OAKLAND — There are moments in every basketball game that are imperceptible to those of us at a distance.
It’s the look a point guard might give a teammate to start the machinations of a screen, or the eye contact a big gives to inform the ball-handler he’s going to curl toward the rim to receive an alley-oop.
NBA players often talk about chemistry in nebulous and even mysterious terms, but this is what they mean. It’s the anticipation of how a play is going to develop. It’s the freedom of a point guard to not just adapt to an opposing defense but to know that his teammates will, in turn, adjust their positioning accordingly.
When chemistry is at its most organic, it’s invisible to outsiders and impossible to stop.
This is the challenge that awaits the Warriors this coming season. They’re still in the first throes of a process that, for the most part, revolves around integrating Kevin Durant’s game into that of a trio of pre-existing All-Stars.
The sooner they figure that out, the sooner they’ll became the bane of every opponent’s existence.
"It’ll definitely take a lot more than two games to figure each other out," Draymond Green said after blowing out the Clippers last week. "The one thing that we want to be a constant body movement and ball movement. If guys continue to move and cut, we have a lot of great shooters on the floor and we’ll get open shots. That’ll continue to be the focus."
The most common comparison to these Warriors is that 2010-11 Miami Heat squad—the first year of that LeBron James-Dwyane Wade-Chris Bosh triumvirate that ultimately lost in the NBA Finals to the Dallas Mavericks in six games. The issue there was that both James and Bosh were new to the team, and the Heat struggled to mesh in the early goings.
After a late November loss (perhaps fittingly) to Dallas, the Heat were 9-8 a month into the season, but they found their groove and battled back to the brink of a title. But even that Finals loss exposed not-yet-there chemistry.
Golden State doesn’t expect that level of adjustment since the core of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green was already here, and now the question becomes: How do you integrate the arriving superstar into a system that was already top-five in both offense and defense?
But it’s not just about addition; it's about subtraction as well.
For all their faults, Harrison Barnes and Andrew Bogut were entrenched starters for years, and they knew the system. It’s part of why the Warriors had an all-time record start to last season, when they went 24-0. Their roster, for the most part, was unchanged from the team that had just won a title.
"This is not last year. This is totally different," Warriors head coach Steve Kerr said. "We have two new starters. We have a guy, in Kevin, who’s a superstar, who’s played in a totally different style and system for a long time. We’ve got to learn how he plays, he has to learn how we play, and it’s all got to fit."
For Kerr, there’s a simple way to assess how well it’s working at any given time. "Turnovers are always an easy indicator of not being familiar," he said. "We need to see our guys clicking, the ball moving without any thought. There’s kind of this moment right now where it’s like, 'OK, where am I supposed throw the ball?' It has to be instinctive."
That was clear against the Clippers, who still forced 18 turnovers despite being drubbed on the scoreboard. Two nights later against the Sacramento Kings, the Warriors committed 19 turnovers.
"I’m feeling better everyday," Durant told Bleacher Report. "We’re all high-IQ people. We feed off of each other, but it’s kind of hard to explain. When you’ve got guys that can score, that can pass, that can shoot, it just makes the game simple. When everybody plays simpler, it’s for the betterment of the team. Just trying to make the right play."
And when the Warriors’ chemistry starts cooking with regularity, making the right play will feel seamless, the ball moving with purpose and practicality. That was evident in the Warriors’ very first basket against the Clippers last week. Just over a minute in, Durant dribbled into the offensive end and dished off to Curry, who was set up for a catch-and-shoot three from the left wing, the kind of shot he was positively lethal with last season.
Instead, the reigning two-time MVP put the ball on the floor, dribble-drove to the free-throw line and kicked it out to a wide-open Durant on the weak side for an easy three. That’s a simple play the Warriors can use to their advantage, because Curry can either take the three, drive to the hoop or kick out to an open man, be that Durant, Thompson, Green or Andre Iguodala.
It worked to the Warriors' benefit that time, but there’s still a lot of reasoning behind the sequence. In time, those sorts of plays will feel more instinctual.
"With chemistry, it’s knowing who’s going to be where, who might be open and assess that risk in the moment to make the right decision. I got to make the right reads," Curry said. "That shot may be one I take down the road...but that’s a part of who we’re going to be. You don’t want to be too unselfish where you turn down shots because you think there might be a better one coming. You try to make the right play but still be aggressive at the same time, so there’s a balance to it that we want to be able to figure out."
How that takes is anyone’s guess, but since the Warriors’ system is a mishmash of sets and movements predicated on constant ball movement, that jelling might take longer than usual, but Kerr, perhaps channeling his inner Potter Stewart, doesn’t seem to sweating it thus far.
"In the NBA," he said cryptically, "you never know what you have until it’s there."
Hail to JaVale
It’s looking increasingly likely that JaVale McGee has a 50-50 chance of getting the Warriors’ last roster spot. He played some competitive third-quarter minutes in Golden State’s preseason win over Sacramento last week and finished with five points, four rebounds and a block. While McGee’s play has steadily improved through the preseason—his four blocks are second only to Durant (five)—it’s his personality and spirit that still has coaches and players raving.
"He has a goofiness about him when he plays basketball because he's so tall," said Andre Iguodala, who played with McGee in Denver and remains one of his biggest supporters. "He has this funny line, 'You can be smart and act dumb, but you can't be dumb and act smart.'"
On the court, Iguodala thinks McGee will be ready to contribute by opening night. "With our team, it's just learning the sets and learning the reads," Iguodala said. "He's picking up on that pretty well. You can see which lineups he fits in really well with. I'm really excited to see what he can do. The funny thing is, I talked to some different people, GMs and front office people, and he's so much better than a lot of these guys that got paid this past year—like so much better. Hopefully, he'll get the chance to display that."
Assistant coach Ron Adams, now entering his third season in Golden State and one of the league’s most respected defensive strategists, is still hoping McGee can slide in as another big at the back end of the second unit. "I'm a big fan of his. I want him to do well," Adams said. "He's a different kind of player than we have on our squad. There's a cheerleading side of me that wants him to do well."
Sick of the Preseason
Curry, who was been battling an illness for much of the past week, is getting back to feeling like his usual self. During one of his usual post-practice shooting drill rotations, when he goes around the arc shooting 10 threes at five different spots, Curry nailed 46 out of 50, including 35 at a row at one point.
"Flu-like symptoms that stuck around longer than I suspected," Curry said on Tuesday. Against the Kings, Curry finished with 13 points and five assists in just over 25 minutes, but he did look frustrated at times with four turnovers.
Apparently, no one in the Curry household was spared this time around, and the bug hit everyone: "It’s all my fault."
Shoot Your Shot
Through three preseason games, Klay Thompson continues to do one thing and do it really well. He leads all Warriors in scoring, with 57 points, thanks to 11-of-24 shooting from deep...and that’s about all. In 65 minutes of play, Thompson has corralled a total of three rebounds and zero assists.
Down to the Wire
The battle for the backup 2-guard spot, between Ian Clark and rookie Patrick McCaw, appears to be a virtual dead heat with four preseason games left. Their scoring and field-goal percentage are almost identical. McCaw has played 10 more minutes and leads in steals (6-0). Clark, for his part, has been more efficient from three and collected more rebounds (5-1).
Kerr has spoken highly of McCaw the past couple of weeks, and his play has validated that praise, but Clark has been more than capable. Also, he already knows Kerr's system, having played here last season. That may be all the advantage Clark needs, should the Warriors want to be more patient with McCaw’s development.
All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Statistics courtesy of NBA.com. Follow Erik Malinowski on Twitter at @erikmal.