Last year, the Golden State Warriors were one of the biggest surprises of the NBA playoffs. In an offensive explosion, they knocked out the Denver Nuggets in the first round, one of the hottest teams in the league, and one many people thought could shake things up at the top of the Western Conference.
The Warriors then proceeded to give the San Antonio Spurs a run for their money before finally bowing out in six games.
It was a marvelous playoff run and brought with it all sorts of increased expectations for this regular season. Despite an up-and-down season, the Warriors are still on pace for their first 50-win season in two decades, and those regular season expectations are ratcheting up for the playoffs.
While there appears to be some turmoil on the coaching staff, the focus on the court is pushing past last year's Western Conference semifinals appearance. It will be a tough road, but there are several key differences about this year's team that could change the ultimate outcome of its postseason campaign.
Balance Between Offense and Defense
Last year's Warriors team was a fire-breathing offensive menace. At least that's the way it seemed. Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson raining down three-pointers on the heads of hapless opponents was the defining image from last season, but it's easy to forget the Warriors' offensive efficiency was just a hair over the league average.
Their offense exploded for huge performances in some key and crucial situations, but last year's team was essentially average on both ends of the floor. With the integration of a fully healthy Andrew Bogut and newcomer Andre Iguodala, the Warriors have transformed themselves into a defensive juggernaut.
As of today, they have the third-stingiest defense in the league, allowing just 99.7 points per 100 possessions. That mark is nearly five full points better than their mark from last season. Two weeks ago, I spent some time detailing the exact defensive contributions of Bogut and Iguodala.
For Bogut, it's all about controlling the middle of the floor, retreating to deter penetration, while still contesting shots in the mid-range.
Iguodala gives the Warriors a new and potent defensive threat at the point of attack, applying plenty of ball pressure while still knowing when to funnel ball-handlers toward his capable help defenders.
This kind of potent and flexible defense has been a historical precursor for postseason success. Research from Neil Paine at Basketball-Reference has shown defensive excellence does much more to increase a team's title odds than the inverse relationship:
As you can see, this result seems to bear out the old adage that "Defense Wins Championships"; for instance, to have the exact same title odds as a team with an average offense and a defense that was 5.0 pts/100 poss better than average, an average defensive team would have to score 7.7 more pts/100 poss than average!
Going completely abstract using just Paine's formula and the Warriors offense and defensive ratings from this year and last year, we would see the Warriors' probability of winning the title this season rest at around 9 percent, where last year they would have entered the postseason with a championship probability of around 1 percent.
This is all subject to context and individual circumstances, but in becoming a defensive powerhouse, the Warriors may have increased their probability of winning as much as ninefold.
In last year's playoffs, an injury to David Lee forced the Warriors to make some drastic changes to their lineups, including inserting Harrison Barnes as a small-ball power forward.
The Warriors four most-used lineups in the playoffs featured Barnes in this position. Together, those lineups scored an average of 112.0 points per 100 possessions and surrendered an average of 97.4, for an astronomically high Net Rating of +14.6.
In the playoff matchups against the Spurs and Nuggets, Barnes was a perfect fit. Neither team had a post threat to punish the Warriors defensively for the switch, and Barnes' ability to both space the floor as a shooter and score in the low post allowed him to make a positive offensive contribution regardless of what type of defender was assigned to him.
But with Lee healthy and productive during the regular season, Barnes had been relegated to the bench and struggled to find his place behind Iguodala. According to 82games.com, Barnes has played power forward for just 11 percent of his minutes this season.
But in a bizarre twist of fate, Lee is again dealing with injuries, and as the San Jose Mercury News reported, he could be out for the entire playoffs:
Warriors forward David Lee will miss Sunday's night's game against Utah after an MRI exam on his strained right hamstring revealed nerve inflammation, according to coach Mark Jackson.
Jackson said he did not know when Lee, the team's second-leading scorer and rebounder, would be able to return and if he would be able to come back for the start of the playoffs.
The Warriors starters have been fantastic with Lee this season, outscoring the opposition by an average of 15.2 points per 100 possessions. Not having him available for the bulk of the playoffs would certainly be a negative for the Warriors.
However, Barnes has turned in two of his strongest performances of the season in his last two games and closing the regular season with a forced reappearance of small-ball lineups featuring him at power forward could be just the thing to get him going.
They could also spur Jackson to experiment with them more in the playoffs and pursue advantageous matchups, as opposed to just trying to overwhelm opponents while riding his starters into the ground.
Last season, the Warriors relied on strong bench play, particularly from Jarrett Jack and Carl Landry. Both players departed in the offseason, and it has left things a little unsettled.
Landry and Jack were offensive specialists, and Jack in particular, was able to help share the ball-handling load with Curry, occasionally keeping the offense afloat when Curry was entirely out of the game.
But without a steady hand at backup point guard this season, the Warriors offense has cratered whenever Curry leaves the game, scoring an astonishing 16.8 fewer points per 100 possessions.
Essentially having him on the floor is the difference between being one of the best offenses in the league and being the absolute worst.
Draymond Green and Jermaine O'Neal have made steady defensive contributions off the bench, and the fort can be held in small chunks. But the Warriors' grip on respectable offensive production becomes increasingly tenuous when they start going to bench units.
Rotations will be shortened in the playoffs. Although Lee's health is a huge question mark, the Warriors will theoretically be relying much less on their backup guards and keeping Curry on the floor for longer stretches.
However, it makes their playoff run precarious. If anyone else were to go down with an injury, they wouldn't be able to turn to last season's depth to sustain them, and the whole house of cards could come crashing down.
One of the reasons the Warriors offense hasn't progressed as much as their defense this season is an epidemic of stagnation. As Zach Lowe pointed out at Grantland a few months ago, too often when an initial action is stymied, the Warriors fall back on a generally inefficient array of isolations and post-ups:
This is pretty typical: A defense forces the pick-and-roll ball handler (Curry) to kick out to a spot-up shooter (Thompson), and it recovers to that shooter in time to discourage him from launching off the catch. The best offenses go from here into something else — another pick-and-roll, a dribble handoff, or an immediate pump-and-go drive from Thompson.
But Golden State’s offense stalls out in a lot of these situations. Thompson and Barnes are ball stoppers, not yet confident enough in their dribbling or passing to attack right away or run a functional pick-and-roll. They like to hold the ball, size up their defender, and then begin a haze of crossovers, spins, and step-backs that lead nowhere. Thompson and Barnes aren’t quick enough to blow by prepared defenders, even bigger guys caught on switches, and so they often end up forcing difficult shots.
For all of their offensive talent, the Warriors haven't totally figured out how to have all the instruments playing beautiful music together.
This is a definite concern heading into the playoffs when the level of competition increases, and the Warriors could potentially find themselves battling the Spurs or Oklahoma City Thunder in the second round, two of the best defensive teams in the league.
But the talent is there, and sometimes, as we saw last year with Barnes, matchups and circumstances force teams to find creative solutions. The other thing Warriors fans can find comfort in is their defense is good enough this year to make up for many of their offensive warts.
Things won't be any easier for the Warriors this season. They appear headed for a first-round collision with the Houston Rockets or Los Angeles Clippers, teams which present every bit of a complex as a challenge, like the Nuggets team they led off with last year.
The Warriors have gotten better in some key ways and still have the potential to improve further. But things are fragile, health is imperative and circumstances and luck will prove to be crucial.
They've placed themselves in a great position. Now, it's time to go out and win some playoff basketball games.
Statistical support for this story from NBA.com/stats