2011 Golden State Warriors: The Five Necessary Steps to the Playoffs
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Head coach Keith Smart and his Golden State Warriors find themselves in all too familiar predicament.
Sitting seven games below .500 (15-22), the Warriors need to decide now if they're willing to sacrifice and grind out a push for the eighth playoff spot--currently just four games out of reach--or cash in on some of their tradeable assets with an eye toward the future.
The decision is hardly an easy one.
With a new ownership group in place, members of the coaching staff and front office know that they have a limited time to impress these owners who have no personal or professional history with them. In that case, perhaps a run at the playoffs is what's needed to re-invigorate the Bay Area fans and save some jobs.
On the other hand, the Warriors top three players--sorry David Lee, but right now Dorell Wright joins Stephen Curry and Monta Ellis as Oakland's Big Three--are all under 26 years old. The national media are always quick to point out that while a talented team, the Warriors are still a few players away from becoming a good team. So, why not use some of that $23-plus million in expiring contracts and trade exceptions to bring in a few valuable pieces that help this team make a push at an opening round home playoff series in the next year or two--i.e., more than just being the sacrificial lamb for the L.A. Lakers.
Again, this should not be a hasty decision. But a playoff spot for this year is about more than just saving jobs and "arriving." It would quickly erase that nasty taste in the mouths of the Warriors' faithful left by former owner Chris Cohan, who finally ended his 16-year run--more like a 16-year mope--last summer.
With that in mind, here are the five things that the Warriors need to do to challenge for their spot in the NBA's big dance. And who knows what could happen when they reach the playoffs, this is a team that thrives as the eighth seed after all.
5. Enjoy the Home Cooking
The Warriors should boost their 9-6 home record with some winnable games at the Oracle on the horizon.
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When the Warriors tip off against Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers tonight, this will be the opening game of a stretch that features 13 of their next 14 contests at home. The Warriors' faithful have always been lauded as some of the best in the business--thanks in no small part to the showing in the team's upset of the Dallas Mavericks in 2007--and they'll be needed again to give energy to a team in a season-determining stretch.
Simply put, the Warriors need to put or shut up. Not only do the Warriors travel out of Oakland just once this month--and never have to leave the state--they also will host the likes of the Sacramento Kings, Los Angeles Clippers, Indiana Pacers, New Jersey Nets and Charlotte Bobcats.
The Warriors showed at the beginning of the season that they are a team capable of feasting on lesser opponents, as evidenced by their 6-2 start. And that team did not have the benefit of a full roster, playing without key reserves Ekpe Udoh and Lou Amundson.
Fully healthy for the first time in nearly three years, the Warriors need to beat these lesser opponents. Golden State will be hard pressed when they play the league's elite, so losses to sub-.500 teams can be the difference between participating or spectating come playoff time.
4. Solidify the Rotation
With a capable reserve point guard, Reggie Williams could thrive in the role best suited for him: instant offense.
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Twenty-nine teams in the NBA feature at least one superstar--sorry, Cleveland. Most of those teams feature second, even third stars. But what often separates decent teams from good, or even great, teams is depth.
A capable second unit, more than anything, allows starters to get the needed rest to play at their highest level during crunch time. In other words, players like Monta Ellis and Dorell Wright would not have to log over 38.5 minutes per game and search for fourth or fifth winds grinding out late-game situations.
Smart also needs to solidify player roles and rotations so that the Warriors can maintain or even build leads when their starters get that rest. Players like Ekpe Udoh, Acie Law and even sixth man--by title more than anything--Reggie Williams do not have the luxury of knowing if they will see the court for five or 25 minutes on any given night.
With consistent roles and minutes, the Warriors could potentially develop a quick, potent second unit to give Ellis, Wright and the rest of the starters some much-needed breathers.
3. Utilize Expiring Contracts
Vladimir Radmanovic would appear to be out should the Warriors make a signifcant trade around the deadline, but he's been one of coach Smart's most trusted reserves.
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The Warriors have over $21 million coming off the books at season's end. Even with a weak crop of free agents--with the notable exception of Carmelo Anthony--set to hit the market, plenty of teams will seek financial relief with a new collective bargaining agreement with unknown parameters just around the corner--hopefully for us fans at least.
With the club recently linked to names such as the Memphis Grizzlies' Zach Randolph and the Detroit Pistons' Tayshaun Prince, general manager Larry Riley is seeking to pull that big trade that owners Joe Lacob and Peter Guber have coveted since taking over the club in early November.
The most attractive contracts the Warriors possess are those of reserve big men Dan Gazuric ($7.25 million) and Vladimir Radmanovic ($6.9 million).
But perhaps the most intriguing Warriors story leading up to the trade deadline will be the curious case of Brandan Wright ($3.4 million). Wright has shown flashes of his ability when he's actually on the court, specifically a tenacity when challenging shots and a deadly hook shot.
But reports are that the Warriors are split on what to do with Wright. Some members of the front office hope to cash in on the young man's potential around the league, although with his injury history and lack of minutes this season that's not easy to project. Others are still waiting to see what a fully healthy season--summer league, training camp and regular season--of Brandan Wright could be.
The current roster is decent. However, they may be a trade or two from being dangerous.
2. Execute on Offense
Brandan Wright has struggled to find any rhythm this season, breaking the 15-minute barrier in just three games all season.
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How long has it been since one of the Warriors' biggest problems was their offense? Coach Smart has begrudgingly moved from a half-court style of play to a faster offensive pace--really a no-brainer given the team's makeup--and the Warriors are in the league's top 10 most potent offenses in terms of scoring (101.7 points per game). But the offense just is not the same as it used to be.
Perhaps one of the best measures of a team's offense is the assists, but more important than total assists per game is this statistic, provided by www.hoopdata.com: the assist percentage. It measures the number of field goals assisted compared to the total number of field goals made.
The Warriors' 57.4 percent is not terrible, good for 15th in the NBA. But the Warriors' opposition's 64.8 percent is the highest for any club's opposition. In other words, this team built to outscore its opponents actually has a less fluid offense than their opposition, that generally would not even play this style of basketball unless the matchups dictated that they did.
The Warriors offense also struggles from the lack of a back-to-the-basket threat. Andris Biedrins' would be the likely source from the starting lineup, but his offense has been missing since mid-2009. David Lee will crash the glass and get the occasional put back, but his best offense is a streaky mid-range jumper.
The Warriors need to find an offensive post presence--via trade or more minutes/development of Udoh and Brandan Wright--to create easy baskets, earn more free three attempts and free up driving lanes.
1. Play Aggressively
Stephen Curry needs to the find the balance of being sharp-shooter, facilitator and slasher for this offense to take the next step.
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The Warriors problems with a lack of aggressiveness have hurt the team on both ends of the floor.
Defensively, the team struggles in defensive field goal percentage (46.6 percent, 23rd in the NBA) and defensive rebound rate (68.8, 30th in the league). Their defensive rotations often look like that of an offensive-minded club, leading to far too many open looks. That problem becomes further compounded when the unit struggles to secure the rebound, giving their opponents second and third chances at the basket.
Offensively, the Warriors too often settle for jump shots and three-pointers rather thank attacking the basket. With the exception of Ellis, the Warriors lack any perimeter players with the ability and mindset to consistently pressure the defense with drives to the hoop. This leaves the Warriors often taking contested shots, which some inevitably become long rebounds and transition opportunities for the opponents.
It also combines with the lack of a post scorer to leave the team with an inability to draw fouls and get to the charity stripe. The Warriors rank last in the NBA in terms of free throw attempts compared to field goals attempted (68.8).
If Smart can find it in these players--or any new players that may join the team in these next 42 days leading to the trade deadline--to play with passion and aggression, the Warriors will be playing meaningful basketball in late April and May.
And new owners Lacob and Guber will already have matched Cohan in terms of playoff appearances.