Between the two youngsters, Thompson and Barnes, Thompson fits better. The starting lineup (Curry, Thompson, Iguodala, Lee and Bogut) is averaging 1.183 points per possession on 51.9 percent shooting while assisting on 63.5 percent of its field goals. Sub out Thompson for Barnes, and the numbers fall across the board to 0.900-51-50. 

    Jackson went with Thompson to begin the season and hasn't looked back, playing his starters on 1095 possessions compared to just 70 with Barnes in for Thompson.

    Barnes typically sees time when Jackson subs in his entire second unit like a hockey coach. Until the Warriors acquired Jordan Crawford, Barnes was the primary scorer in these circumstances. At times, the Warriors used Barnes too much on isolation plays, and he has forced a few shots as a result. Surprisingly, this has only slightly altered his percentages. Barnes has played good basketball at times this season; other times he's really struggled.

    Thompson versus Barnes is less to do with who is better and more about who fits in to make the best five-man unit to start and end games.

    The numbers don't lie, it's Thompson.

Stephen Curry Is an Elite Passer

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    In a survey before the beginning of the season, NBA general managers ranked Stephen Curry as the third-best shooting guard in the association.

    Curry currently holds the lead in a guard-loaded Western Conference to start in the NBA All-Star game...at point guard.

    Much of Curry's ascension in the point guard ranks has to do with his increased assist numbers. He is currently second in the NBA in assists at 9.2 per game, an increase of about two assists per game from last season. Breaking it down further, Curry trails only Chris Paul by two assists per night while passing the ball 14 fewer times per game, per SportsVU data. If I were to create the statistic of pass-to-assist ratio (and I'm about to), Paul would average one assist every 6.54 passes while Curry would average one in every 6.43 passes—giving each Curry pass slightly greater potential to turn into an assist.

    There are two main reasons for that. (1) Curry's passes, with either hand, are beautiful and (2) defenses have to respect Curry's shot, which opens up passing lanes. Combined with Curry's vision of the floor, it is no wonder that he is emerging as one of the best passers in the league.

    He also has a terrific understanding of when to pass and when to shoot. For someone who can make a shot from just about anywhere on the court, that can be a tough balancing act. By my estimation, only LeBron James has a better feel for it.

    With his flashy behind-the-back tosses and patented hook-passes, Curry makes defenses look the way they did when Paul first introduced the assist in those State Farm commercials. In terms of raw skill for finding the open guy, Curry isn't necessarily a better passer this season, he's just doing it more often.

    This has been a conscious decision for Curry, who wants to be known as a point guard, As Ethan Strauss wrote:

    In response to whether he’d prefer to be known as a great shooter or a great point guard, Curry eventually elects for the “point guard” distinction. “I don’t know if they polled the GMs again if I’d still be the third-best shooting guard. Have to see,” he muses with a smirk. 


This Team Is a Title Contender

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    Rocky Widner/Getty Images

    It's not often we talk about the sixth seed in the West as a title contender, but in the wild Western Conference where anyone can come out alive, the Golden State Warriors are certainly in the mix.

    We saw last season how the Warriors can get hot and shoot just about anyone out of the game. This season, the Warriors have the same sharpshooting, but it is now paired with a defense the robustness of which would make even the best Petite Sirah in nearby Napa Valley jealous.

    As mentioned before, the starting five is outscoring opponents by nearly 20 points per 100 possessions. That beats out the starting units of Indiana (13.5 points per 100 possessions), Houston (12.7), Oklahoma City (11.1) and Portland (9.8). 

    The Warriors are no longer an upstart playoff squad relying on streaky shooting from perimeter players. There is substance to Golden State in the form of excellent ball movement, a deeper bench and one of the best defenses in the Association. Through the first half of the season, we learned the Warriors are for real.