It's no secret that the Golden State Warriors struggled running offensive sets under the supervision of Mark Jackson.
It's true that Jackson was a master motivator and promoter of defensive fundamentals, but his offensive units often stagnated. All too often, possessions devolved into isolation and failed execution of basic plays.
Stephen Curry wasn't utilized as a catch-and-shoot player or used off the ball. Andrew Bogut—one of the NBA's best facilitating bigs—rarely created for others. Ball screens were set too high and didn't promote spacing from the shooters.
But under Steve Kerr, things are different. The Warriors are already flourishing on the offensive end.
Basketball-Reference.com shows that in 2013-14, Golden State scored 107.5 points per 100 possessions, ranking No. 12 in the league. That's more a testament to the wealth of offensive talent on the roster than the coaching.
But now the team has both. During the early stages of the 2014-15 campaign, the Warriors have produced a 108.8 offensive rating, placing them at No. 8 in the NBA.
It's a significant improvement, and it's reasonable to expect more improvement as the Warriors become more familiar with Kerr's teachings.
More Involvement from Klay Thompson and Andrew Bogut
During his playing days, Kerr was always best in the triangle offense, one that he ran under the tutelage of Phil Jackson and alongside Michael Jordan for the Chicago Bulls. Though he hasn't tried to install that system in the Bay Area as Derek Fisher has for the New York Knicks, he's definitely taken some of the principles from it.
But that's not all.
"I saw some Spurs looks, in terms of fast ball movement and lots of guys 'looping,'" ESPN Insider David Thorpe told Kevin Pelton (subscription required). "Quick ball screens and handoffs, too. Very nice pacing and two-man games all over the court."
The biggest principle, even with the two-man games that have become common, would be the necessity of having nearly every position touch the ball. Rather than keep the ball in Curry's hands at all times, Kerr has taken advantage of the pieces at his disposal, allowing Klay Thompson to bring the ball up the floor and initiate offense, as well as having Bogut make use of his ball-handling and passing skills far more often.
|Halfcourt Touches per Game|
|Year||Stephen Curry||Klay Thompson||Andrew Bogut|
|NBA.com's SportVU data|
Already, this has paid large dividends for both players,who are seeing massive upticks in their involvement.
Kerr has unleashed two previously hidden facets of Thompson's game: creating off the dribble and facilitating for his teammates. In the past, Thompson's been limited to catch-and-shoot situations, but it's now apparent that was more due to the limitations of Jackson's offense rather than the lack of applicable skills in the shooting guard's arsenal.
Thompson rarely created his own shot inside the arc. Last season 68.6 percent of his two-pointers were assisted, compared to 58.3 percent in 2014-15, a number that has trended up as the season has progressed. But now the Warriors are trusting him to work with the ball in his hands. See how everyone went to the weak side and allowed him to take advantage of a mismatch?
This isn't running an isolation set out of necessity but rather taking advantage of an opportunity. That's been one of the key differences in the two systems, as Kerr has used enough ball movement and screens to create advantageous matchups, like having Thompson work against Steve Blake with no help behind him.
Thompson is now driving 5.4 times per game, via NBA.com's SportVU data, which is up from last season's 2.8 drives/game. This multifaceted approach to his game also allows him to function more as a distributor, initiating offense and allowing other players to work off the ball.
Defenses are now forced to respect Thompson's driving ability, but the key is the amount of open space that each of the shooters have when the 2-guard puts the ball on the floor.
When Jackson was at the helm, he was hesitant to load the weak side with spot-up players and guys coming off screens. As soon as a player would set a pick, his role in the offense would basically be over. As soon as a player finished an initial cut, he'd watch the proceedings if he wasn't involved. But that's not the case under Kerr.
Constant movement, both of players and the ball, is key. And that allows the ball to find its way into Bogut's hands, for example.
"Andrew's one of the best passing centers in the league," the new head coach explained to reporters during training camp. "He's one of the best I've ever seen, and so for us to get him the ball on the elbows as a dribble-handoff guy, backdoor-pass guy, that will be emphasized."
The Australian big man is averaging a career-high three assists per game, and his 5.2 dimes per 100 possessions stand in stark contrast to last year's 3.2. Kerr is allowing him to operate out of the high post and handle the ball at the top of the key, which helps provide more spacing than ever for his teammates. Bogut isn't a threat to shoot from that spot, but his ball skills allow for all sorts of cuts around him.
Even when not at the top of the key or around the free-throw line, he's been able to create quite a few open buckets simply by handing the ball off and immediately setting a hard screen. Grantland's Kirk Goldsberry ran a fantastic breakdown of the center's involvement, providing us with a few GIFs that demonstrate this skill. You can see those below by mousing over the icons:
"He's such a good passer from the top of the key or anywhere on the floor," Thompson told Rusty Simmons of the San Francisco Chronicle. "He's just showing what he can do on offense, and we want to play through him as much as possible."
But it's not just teammates who are noticing this.
"Kerr has also put in some of Jerry Sloan's half-court actions he ran in the flex offense with the Utah Jazz, with players cutting off the post. They go through center Andrew Bogut more than Mark Jackson did," wrote David Aldridge for NBA.com. And Bogut has seemed quite pleased with what's happening, as he told Simmons before the season began:
It feels so easy and free. The flow is there. There's rhythm. Guys have easy knockdown shots. ...I've been around Princeton and triangle stuff, so I feel very comfortable playing from the elbow and around the perimeter. I know I'm not a great knockdown shooter from the outside, but I think I can read the game well enough to go into a pick-and-roll or hit guys going backdoor. I love it.
Speaking of things the Dubs aren't used to, how about working Curry without the ball in his hands?
Playing Stephen Curry off the Ball
The Warriors are finally taking full advantage of Curry's offensive talent, which is one of the many reasons he's asserted himself as a strong MVP candidate during the opening salvo of the NBA season.
During the 2013-14 go-round, the Davidson product was rarely asked to cut off the ball. He didn't run imitations of Kyle Korver too often, using screens to free himself and let fly from beyond the arc as soon as a pass wound up in his hands. Instead, he would initiate sets that actually took him out of the proceedings.
BBallBreakdown did a fantastic job of explaining the difference as well as showing some of the key plays that represent the mentality shift:
But it's not just Floppy sets that are leading to off-ball shots for Curry during the regular season.
Take a look at how the Warriors are using extra screens to free him up, as they did in the first play you can see below against the Los Angeles Lakers in early November:
Draymond Green's pin-down screen is incredibly key here and creates plenty of open space for the point guard to splash in an uncontested three-point attempt. It's just one of many ways that the Warriors have tried to give their biggest offensive weapon even better opportunities.
"As great a player as Steph is, he's not really a natural point guard," Greg Anthony, a TNT analyst, told Simmons. "What you want to do is find a system to complement the players' strengths. I think taking (Curry) off the ball a little bit really plays to his strengths."
NBA.com's databases show that 34.3 percent of the 1-guard's attempts this year have come within two seconds of his touching the ball. Additionally, 13.1 percent of his tries from downtown have been taken without a single defender within six feet of him. That's a credit to Kerr's offense and Curry's green light in any transition situation.
During Jackson's final year, those numbers were 26.4 and 12.7 percent, respectively. We're seeing upticks in all the right numbers for the league's premier sniping threat—and, for that matter, for the team as a whole.
But that doesn't mean there's no room for improvement.
As good as the Warriors have been, distributing the ball to just about everyone and finding the best ways to utilize the many talents at their disposal, they'll be even better once they stop coughing the ball up at historic rates.
"Most of those turnovers are coming in the first two passes of a possession," Kerr espoused to Aldridge earlier this season. "So it's the decision-making. It's not that we're passing so much that we're overpassing. Most of our turnovers are just rebound, throw it out of bounds, or one dribble, and throw it off somebody's foot. So we're just trying to get better execution-wise, and it's going to come."
When it comes, the Warriors will truly assert themselves as championship contenders. With an excellent defense and a rebuilt offense that's rolling through the opposition in the early going, it's only a matter of time.