Are Golden State Warriors a Big Step Away from Being Contenders Next Season?

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Are Golden State Warriors a Big Step Away from Being Contenders Next Season?
Rocky Widner/Getty Images

The Golden State Warriors might have what it takes to compete for a title by next season. Every piece on the team fits almost perfectly, and it’s part of the reason the Dubs will play a Game 7 versus the Los Angeles Clippers for a chance to advance to the second round in consecutive postseason runs.

Whether Golden State is victorious or not, the Warriors have shown that they could potentially become a Western Conference force. With Andrew Bogut sidelined due to a fractured rib, yours truly predicted the Clippers would vanquish the Warriors in six games.

Bogut is by far the team’s best interior defender. As Golden State’s resident tough guy, he makes opponents think twice about challenging him in the paint.

Given Bogut’s importance, it was hard to imagine the team advancing in his absence. And yet, the Warriors are on the cusp of the Western Conference Semifinals.

Considering that most would agree that the Clippers are title contenders, the fact that Golden State is pushing them to seven games in a diminished state speaks volumes about where they are and what might lie ahead.

Still, Stephen Curry and Co. are not there quite yet. There are a few things standing in the way.

 

Injuries

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The debilitating nature of injuries at times can short-circuit a team’s season depending on the timing of when players are sidelined. Losing a player in the first month of the season isn’t the same thing as missing time during the playoffs.

Although this applies to every club, the Warriors are particularly aware of this given their postseason misfortunes. Last season David Lee tore his hip flexor in the opening playoff game versus the Denver Nuggets, and this year Bogut is sidelined indefinitely.

In addition, Festus Ezeli has missed the entire year due to a knee injury. What was already an incredibly thin front line suffered another setback in Game 6 against the Clippers when Jermaine O’Neal went down with bone bruise in his right knee.

Because the Warriors have yet to participate in the postseason with a healthy starting five, the franchise might be inclined to stand pat in the offseason. The roster has a nice blend of youth and veteran leadership to guide Golden State during the playoffs.

What’s more, some of the main weapons haven’t even reached their primes. By the time the 2014-15 training camp starts, one should probably expect young guns like Curry (26), Klay Thompson (24) and Harrison Barnes (22) to add new layers to their respective games.

Curry and Thompson can certainly grow as rim attackers, while Barnes' one-on-one skills need refinement. 

Between the offseason work and playoff experience from this year, Golden State might become a formidable opponent. Keep in mind, the trio will still be surrounded by the likes of Andre Iguodala, David Lee and Bogut.

Rocky Widner/Getty Images

That leaves the front office with two possible scenarios. The first one calls for management to give this group another shot together next year to compete for a title.

The second option is to beef up on the interior with two or three veteran backup big men that can play roughly 60 games played per year. This is one way the Warriors have of putting the odds in their favor.

Hence, they might want to consider going after the likes of Elton Brand, Kris Humphries, DeJuan Blair or Matt Bonner. They cannot replicate what Lee or Bogut brings to the table, but they are serviceable reserves who will help mitigate the losses of starting interior players.

The Warriors will probably be able to manage going forward if faced with minor injuries with these small moves.

 

Coaching

Eric Gay/Associated Press

Mark Jackson can certainly make the Warriors a perennial contender. We’re just not sure if he will get the opportunity.

Some of us have been critical of Jackson at times, but ignoring his résumé is practically a fool’s errand. Curry and Lee became All-Stars under his tutelage, when many believed the team had jettisoned the only player with a chance at making the midseason classic.

That player, Monta Ellis, still has not taken the floor during an All-Star game.

In addition, Jackson has turned Draymond Green into what you could call a “sixth starter.” Green is a solid defensive player with great instincts, a decent passer and he won’t embarrass himself on offense.

Jackson took those skills and turned him into his Swiss Army knife. Green executes multiple defensive schemes and guards a wide range of players. The coaching staff has gotten Green and the rest of the team to buy in on defense, which seemed like a laughable notion before Jackson took the job.

The Warriors finished the 2013-14 regular season ranked third in defensive efficiency. That’s an important development considering that teams with great defenses tend to wind up in the championship conversation.

Despite all of Jackson’s successes, many would rather focus on his warts. His use of bench-heavy lineups and penchant for isolation basketball grate some of the Warrior faithful. Also, the dismissal of two assistant coaches this season is reason enough for some to question whether there is some dissension in his ranks.

Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

In turn, speculation about his job status has become quite a topic of discussion. Jermaine O’Neal shared as much with USA TODAY Sports’ Sam Amick:

You get the feel that no matter what happens, our coach won't be our coach next year. You just get that feel. But we are willing to give all we've got for this group, for that coach, and hopefully whatever that will and whatever we've given is good enough to take us as far as we should go.

This certainly suggests that owner Joe Lacob does not believe that Jackson can lead this group to a championship despite Lacob’s best assertions to the contrary. To Jackson’s credit, the players have competed all year.

The Warriors won the most games (51) since the 1991-92 campaign per Basketball-Reference, and yet it would appear that some feel as though he’s underachieved.

Jackson is quite aware of the expectations, and it prompted him to address some of them with ESPN.com’s J.A. Adande after Game 6 versus L.A.:

I know there are people that want to speed up the process. This is who we are. Part of the process is going through things, learning how to be consistent. I'm proud of my guys. It's been an incredible, incredible ride. Now against a three seed with two of the top 10 players in the world and a future Hall of Fame coach, we are going to Game 7 in spite of all the sideline music, and I like my chances because I've got a group of guys that want to do whatever it takes to win.

Jackson can certainly grow as a coach, and that will ultimately be what decides how far Golden State can go with him. He has a tendency to stick with the same lineups because his ability to make in-game adjustments needs work.

Make no mistake, though. Guys want to play for him. His motivational ploys unify the team and result in players never taking anything for granted.

It’s entirely possible that a new head man might turn the Warriors into a juggernaut. Then again, he could also steer them out of the playoffs. Jackson has shown he has the potential to take the Warriors to the promised land— or at least fairly close to it—in the not-too-distant future.

With added experience, Jackson will have what it takes to guide the Dubs to title contention.

If that sounds ridiculous, just remember that worse things were said about Clippers coach Doc Rivers before he won a title with the Boston Celtics.

 

What It All Means

Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

The Warriors are a mere few tweaks away from becoming contenders next season. Golden State has a talented roster, and its development coupled with this year’s playoff experience should result in the Warriors' entrance into the elite.

It’s worth noting that because Golden State has had injury woes in consecutive postseasons to their big people, the Warriors should probably look for some serviceable backup interior players.

It should give the Warriors some much needed relief in the event that they lose one of their starting big men for a few postseason games.

Golden State’s second-unit players have performed to their standards for the most part, and it’s created a great synergy on the team given that they’ve been able to also complement the starters.

Jackson has fostered a winning culture and taken these players to unprecedented heights. Thus, he should be retained going forward, considering that he gives Golden State its best chance to succeed. Although Jackson is not yet a great tactician, he could certainly grow into the role with additional experience. The Warriors have been a good team under his watch, and it’s quite possible Jackson can it make great.

The Warriors have the core pieces. They just need to evolve, and they are a good bet to do just that.

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