Golden State Warriors Using 2015 Finals to Offer Glimpse into the NBA's Future

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistJune 15, 2015

Getty Images

Stephen Curry remains the most obvious basketball mutation on a Golden State Warriors team one win away from a championship ring, but a hybrid lineup evolution has been just as important in pushing the Dubs to the brink of ultimate success.

In need of a jolt against the plodding Cleveland Cavaliers, the Warriors leaned on the undersized unit that provided boosts at key moments all year. In doing so, the Dubs showed the rest of the NBA a bold, new future.

The Warriors, down two games to one, swapped Andrew Bogut out of Game 4's starting lineup for Andre Iguodala, slotting four players between 6'6" and 6'8" around Curry. And they did it against a Cavs front line that had been crushing them inside throughout the series with Bogut on the court.

This was not a risk-free move.

Draymond Green failed to win the jump ball in that contest, but he and his like-sized buddies succeeded just about everywhere else. Golden State won Game 4 by 21 points.

Game 5 featured a fourth-quarter scoring explosion from Curry, but the hybrid lineup created the pace that made the outburst and the 104-91 win possible. Bogut didn't play a minute in that contest.

"Draymond has become the poster child for the new breed, a hybrid power forward," Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo told Shawn Windsor of the Detroit Free Press.

Golden State's success going small starts with Green, but it's more about an overarching philosophy than the production of any one player. It's about a willingness to sacrifice things that basketball teams typically value in order to bend the game into something different.

The Warriors' next-generation lineups space the floor with five players at or beyond the three-point line, making even the most basic pick-and-roll sets harder to guard. It features five threats to shoot the trey, five players to push the ball in transition and five players capable of switching almost everything on defense.

The fundamental question Golden State presents to opponents when going small is this: Do you want to take your own bigs off the floor and risk playing us on our terms, or do you want to force a conventional center to guard one of our multiskilled wings?

This amounts to asking opponents whether they'd like to be drowned or burned alive.

In the context of this series, the Warriors' unique ability to field these lineups has forced the Cavaliers to abandon one of the only advantages they had: size. Cavs center Timofey Mozgov, who scored 28 points in Game 4, saw just nine minutes in Game 5.

Viewed more broadly, Golden State is reinforcing the concept that basketball is a skill game.

Big men are not crude relics marked for extinction—not yet, anyway. But the Warriors have shown us that versatility will define the NBA's future. Switching screens on defense, flying around the floor in the half court, creating space, attacking on the break regardless of who secures the rebound—these are the strategies that may eventually make one-dimensional bruisers obsolete.

June 14, 2015; Oakland, CA, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers center Timofey Mozgov (20) controls the all against the defense of Golden State Warriors guard Andre Iguodala (9) and forward Draymond Green (23) in the first half in game five of the NBA Finals. at Ora
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

And the Warriors aren't just doing this to the Cavaliers. They used Harrison Barnes to guard Marc Gasol against the Memphis Grizzlies in the Western Conference semifinals, and Green spent plenty of time on Anthony Davis and Dwight Howard in these playoffs.

Going back further, Golden State had success with its positionless lineup all season.

According to NBA.com, the Dubs were terrific during the year with conventional lineups. They posted a net rating of plus-19.6 points per 100 possessions with Bogut in the middle and Curry, Klay Thompson, Barnes and Green around him.

But they were marginally better with Iguodala in place of Bogut: plus-21.6.

Against Cleveland, that same unit has dominated to the tune of a plus-18.4, while the most-used Bogut lineup is a minus-12.2.

CLEVELAND, OH - JUNE 11: Andre Iguodala #9 and Draymond Green #23 of the Golden State Warriors battle for position against Tristan Thompson #13 of the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game Four of the 2015 NBA Finals on June 11, 2015 at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleve
Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images

Loading the floor with versatile wings worked all year for the Warriors, and now it's working on the biggest stage against an opponent that has ample time to adjust.

Golden State was among the first teams to exploit this new market inefficiency, as Warriors general manager Bob Myers explained to USA Today's Jarrett Bell

"The new NBA is much more versatile," Myers said. "So we wanted to grab players who can do that."

This is good news for players such as DeMarre Carroll, who you could easily see fitting into a scheme like Golden State's. He's hitting unrestricted free agency at an ideal time.

What's funny is that the Warriors' wave-of-the-future tactics have ties to the past.

Former Golden State head coach Don Nelson experimented endlessly with small, skilled lineups, but he surrendered stopping power, as Kevin Draper of Deadspin wrote: 

Smallball has always been about sacrificing defense for offense—giving up necessary size in the paint to run circles around lumbering oafs on the offensive end—and hoping for a net benefit. Al Harrington couldn’t guard centers for long, but maybe he’d hit a couple of threes to make it worthwhile.

And current Warriors assistant Alvin Gentry gave the strategy a shot with the post-Mike D'Antoni Phoenix Suns. "The one thing that we didn't have in Phoenix, is … you have to be really good defensively," he told Bell. "That's what we were missing in Phoenix."

In this regard, Golden State's defensively potent small lineup is unique. There aren't many Draymond Greens out there. Nor do Shaun Livingstons and Andre Iguodalas grow on trees.

Not everyone can do this, but seeing it work this well for the Warriors means everyone in a copycat league is going to try.

As Grantland's Danny Chau wrote, "As we approach Game 6, there is no longer a question of whether a team can win this way. It can, and more likely than not it will. This isn’t the start of a revolution, it’s the last phase of one. Welcome."

The great irony in all this is that the absolute best example—the perfect prototype of the hybrid, positionless basketball player of the future—is playing for the other team in the Finals. LeBron James is the platonic ideal of the next-generation player.

OAKLAND, CA - JUNE 14:  LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers backs up to the basket against the Golden State Warriors at the Oracle Arena During Game five of the 2015 NBA Finals on June 14, 2015 in Oakland, California NOTE TO USER: User expressly a
Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

But the Cavaliers only have one of him.

The Warriors have a handful of lesser copies, and they need all of them to make their new-wave style work.

It's still a team game, and the Warriors know it.

In that sense, Golden State is reinforcing the foundational basketball truth of the past, even as it takes the game into the future.

Grant Hughes covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @gt_hughes.

Related

    Report: Heat Most Aggressive in Pursuit of Butler

    NBA logo
    NBA

    Report: Heat Most Aggressive in Pursuit of Butler

    Scott Polacek
    via Bleacher Report

    Report: Butler Drawing Interest from Raps, Would Join Kawhi

    NBA logo
    NBA

    Report: Butler Drawing Interest from Raps, Would Join Kawhi

    Timothy Rapp
    via Bleacher Report

    Anthony Davis Signs with Klutch Sports

    NBA logo
    NBA

    Anthony Davis Signs with Klutch Sports

    Scott Polacek
    via Bleacher Report

    Woj: Cavs in on Butler Sweepstakes

    NBA logo
    NBA

    Woj: Cavs in on Butler Sweepstakes

    Mike Chiari
    via Bleacher Report