Do the Golden State Warriors Have a True Identity?

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Do the Golden State Warriors Have a True Identity?
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The Golden State Warriors own the proverbial switch that NBA contenders can flip at a moment's notice, but theirs has a spotty connection and wild volatility in its effect.

The Warriors don't have a true identity.

They have been, at different times this season, an offensive juggernaut, a stone-wall defense and a club that can't get anything right at either end of the floor. Sometimes those personality shifts are gradual, sometimes they'll surface in the same game or even the same period.

That could be the early sign of greatness or perhaps the biggest problem area keeping the Dubs from ever reaching that stage.

Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images

There's a level of versatility needed to claim elite NBA status.

Of the past nine NBA champions, eight have had both a top-10 defense and a top-10 offense. The exception to the rule (the 2009-10 Los Angeles Lakers) ranked No. 11 offensively and No. 5 at the defensive end.

The Dubs don't have quite as impressive credentials. They've managed to patch their built-in defensive holes well enough to hold the league's third-best defensive rating (99.3 points allowed per 100 possessions), but they've turned what could be a dominant offense and made it into a pedestrian unit (104.5 points scored per 100 possessions, No. 12 overall).

It's unbelievably remarkable what coach Mark Jackson has done defensively with 40 percent of his starting five made up by sieves (Stephen Curry and David Lee). Yet it's remarkably unbelievable that a team with this much offensive firepower allows so much of it go to waste:

Public perception still paints this as an offensive club.

Whether due to former run-and-gun coach Don Nelson's lingering fingerprints or a simple assessment of the team's scoring arsenal, many still expect to see this offense produce mind-numbing statistics: 

In some respects, it has done just that.

Jackson's starting unit (Curry, Lee, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala and Andrew Bogut) has been nothing short of offensively dominant. The Warriors' 112.5 offensive rating in 742 minutes of shared floor time easily surpasses the Miami Heat's league-leading efficiency mark (110.0).

The on/off splits of the Warriors starters all tell a similar tale, but none as dramatically as Curry's. The Warriors have a championship resume when he's on the floor but look lottery bound as soon as he leaves.

No Curry, Big Problem: The All-Star's Unsettling On/Off Splits
Off Rtg Rank Net Rtg Rank
On the floor 109.0 3rd Plus-9.2 1st
Off the floor 92.2 30th Minus-5.7 27th

NBA.com

Veteran reserve Steve Blake has helped ease the burden on Curry since arriving at the trade deadline, but this is still an offense—really an entire team—living and dying with the long ball.

"When Curry is hot and the defense is locked-in...they can run with anyone," Adam Lauridsen of Fast Break wrote. "But they’re usually unable to sustain that highest level of play."

What makes their level of play hard to maintain? There are no safety valves for them to relay on, at least not within 20 feet of the basket.

Jackson has desperately tried to kick-start his attack with pick-and-roll plays and post-up opportunities. Over 31 percent of the offense has been devoted to these two play types.

The problem is that the team doesn't run either one effectively.

The pick-and-roll ball-handlers are turning in 0.79 points per possession (15th overall) on 39.1 percent shooting, via Synergy Sports (subscription required). The screeners are generating only 0.92 points per possession, fourth fewest in the league. Post-up plays have yielded 0.81 points (23rd) on 43.7 percent shooting.

Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

The Warriors don't create a lot of high-percentage scoring chances.

They average just 16.6 shots within five feet of the basket, 15th overall. That might not be an issue on its own, but it's compounded by the fact that this team has a tendency to play loose with the basketball. Sitting tied for the 10th-most turnovers per 100 possessions (15.6), the Warriors already limit the number of scoring chances they have.

When they don't cough up the ball, they let it fly from deep (24.3 three-point attempts per game, seventh overall). While that plays to one of the team's biggest strengths, it also puts a premium on a high-difficultly look. It's a heavy offensive burden, one essentially carried by only Curry and Thompson, who combine for 58.4 percent of the team's three-point attempts and 63.5 percent of Golden State's made triples.

If the Splash Brothers aren't, well, splashing, this offense has a hard time keeping its head above water.

Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

There's an inherent fluctuation in perimeter play. The margin of error is so incredibly thin that even a historically strong backcourt is going to have some rough shooting nights.

What can be controlled, however, is effort and energy. Jackson has relied on both to help institute an organizational change that the rest of the hoops world is still catching up with.

"People fall in love with our offense," Jackson said, via Sean Highkin of USA Today. "But we are a defensive-oriented basketball team that takes pride on the defensive end, and that gives us a chance to win ballgames no matter where we play."

I think that's the plan, but the numbers don't always paint it as a successful one.

When the Warriors have ran into a top-seven offense (Miami Heat, Los Angeles Clippers, Dallas Mavericks, Portland Trail Blazers, Houston Rockets, Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs), they've been shredded for 105.8 points a night. Only two teams have compiled a worst points-against average (Philadelphia 76ers and Los Angeles Lakers).

Jackson has learned how to coach around his defensive roles, but strong offensive teams can exploit those weaknesses.

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

The Dubs can win with defense, but there's a ceiling on that success. The West is too deep for an on-again, off-again defense to emerge from the pack.

Unless, of course, it's accompanied by the awe-inspiring offense than the hoops world remembers.

Jackson tried to rid this franchise of its one-end ways and wound up shifting things out of balance in the opposite direction. There's a way to emphasize defense without sacrificing explosiveness at the other side of the floor.

If this team doesn't find that balance, it's hard to see this season end with something any better than the last one did. Even a second-round showing feels like a bit of a stretch, at times.

But it shouldn't. Not with the talent that this roster boasts.

But the game plan needs to better fit with the personnel. The self-imposed offensive screws need to be loosened so this can become the machine that so many people already expect.

The Warriors are still learning how to win with defense. If they can keep that focus and remember how to take over games offensively, there could yet be a championship ending by the Bay.

 

Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.

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