In what could be spun to look like a positive year or a negative year, the Warriors have indisputably improved in the last 365 days.
The optimist looks at Golden State's substantially better record (26 wins last year, 35 this year with three games left), the development of Ekpe Udoh and Dorell Wright, the leadership of Monta Ellis, and the inevitable continued progression that lies ahead for these young men, along with Steph Curry and David Lee. They believe that with ample cap space this offseason, the team can be kept together and add it's final big piece to complete the rebuilding process.
The pessimist looks at the 35-38 wins and is disgusted that new ownership, a new coach, a new $80 million power forward, and the league's best offensive backcourt couldn't produce a winning record. They anticipate dissent, and believe that Monta Ellis and Steph Curry must be broken up in order to improve defensively and on the glass.
Both of these assessments are somewhat true, and both directions entirely possible.
What no sane Warriors' fan believes is that a quiet off-season will add 10-15 more wins to next year's total and put Golden State back in the playoffs, and a couple years down the line, playing for a title.
For the Warriors to turn things around next year and keep the future looking bright, these five things happen between June and October.
Kieth Smart is, without a doubt, in danger of losing his job. Joe Lacob and Peter Guber did not take control of the Warriors as soon as they had planned to, and as a result they did not have enough time to hand-pick a coach. Don Nelson was out, and assistant Kieth Smart was simply their best option.
While there will definitely be more experienced coaches on the market this off-season, Kieth Smart is a young, developing coach who is developing with the team. Smart has been demanding of his players, pushing stars Monta Ellis and David Lee to play spirited, two way basketball. He has allowed young, unproven Ekpe Udoh to develop from a garbage time bench player into a starting center.
Although Smart is a first year coach, his half-court offense and defensive rotations are years ahead of Don Nelson's, and the plays he draws up out of timeouts are as effective as any.
Under Smart, the Warriors have performed better in close games, work better with each other, have stayed healthier, and seem happier. The team's 9-12 win increase is among the NBA's best, and Smart is a first year coach who wasn't handed the team until two weeks before the season.
If anyone was expecting more out of Golden State than what Smart has provided, their beef is with their own unrealistic perception of David Lee's shot-blocking ability, Andris Biedrins' free-throw shot, or Reggie Williams' defensive prowess.
On top of this, and perhaps most importantly, continuity is the key to improvement. Smart has improved this team, and another year to strengthen his game-plan, bond with the players, and coaching sensibilities is another step in the right direction for this team.
All season long, center has been the Warriors' weakest position. Andris Biedrins appears to be done (at least in Oakland), and until recently, there was no reason to believe there was an internal answer.
Ekpe Udoh has by no means taken "solid big man" off the Warriors' checklist, but he has quieted (some of) the cries to add an Andrew Bogut or Andrew Bynum at the price of Steph Curry or Monta Ellis.
Udoh has improved consistently and substantially in an abridged rookie season. He leads all rookies in blocks per game at 1.4, and is 10th in the NBA in blocks per minute. Udoh is already one of the league's better shot-blockers, but he's not just another young leaper. His ability to defend the paint by not only blocking shots but guarding big men straight up is remarkable for someone who's only started 15 games and played in 55.
What the Warriors are missing at the five is consistent inside scoring and and rebounding. The Warriors don't need to bring in an all-star caliber center that dominates at both ends, but they need someone who can split time with Udoh. They need someone who can be inserted against bigger opponents, when the Warriors need offense, and in high-pressure situations when a veteran in the middle could make the difference.
Samuel Dalembert, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, and Nazr Muhammed all look like potential options, although a play for Tyson Chandler isn't out of the question.
Dorell Wright has been a revelation in Oakland this year. A man who never made more than 34 starts in his career, who never made more than 61 threes in a season, and who never blossomed into the player he was expected to be, did all of this and then some. Wright has not only started every single game for Golden State this season, but he's second on the team with 38.1 minutes per game. He leads the NBA in three pointers made, grabbing 5.3 RPG, dishing 3 APG, and coming up with 1.4 SPG. He's also been the best defender on the team outside of Udoh.
And there's the problem. Dorell is a solid defender who can guard the majority of the NBA's small forwards. But he's not strong enough and simply not good enough to be the Warrior's go-to lock-down guy a la Stephen Jackson a couple years back. Dorell gets abused by bigger forwards and often is put on a two-guard.
With a defensive stopper at SF, the Warriors options expand exponentially.
The new SF could guard other SF's straight up, night in and night out. If the new guy was a good enough offensive player, Dorell could become the 6th man and provide instant offense off the bench as well as defensive intensity. Dorell could also play the two when the Warriors went big, and could slide over to the three with the new SF sliding to the four when opponents go small.
The added flexibility would allow Monta and Curry to rest more and take away some of their defensive load. It would also take pressure off Dorell, and would, no matter who started at SF, give the Warriors a much scarier 6th man.
The best free-agent options appear to be Tayshaun Prince, Josh Howard and Grant Hill, but the Warriors have the cap space and draft picks to possibly pull this off via trade or through the draft.
Steph Curry and Monta Ellis have proven to anyone that's paying attention that they can run the Warriors' offense. Golden State is 8th in the NBA in assists per game and 7th in turnover differential.
Monta averages 24.3 PPG while dishing out 5.6 assists. Curry averages 18.3 PPG with 5.8 assists. Together, they shoot 40% on threes, 46% from the field, and 84% from the line.
The issues with the Warriors' backcourt? Defense and rebounding.
Reggie Williams provides absolutely no help in either of these categories. And while a new defensive stopper in the rotation (as discussed in the previous slide) could translate to defensive help in the backcourt, other problems arise. With Curry off the court for defensive reasons, can Monta and Dorell run the offense? When playing an opponent with a strong defensive backcourt, can Steph really be effective as a half-court PG?
If the Warriors bring in a backup PG who can pass, handle the ball, and provide defense, this team will take a huge step forward. The defensive help could allow the Warriors' backcourt not to go for so many steals and leave the big men vulnerable down low, putting the team in foul trouble. The added piece could allow for a multitude of different line-ups, with Monta or Steph at the two, depending on the game situation. Most importantly, Monta Ellis (41 MPG) and Dorell Wright (38 MPG) would be able to rest more without the team losing it's offensive firepower, as Curry could easily carry the shooting load for long stretches.
Of the three moves that I think the Warriors need to make, this one would be the easiest to make through trading. The caliber of player needed here is not as high as the caliber needed at center or at SF, all that is needed is a legitimate backup.
In order to win a ton of games next year, many believe that Steph Curry or Monta Ellis must be moved. The idea is that in order to bring in the type of defensive stopper needed or to drastically improve this team's rebounding, the current core must be broken up.
While moving Curry for Andre Iguodala or Monta for Andrew Bogut may make the Warriors a better team in 2011-12, these moves would immensely damage the future of this franchise and it's eventual championship bid.
A player like Monta Ellis is simply rare. While it seems on the surface that the Warriors could survive offensively without Ellis (with Curry and Wright shooting the ball, David Lee going back to his 20+ PPG role), this is a ridiculous notion. Ellis is lightyears ahead of any other Warrior in offensive talent. He is one of the NBA's best jumpshooters, best finishers (if not the best), best transition scorers, best passing shooting guards, and best clutch players. There are maybe five other guys in the league who are as good offensively as Ellis, and no matter who Golden State brought in, they would not impact the game as much as an elite offensive player does.
Curry is also an incredibly rare talent. Who else in the NBA can shoot like Curry? 93.4% from the line? 43.6% from deep? Try no one. With Steve Nash slowly declining, Curry has become the NBA's best shooter. He has improved substantially as a passer this year, and in a couple of years, he could be on the top-tier of offensive players in the NBA, maybe the league's best offensive PG. A solid scorer and defensive stopper like Iggy would make this team dangerous next year, but only rare talent wins championships, and Steph Curry, not his potential trade returns, is a rare talent.
With the moves I've laid out, Golden State will return to the playoffs in 2011-12. But in order to carry that momentum forward into 2012-13 and beyond, the core cannot, and does not need to, be sacrificed.