Although the Western Conference has been called "wide open" throughout the 2013-14 season, there is only one team outside of the top four that has real status quo-busting potential. That team plays its home games in Oakland, California.
The Golden State Warriors have not put themselves in the upper echelon of the conference with their play this season. Inconsistency from their bench and an inability to dominate at home has the Warriors at 47-29, a record that, in this year's historically-good Western Conference, has them closer to missing the playoffs than it does to giving them home-court advantage in the first round.
But no potential first-round opponent has the Warriors mixed up with the Phoenix Suns, Dallas Mavericks, Memphis Grizzlies. With all due respect to those teams, they lack either the defense (Dallas), offense (Memphis) or experience (Phoenix) necessary to be considered a real threat.
Golden State will realistically finish anywhere from No. 5 to No. 8 at season's end, meaning it'll face either the San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder, Los Angeles Clippers or Houston Rockets in the opening round. These four teams will not take any opponent lightly, but whoever from this group can avoid the Warriors will be somewhat relieved.
For the team that does draw Golden State, the most important thing will be to realize that they're in for a draining series.
The Warriors are flawed and beatable—the less-than-elite record shows that—but they are also capable of turning the corner and becoming an elite team very quickly. Their pythagorean record of 48-27 and the fact that they've been among the most-injured teams in the league shows that they are better than their record or standing indicates.
If they are "healthy and whole," as coach Mark Jackson loves to say, they possess the best starting five in the league and a suddenly-strong bench. Even home-court advantage won't make beating the Warriors easy, as they own the third-best road record in the entire league (22-16).
In order to take care of Golden State in Round 1—or, if that doesn't happen, Round 2 or Round 3—teams must employ specific strategies that take them out of their game and away from their strengths.
As someone who has constantly watched, amateurly scouted and tirelessly written about the Warriors all season, I am going to attempt to outline the main offensive and defensive weaknesses of Golden State, and how opponents can exploit them.
I hope Doc Rivers is not reading this. If you're reading this, Doc, disregard the following. I have no idea what I'm talking about.
Attack the Basket, No Matter the Result
It seems counterintuitive to try and beat the Warriors with dribble penetration. The two main strengths of their defense are long wing defenders—Klay Thompson and Andre Iguodala—who rarely get beat off the dribble, and of course All-NBA level rim protector Andrew Bogut.
But what's the alternative? Feeding a post scorer provides no more relief, as Bogut can limit even the game's elite bigs. Isolating a mismatch is futile when Bogut is still lurking in the paint, and the only wing on the team prone to be isolated is Stephen Curry, who Jackson is excellent at hiding.
Jacking up shots and hoping for boards is even worse, as shooting over Thompson and Iguodala is just as difficult as beating Bogut and David Lee on the glass is.
There's really no "best" option against the Warriors starting unit, and that's why they have the NBA's No. 4 defensive rating.
The only way to beat such a tough defensive lineup is to get that lineup off the floor. The best way to get players off the floor (besides employing a George Karl-like strategy) is to get them into foul trouble. And while Bogut, Thompson and Iguodala form a terrifying defensive trio, two of the three are prone to commit fouls.
Thompson is a chronic reacher, the one remaining flaw in his otherwise-stellar defensive game. He's fourth among NBA guards in fouls per game (3.0), and while placing behind Kyle Lowry, Patrick Beverley and Michael Carter-Williams—three renowned perimeter defenders—makes the number look like a badge, Thompson is less of a pickpocket than those three point guards (1.0 steals compared to 1.9, 1.6 and 1.4 respectively) and picks up a greater percentage of his fouls on drives.
Bogut also commits 3.0 fouls per game, and while there are four starting centers who foul more—DeMarcus Cousins, Roy Hibbert, Dwight Howard and DeAndre Jordan—all four possess excuses that Bogut cannot claim.
Cousins, the league leader in fouls per game, can attribute his number partially to his defensive limitations and partially due to his teammate's inability to contain penetration. Jordan is a shot-blocker and little else defensively, so his gambles are worthwhile for his team.
Hibbert and Howard, meanwhile, foul less because they have to and more because they can. With backups (Ian Mahinmi and Omer Asik, respectively) who can defend the paint at a high level, these two can use their fouls slightly more liberally.
Then there's Bogut, who basically leads the league in "I'm fouling you because I have to; it is not my fault and I'm not happy about it" fouls. He is only 18th among starting centers in minutes per game (26.4), despite being tied for the NBA's best defensive rating (96) and an offensive rating (114) better than that of Joakim Noah (111) or Paul George (107), who are the two guys he's tied with in defensive rating.
With Jermaine O'Neal (102 defensive rating) and Marreese Speights (102 as well) behind him, Bogut should clearly be playing more minutes. The reason he doesn't is because he fouls too much, and the reason he fouls too much is that he is not young and springy enough to block 10 shots in a game.
He defends as best he can, but the more a team penetrates, the more fouls Bogut accumulates. The more fouls he piles up, the sooner he goes to the bench, and the sooner he goes to the bench, the sooner teams can attack the laterally and vertically-limited O'Neal and the generally-limited Speights.
Getting Thompson off the floor also forces weaker defenders (Jordan Crawford, Harrison Barnes) to play in his place, and significantly hurts the Warriors offensively as well.
Making the Dubs foul also leads to the practical result of getting to the free-throw line. The Warriors allow the 12th-most free throws in the league, and the best way to beat a good defense is by taking as many indefensible shots as possible, i.e. free throws.
Finally, living at the line slows the game down, which makes it harder for Curry and Iguodala to dazzle in transition.
Slow Down Steph, If You Can
Curry has firmly established himself as a second-tier "unstoppable" scorer.
The first tier consists of four guys: LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony and James Harden. What separates these four from Curry is that there is not a player in the NBA that can effectively guard and limit them one-on-one. They each have too much quickness to be guarded by big defenders, too much size to be guarded by small defenders, and too much skill to be bothered by even the quickest, strongest, longest defenders.
Curry has that top-tier skill level. He has the quickest release in the NBA and it produces the most lethal results. He has elite ball handling abilities and has one of the deepest, most effective repertoires of shots and finishes the game has seen.
Where he falls short of a Harden or Anthony is in his size (he's only 6'3"), his strength (he weighs a lanky 185 pounds) and his explosiveness (even for a point guard, Curry is not all that quick).
This difference is hardly exemplified in his scoring average. He's at 23.7 points on the season, and he could be right next to Harden at 25.1 or James at 26.5 if he decided to stop dishing out 8.4 assists per game.
His percentages don't indicate his relative inferiority either, as he is outshooting Anthony and Harden from the field and all four of them from three-point range and the free-throw line.
Curry does get to the line significantly less than the top tier—4.5 times a game, Anthony has the next-lowest average at 7.1—but his vastly superior three-point volume makes up for this difference. He's made 0.9 more threes than Durant this season, and 1.8 more than James.
Rather than looking to statistics, the best explanation of where Curry comes up short (literally) is in video. David Vertsberger of Hickory-High.com wrote about and shared the following clips last season to illustrate how guarding Stephen Curry is possible:
While Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard are both excellent defenders, neither player would be capable of similarly limiting Durant or Harden in a playoff series, not with their size, strength and explosiveness. But with Curry, a defender can contain him if they are capable of keeping up with his constant cutting, deterring passes and contesting shots with their length and using their strength and lateral quickness to contain his drives.
Not every team has the luxury that the Spurs have of possessing two freakishly long and quick defenders who can focus their energy on stopping Curry for 40 minutes a night, while other guys carry the load offensively.
In fact, no other team has two players of that caliber who are not also offensive stars. But three of the four potential Warriors first-round opponents—the Spurs, Thunder and Rockets—have one guy—Green, Thabo Sefolosha and Patrick Beverley, respectively—who can hound Curry with their quickness, physicality and lack of offensive responsibility, which allows them to not only expend energy but to risk committing fouls.
If You Can't, Do It Anyway
The Clippers, Portland Trail Blazers and anyone else that the Warriors may end up facing in the Western Conference Playoffs this season that does not have long, quick, strong defensive monsters will still need to find a way to limit Curry.
Now would be a good time to add this, just in case anyone is curious or there's some confusion: Limiting Curry is a must to beating the Warriors.
He was not limited by the Denver Nuggets last year, and he knocked the 57-win powerhouse out of the playoffs. He was not limited through two games in San Antonio, and his team was one inexperience-induced mega choke-job away from stealing both of the first two games on the road and controlling that series.
That's why I referred to Curry as a "second-tier unstoppable scorer" rather than a "nearly unstoppable scorer." He might technically be stoppable, but when he is not stopped he is every bit as dominant an offensive player as James or Durant.
So, for teams that do not have that one guy to keep Curry on earth, limiting him requires—you guessed it—two guys!
Double-teaming a point guard is never fun, because point guards are generally capable of finding the guy who has been left open. Double-teaming a point guard who can make accurate one-handed bullet passes through traffic with his off hand sounds like an even worse proposition.
But there is another variable that plays into how successful a double-team is: When the double comes. If this decision is made and executed properly, then the strategy has a good chance of being successful.
The simple answer for when to double is "as early as possible." Trapping Curry once he passes half court makes it so that he cannot pull up from three and strike early.
However, George Karl's Nuggets made the mistake of doing this last year.
The problem with a high double-team is that Curry soon becomes keen to it. He quickly gives the ball up, and with two defenders so close to half court, the play becomes a four-on-three. With passing, ball-handling bigs like Bogut and Lee and a shooter like Thompson (not to mention Iguodala's bundle of talents), an open 26-footer for Curry becomes preferable.
The best way to double Curry is by progressively bringing the double later and later.
Starting a game or a half with a couple traps will likely not lead to a beautifully-executed four-on-three. That usually comes after Jackson makes an adjustment. Rather, it will lead to some bad possessions and early turnovers. Curry is prone to give the ball up (3.8 turnovers a game leads the league), especially when he is blitzed unexpectedly.
The key is to ditch this strategy before it stops working. Curry will expect the high trap and pass the ball off. When the trap doesn't come, the ball will still be out of Curry's hands, but the Dubs will not have a man advantage.
Once the Warriors adjust to this and realize the high double-team has been abandoned, they will attempt to get Curry back into a rhythm. The fact is that the Warriors offense will always go through Curry, whether he is on the ball, off the ball, on fire or ice cold.
This is when a later double-team is applied—not at the beginning of the possession, but 10-12 seconds in, when Curry has the ball in a half-court set.
Again, this will lead to some ugly possessions and possibly a turnover or two. Once the Warriors adjust to this by running Curry through off-ball screens to try and get him catch-and-shoot opportunities or quick swings to the man left open, the double-team should again be dropped. This will keep Curry on edge and out of rhythm while not giving the Warriors any advantage.
The Warriors will adjust to this as well, and by the late-third or early-fourth quarter, Curry and company will be ready for just about any kind of trap or double-team. Still, the strategy will have served its purpose.
The turnovers created early will lead to some transition baskets, while the bad possessions created will not add to the Warriors' score. A four-point deficit without double-teaming might instead be a four-point lead, and the opportunity to close it out will be greater since Curry will have been kept out of rhythm.