Tiny weaknesses in otherwise unconquerable foes have always provided sources of hope amid despair.
The Death Star's main reactor was a fatal vulnerability, killing the queen downed the swarm in Ender's Game and flying something into the city-leveling beam of destruction closes the intergalactic portal in every Marvel movie ever made.
Locating and exploiting these nearly invisible flaws always seems impossible. But knowing they're there is a comfort.
The Golden State Warriors are the Death Star/hive-minded scourge/extraterrestrial threat of the NBA, and they have their borderline imperceptible deficiencies, too. Here, we'll analyze the small areas in which they struggled last year and determine whether 29 other teams can find glimmers of hope in them. We'll be specific because every team is a candidate for age-related regression, injury and complacency.
The Warriors are no different, as head coach Steve Kerr told Marcus Thompson II of the Athletic:
"The biggest challenge is complacency. We've been to the Finals three years in a row. And for our core group, I guess that would be four or five guys—Shaun [Livingston] and Andre [Iguodala], Steph [Curry], Klay [Thompson], Draymond [Green]—that's a long haul, and you just cannot lose your edge in this league."
That aside, will isolated vulnerabilities in this unbeatable team linger? Will they worsen? Or, much to the dismay of the rest of the NBA, will they disappear?
The fate of the world league hangs in the balance.
Bench Scoring and Shot Creation
With four stars—Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson—around, the Warriors rarely have to play without at least two on the floor. Last season, Golden State preferred pairing KD and Steph, using Green and Thompson to anchor reserve units at the start of the second and fourth quarters.
Those backup groups were effective but notably not as potent on offense (obviously) as the ones that included the MVP tandem.
The fivesome of Green, Thompson, Shaun Livingston, Andre Iguodala and David West was Golden State's sixth-most used lineup last year—and the most frequently used grouping that didn't include Curry and Durant. It posted a plus-11.7 net rating but only scored 102.1 points per 100 possessions on 53.8 percent true shooting. By way of contrast, the Warriors' starters produced a 120.3 offensive rating on 63.7 percent true shooting.
We'll likely see that same group log significant minutes again in 2017-18, but if scoring continues to be an issue, the Warriors' new additions could help. Omri Casspi can stretch the floor and cut deftly off the ball. Nick Young figures to be a primo bailout option when the offense gums up.
That's not to say Young is going to pound the dribble and hoist ugly looks as the shot clock winds down. Contrary to his reputation, that's not who he is anymore. Last year, more than half of Young's field-goal attempts came without a single dribble. Still, it's nice to know that when all else fails, he's comfortable creating his own offense—even if efficiency suffers.
His posted an effective field-goal percentage of 50 percent on shots following three to six dribbles.
If Patrick McCaw improves, Jordan Bell provides vertical spacing as a lob threat and the Casspi-Young combo offers more versatile scoring, Golden State's second-unit offense should be better...even if it never comes close to matching the production of the starters or most Curry-KD units.
A General and Persistent Sloppiness...Turnovers
When you play as fast as the Warriors do, spend as much time with hefty leads, hunt highlights and get more than a little drunk on your own offensive potency, gaffes are bound to happen. This much scoring and raw star power sucks the life out of opponents and removes the stakes from a game in the early going.
That's a recipe for turnovers.
The Warriors have long known this about themselves. They accept that carelessness is indivisible from their dominant makeup.
More than two years ago, head coach Steve Kerr told reporters: "We still get excited at times and do some crazy things. I kind of like the fact that we walk that line. It's what makes us who we are."
Kerr, despite comments to the contrary, doesn't always like the way his team walks that line. Several broken clipboards and face-palming gifs can attest to that. Golden State ranked 19th in turnover rate two years ago and 20th in 2016-17.
But it's hard to get too bent out of shape about carelessness when the offense consistently ranks atop the league and plays like this emotionally cripple opponents:
If this is an issue that needs fixing (and if it's one that can be fixed at all), chemistry is the answer. The Warriors are only adding three new faces—Young, Casspi and Bell—to their roster this year, none of whom figure to play large roles. With the rest of the team continuing to build familiarity and growing even more comfortable in Kerr's motion-heavy offense, miscommunications figure to diminish in frequency.
And hey, if Young cuts possessions short with bad shots instead of giveaways, that's another way to trim turnovers.
Still, the Warriors are so deep and so dominant that it will remain difficult to maintain focus. Carelessness is going to creep in. They'll wind up on the wrong side of the line more often than Kerr would like.
This isn't a weakness that portends doom, though. It won't cause losses. But it's also not going away.
The Inexplicable Clutch Collapses
The Warriors were stunningly terrible in close-and-late situations last year, compiling a minus-13.0 net rating in the last three minutes of games where the score was within five points. That figure ranked 26th in the league.
Contrast that with the transcendent plus-43.5 they posted in the same situations during the 2015-16 season, and the difference seems impossible. The same team (plus Kevin Durant!) was somehow 56.5 points per 100 possessions worse in the clutch.
If your small-sample alarm is ringing, good. It should be. We're dealing with 57- and 87-minute stretches, respectively. Still, that can't be the only explanation.
A closer look raises rebounding as a major culprit. Golden State's rebound rate in the clutch fell by about 11 percent year over year, which is strange because Durant is a better rebounder than Harrison Barnes, and that's the only significant difference in the Warriors' optimal high-leverage lineup.
Nothing else glaring emerges, and it could be that in addition to rebounding poorly, the Warriors were just missing more shots than usual.
We may never see another team as dominant in the clutch as the 2015-16 iteration of the Warriors, but if natural regression to the mean doesn't at least put the Dubs in positive net-rating territory during crunch time in 2017-18, it'll be a shock. And if they wind up ranking atop the league in clutch net rating, nobody should be surprised—not after unveiling the unstoppable Durant-Curry pick-and-roll in last year's playoffs.
A team in need of a late bucket could hardly ask for a better desperation option than that.
Hope or Nah?
The Dubs' bench scoring and clutch performance should both be better than they were a year ago, but at least their turnover problems will still be around.
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▶️ "The @warriors are going to win forever" - Jeff Van Gundy on The Starting Lineup with @FisolaNYDN & @Scalabrine https://t.co/y4Y2KAFhQE2017-9-5 14:35:31
So much for an exploration of Golden State's few weaknesses last year providing hope. So much for anything close to a fatal flaw. Saying the Warriors are going to "win forever," as Jeff Van Gundy did, is hyperbolic, but only by a little.
Good luck, league.