Now that the Golden State Warriors thrilling playoff run has come to an end at the hands of killers of all things fun, the San Antonio Spurs, I thought I’d take a little time to look at what went wrong against the Spurs, what went right this season, and the challenges the Dubs face in their efforts to become a legit championship contender.
What Was the Team’s Downfall?
1) They played the Spurs. I predicted the Spurs would win this series in 5, and while the Dubs stretched it further than I thought they would, and did have a real shot to win the series, they ultimately lost for most of the reasons I thought they would. The most obvious one was the Spurs’ advantages in experience and coaching. I wrote in my recap of the Dubs’ first round upset of Denver that “The clownball Golden State engaged in when they almost gave away Game 6 in the fourth quarter will not fly against the Spurs,” and I was right. They blew a 16-point lead in the final four minutes of Game 1, and in Game 6 at home, they repeatedly committed rally-killing turnovers. Credit to the Spurs; they executed their offense and, after the first two games, came up with a strategy to bottle up Curry and Klay Thompson. They proved to be the sturdier, more battle-tested team (naturally, given their edge in experience) with a superior coach who was better at making adjustments (more on Mark Jackson later).
2) Injuries. Part of the reason the Dubs overcame Denver in the first round was because they were less effected by injuries. That was not the case against San Antonio. Tony Parker was hobbled in the second half of the Series, true, but the Warriors had Curry limping around on a bad ankle, David Lee limited to less than ten minutes a night because of his torn hip flexor, and Andrew Bogut becoming steadily less effective as his own surgically-repaired ankle wore down. Even Harrison Barnes missed the fourth quarter of Game 6 after taking a brutal fall on a drive to the hoop. At some point, the injuries were just too much to overcome.
But There’s a Bright Side, Right?
Absolutely. Now that the team’s exciting playoff run is over, we can look at this team and say that Warriors fans have more reason to be optimistic than at any time in the past 20 years. The 2007 “We Believe” team also went on an exciting playoff run, but it was a team full of combustible personalities that predictably imploded in the following years. Before that, you’d have to go all the way back to 1994, when Rookie of the Year Chris Webber, Chris Mullin, Tim Hardaway, and Latrell Sprewell formed the core of a 50-win team. Unfortunately, Webber and Coach Don Nelson clashed so bitterly that both left after the season, and the Warriors spent most of the the next two decades wandering in the wilderness. There’s no reason to think something like that will happen this time, because, in addition to the talent on hand, the current team has great chemistry and a smart management group. Here’s a quick overview of all the things that went right this season:
1) Steph Curry became a superstar. Every media outlet on the planet has covered this already, but after the All Star Game (for which he was inexplicably snubbed), Curry began to play like a true star, and in the playoffs he became a superstar who captured the imagination of not only the Bay Area, but basketball fans across the nation. He’s the best shooter in the game today, and already, after just his fourth season, has an argument for being the greatest shooter of all time. And he can still improve.
2) Klay Thompson proved he’s a solid starting shooting guard who can work with Curry. I haven’t always been a huge fan of Klay, but he showed in the playoffs that aside from being a dead-eye shooter, he’s a stout defender who can check an opponent’s best perimeter player. The Splash Brothers are the best shooting backcourt in the league, and they have the potential to be the best backcourt, period.
3) Harrison Barnes showed he’s a building block for the future. Barnes made the all-rookie first team, posting respectable numbers for a 20-year old, and displaying crazy athleticism, especially when he threw down arguably the best dunk in the NBA this year. Then, in the playoffs, he stepped up when David Lee went down, playing more than 40 minutes, scoring more than 16 points, and grabbing more than 6 rebounds a night. He also showed he’s not afraid of the big moment, taking 26 shots in the Game 4 OT victory over the Spurs. He has the potential to be an excellent defender, he showed he can play as a small-ball 4 in the right matchup, and there’s every reason to hope he can be a starter on a championship contender. Again, he is 20 years old: The sky’s the limit. Given that he had a mildly disappointing college career, none of these developments was a given, so it’s definitely something for Dubs fans to celebrate.
4) Andrew Bogut showed he can be the inside presence the team needs. Bogut played sparingly during the regular season, and was mostly ineffective when he did. But in the playoffs he was a physical beast, cleaning the glass, blocking shots, and generally wreaking defensive havoc in the paint. He’s exactly the player the Warriors need in the middle to balance all of their perimeter scorers, and there’s reason to hope that, after a full offseason of rest and rehab, he’ll be able to come back and provide this sort of play for the whole season next year.
5) Mark Jackson showed he’s a legitimate NBA coach. I don’t think anyone would argue with this. Is he a championship-caliber coach? More on this in a moment.
Questions for the Future
1) Is this the core of a Championship Contender?
This is the big question, which comprises a bunch of smaller questions, such as:
2) Can Bogut and Curry stay healthy?
This is by far the most important question. They both have chronic ankle issues that the team will have to manage in coming seasons.
3) How much will the young players continue to improve?
Not just Curry, Klay, and Barnes, but also Draymond Green, a blue collar grinder of a player who proved he could defend multiple positions, inside and out, who could even hit an open shot in the playoffs, and Festus Ezeli, who the team will need to play 15 minutes a night in coming years to help spare Bogut. But it’s the development Curry, Klay, and Barnes who will determine if this team is a championship contender moving forward.
4) Whither David Lee?
Did this playoff run show Lee is expendable, even detrimental to the team’s success? He’s a strong offensive player, but as Grantland’s Zach Lowe (who is the best basketball writer in the universe, by the way) pointed out, the team’s offense actually improved without Lee because it put the ball in Steph’s hands more. Furthermore, the Dubs played really well as a small ball team, with Barnes and Green playing the 4 (in particular, Green showed the strength to defend the post, though I can’t imagine he would have been happy guarding Zach Randolph if the Dubs had gotten past the Spurs). And Lee is an atrocious defensive player. Don’t get me wrong: Lee is a good player, but he’s not as good as his numbers make him seem, and he gets paid a TON of money. That last point makes this moot: no one is going to take his contract (due $45 million over the next 3 years), so the Dubs will have to figure out the best way to use him.
5) Will Jarrett Jack and Carl Landry come back?
Jack is a free agent and Landry has a player option for next year that he’ll likely decline in search of a better contract. Both are likely to get nice raises next year, and given the team’s salary cap condition (which they screwed up last year by stupidly wasting their amnesty on someone other than the useless corpse of Andris Biedrins) they probably can’t bring both back. So the question becomes, what do they value more: The ball-handling, scoring, leadership, and (over)confidence of Jack (with whom the fans at the Roaracle have an extreme love/hate relationship) or the toughness and inside scoring of Landry? Given the success the team had with going small in the playoffs, and the high number of minutes D-Lee plays, plus the fact that playing Jack at the 1 and moving Curry off-ball gives them a look they like to use, my guess is that the team will prioritize bringing Jack back. But it also depends on what kind of offers those guys get from other teams this offseason. It’s also worth noting that the Dubs will get backcourt help next year with the return of Brandon Rush, a solid perimeter defender and 3-point shooter, from the knee injury he suffered at the beginning of this season. There’s also the next question:
6) Can they move expiring contracts to get another contributing player?
Andris Biedrins and Richard Jefferson, who were both non-contributors this year, are going into the final years of their contracts. The team’s salary cap figure would look a lot better without the combined $20 million those guys are taking up, but what are those expiring contracts worth on the trade market? Can they move either of those guys for more help, either in the offseason or the trade deadline? Can they move some of that money in exchange for a solid bench big to replace Landry? Or will they hold on to those numbers and make a splash in free agency after next year? It’s a huge, huge question.
7) Is Mark Jackson a championship-caliber coach?
He’s respected around the league. The team clearly loves him and plays hard for him. I’m not personally a fan of the whole reverend schtick, but if it works, whatever. He’s helped given the team league-wide credibility, and he out-witted George Karl in the first round of the playoffs. But it bothers me when I see him spending a timeout before a final possession of a playoff game giving the team a sermon rather than drawing up a play, and then on the ensuing series the “play” ends up being Jarrett Jack doing an iso and chucking a 22-foot fall away. Between that and some of the weird lineups he threw out during the playoffs, not to mention running Steph into the ground (He played 58 minutes in Game 1 against the Spurs. I need to repeat this: He played 58 minutes in Game 1 against the Spurs! He never came out of the game! He has fucking papier-mache ankles!), I think Jackson, while he’s shown strengths as an NBA coach, has also shown that he has to continue to improve as much as his young team does.
8) Where does the team fit in the Western Conference landscape?
One would assume that Oklahoma City, with Russell Westbrook back healthy, will continue to be a Western Conference power. Memphis will be right there as well, as they’ll be bringing back a team that is going to make the NBA Finals (I’d bet anything they beat the Spurs in the Conference Finals), and may even have a chance to improve. The Spurs will keep being good because clearly they’ve made some kind of deal with the devil, but if this same Spurs team played this same Warriors team in the playoffs again next year, I would absolutely pick the Dubs, now with playoff experience, to win. Denver is an intriguing team that is still trying to figure out if they can be a true contender without a superstar–but they Dubs have already proven they can beat them. The Clippers are full of question marks–Will CP3 leave? Will they get a real coach? Will Blake Griffin ever be more steak than sizzle?–and I honestly think that right now the Dubs are better than them anyway. The Lakers have even more questions, with Dwight Howard no guarantee to return and Kobe likely to miss most of next season with his Achilles injury. The Rockets are also a team on the rise, and I have a feeling they’re going to end up with Dwight Howard (via free agency) or Pau Gasol (via trade). Can the Mavs make a free agent splash and bounce back? Can Minnesota get Rubio and Love on the court together?
Basically, if the Warriors keep Curry and Bogut on the court, get continued improvements from their young players, and can add a bit more depth upfront via trade, I can see them winning 50 to 55 games next year, being somewhere in the 4-5 seed range for the playoffs, and being a team that can challenge for the Conference Finals–especially since they have the best homecourt advantage in the NBA. Bear in mind that they’re probably 2-3 years away from their peak as a collective team–a peak they should be hitting right around the time the Miami Heat begin to show their age. If things go right, the Dubs have the core of a team that we could absolutely see battling Oklahoma City in the Conference Finals on a semi-regular basis and–HOLY SHIT I can’t believe I’m saying this–I think they really have a shot to win an NBA championship sometime in the next five years.