The potential for greatness still exists in their future, but the Golden State Warriors' present isn't all that different from its dismal past.
Overconfident in their ability and over-reliant on a volatile group of three-point specialists, the Warriors seem more likely to fight for a playoff spot than compete for the game's greatest honor.
After a head-scratching 91-75 home loss to the Charlotte Bobcats Tuesday, the Warriors (29-20) sit closer to the ninth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies (26-21) than to the fifth-seeded Houston Rockets (32-17). It's tough to plot Golden State's path to the podium when it might not even secure a ticket to the big dance.
Then again, maybe that's just the pessimism talking after a rough night at the office.
Golden State does have a 5-4 record against the Miami Heat, Oklahoma City Thunder, Portland Trail Blazers and Los Angeles Clippers, after all. Those championship hopes breezing through the Bay Area weren't born solely from pipe dreams.
Still, this is a team with perhaps too much control over its own destiny. The Dubs have contention-ready talent and the focus of a tanker. Anything is a realistic outcome for this team:
The Warriors making the Conference Finals and the Warriors missing the playoffs are both things that wouldn’t shock me.— Sean Highkin (@highkin) February 5, 2014
Warriors coach Mark Jackson has repeatedly taken aim at his team's mental makeup while attempting to explain its split personalities.
Right now, we're a team that, if a championship-caliber team or an elite team comes in here, we play at that level. And if a bad team or average team comes in, then we play at that level. We are not good enough to allow who comes in here to determine how hard we play. ... Let's stop reading the press clippings and find a way to go out there and get it done.
After getting blitzed by the Bobcats, Jackson blamed his team's inability to move past its mistakes. "We are letting our offense affect our play," he said, via Diamond Leung of the Bay Area News Group. He later stated, "We're thinking a little bit too much. With a young basketball team, at times missed shots affect everything else."
The problem is this isn't really a young team. Four of Jackson's top eight rotation players (Andre Iguodala, Andrew Bogut, David Lee and Jermaine O'Neal) are 29 or older. Stephen Curry is in his fifth NBA season. Klay Thompson has two full seasons under his belt.
These offensive lulls—and subsequent defensive breakdowns—aren't age-driven. These are the results of placing so much offensive stock on risk-reward jump shots.
This isn't a matter of settling for outside looks. It's a schematic flaw, almost a systematic collapse stemming from a misunderstanding of today's advanced statistics.
Only five teams attempt more threes than the Warriors (24.4 per game) and only two have a higher success rate (38.0 percent). The Dubs aren't forcing a strength that doesn't exist; this is one of the league's premier perimeter-shooting teams.
Playing to a strength is obviously not a problem. Limiting an offense to something that has a 62 percent failure rate is a major issue.
When the Warriors hit the hardwood, there's more than one competition taking place. Golden State isn't just battling the team across from it, it's also waging wars with things like shooting mechanics, muscle memory and touch.
When this team hits its outside shots, everything in the offense clicks. The ball moves faster and crisper between hands. The attacks come earlier in the shot clock before the defense can get set. Confidence soars and the scoreboard follows suit.
Once those shots stop falling, though, the entire operation shuts down. The ball sticks as Jackson tries to implement an isolation attack this team doesn't have. Golden State's gunners go into overdrive in an ill-advised attempt to get everything back on track.
If you keep tabs on the Warriors' shooters, there's no need to watch the rest of the game. Their level of success will tell you what you need to know about the outcome.
It's hard enough shooting well for an entire 48 minutes. To get where the Warriors are trying to go, they'll need four hot-shooting nights every 10 days for roughly two months.
What's worse is that hinges on the accuracy of just two players: Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. The pair accounts for 61.4 percent of Golden State's total three-point attempts and 65.6 percent of its made triples.
Impressive numbers, right? Perhaps Jackson knew what he was talking about when he dubbed the pair "the greatest shooting backcourt in the history of the game," last season, via Monte Poole of the Bay Area News Group.
If quantity has officially overtaken quality, then perhaps.
Otherwise this duo grades as more of a feast-or-famine pair. Thompson (41.0 percent) sits just 17th among NBA snipers this season. Curry's career-low 40.2 percent nearly bumped him out of the top 25 (24th).
The only thing automatic about this tandem is its volume of attempts. Only three players have launched more than 312 threes this season: Damian Lillard (340), Thompson (351) and Curry (383).
Golden State's three ball isn't a crutch or a complement. It's the main only weapon in this arsenal, even when it's not actually present.
"Thompson is too often seen shooting early in games when he doesn’t necessarily need to in an attempt to find an early rhythm," Jordan Ramirez of WarriorsWorld.net wrote. "He’s not smart with his shots a lot of the time."
Thompson is also 25 of 85 (29.4 percent) from the field and 10 of 31 (32.3) from deep over his last five games. Don't expect him to dial it back, though.
"I know our coaches encouraged him...to just keep shooting," Curry said of his slumping backcourt mate, via Leung. "That's what he does."
That's what all these Warriors do, force-feed those marksmen even when the shots aren't falling.
It doesn't have to be that way. The Dubs have other offensive options more than capable of shouldering some of that burden.
The Warriors haven't figured out how to use offseason import Andre Iguodala. They got a little too carried away with the "he doesn't have to be the guy" narrative and forgot that he can be a valuable contributor.
His floor game is an asset (career 4.9 assists per game), but it's far from being his only offensive tool. An explosive slasher and strong finisher, he averaged 18.5 points on 45.5 percent shooting over a four-year period (2006-10) with the Philadelphia 76ers.
Rather than use those gifts, the Dubs have cast him as a secondary ball-handler and spot-up shooter. A career 33.2 percent three-point shooter, 43.1 percent of his field-goal attempts this season have come from beyond the arc.
Andrew Bogut has anchored Golden State's defensive interior, but he doesn't have to be a one-way contributor:
Bogut could score a lot if he was part of Golden State's offense.— Andrew Bailey (@AndrewDBailey) February 1, 2014
The former No. 1 overall pick, a career 52.7 percent shooter, has seen just 6.1 shots a night this season. Per 36 minutes, he's less involved in the offense (8.0 attempts) than Draymond Green (8.7, a career 35.1 percent shooter) and Marreese Speights (15.7, a 40.6 percent shooter this season).
That's what makes this team so incredibly frustrating.
It has the weapons to compete at the game's highest level. That three-point threat could be an unstoppable force if utilized correctly. With the league's best passing frontcourt, a growing number of athletic slashers and a roster rich with experience and basketball IQ, this should be an offensive power.
Instead, it's nothing more than a gimmicky group, fun to watch but ultimately lacking substance.
So enjoy the mesmerizing moments this team provides over the next few months. It's hard to imagine the Warriors sticking around too long come playoff time.
Assuming they even make it that far, of course.