The Golden State Warriors had one of the best seasons in NBA history. In doing so they have the rest of the basketball world pondering where the game of basketball is heading.
They are only 1 of 3 teams to finish the season with 83 wins. Steve Kerr became the first rookie head coach to win a championship since Pat Riley, and Steph Curry joined the group of 20 Regular Season MVP’s (out of a possible 55) who went on to win the NBA title.]
A few numbers to put their season in context. The Warriors finished first in Defensive and second in Offensive rating (per basketball-reference.com) as well as leading the NBA in pace (estimated number of possessions per 48 minutes).
They are changing the narrative of what we consider valuable on the basketball floor.
They have ushered in a new era of how we think about the game of basketball and how coaches, players, and fans will approach the game in the coming years.
The game is changing, don’t get left behind.
1. The Ball has Energy
The Warriors led the league in regular season assists per game at 27.4 (per NBA stats). In the first half of game 6 of the NBA Finals every single one of their ten field goals had come off an assist. The Warriors repeatedly would pass up good shots to get great shots, and the fact that their core group of players has been together for the last few years has allowed them to create the chemistry that is hard to defend against. What you get is a beautiful symphony of ball and player movement that puts the defense on their heels and makes them nearly impossible to guard.
The numbers back this idea up. Per SportsVu tracking data there was no one better than the Warriors at not only sharing the ball, but sharing the ball in a way that would lead directly to baskets. No one created more points from assists per 48 min than the Warriors did this season. They scored 58.3 pts/48min directly from an assist; the Spurs were second at 57.8pts/48min. A quick note, there was a huge gap after the Spurs and Warriors: the Wizards sat in third place almost a full 3pts/game lower at 55.9pts/48min off an assist.
The idea that the “Ball has Energy” has come into vogue in the NBA in the past couple of seasons. Greg Popovich in the Spurs have pioneered the revolution of playing team basketball where everybody touches the ball and everybody’s a part of the offense, and the Warriors have carried the torch of basketball selflessness to new heights in the 2015 season.
The idea that the ball has energy simply means that players will play a little bit harder when they touch the ball. They feel a part of the game plan and just touching the ball whether it’s on a pass, setting a screen, or just swinging the ball on the perimeter, will help them get into a rhythm. No one likes to just stand in the corner waiting for something to happen.
Kyle Korver of the Atlanta Hawks was a great example of how this principle has helped teams: he said in an interview that the Hawks have used him in a way that he’s never been used in his career before. He went on to talk about how many teams often just thought of him as a shooter and would just tell him to stand in the corner. This season they have him moving and touching the ball a lot more on offense. He is searching for his shot which helps him get into a great rhythm and also creates great spacing for his teammates because he such a lethal weapon from the outside.
2. “Positionless” Basketball
From the time young players start learning the game, the idea of “positions” is engrained in every kids psyche. The Warriors are destroying that notion, one small-ball lineup at a time. Guards guarding centers and centers guarding wing-players have become commonplace for the Warriors. In the two most critical points of their season the Warriors resorted to unorthodox methods to change the momentum of a series.
Just recently in the NBA Finals Steve Kerr heeded the advice of video coordinator Nick U’Ren who suggested that they replace Bogut in the starting lineup with Andre Iguodala (read more about that here). The Warriors made the change so that their starting lineup didn’t feature anyone taller than 6’7”. This change completely flipped the momentum of the series and allowed them to beat the Cavs in three straight games en route to their first championship win in 40 years.
The second instance happened in the Western Conference Semis the Warriors were down 2-1 to the Memphis Grizzlies and were getting beaten up by the tandom of Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph. Alvin Gentry suggested that they move Andrew Bogut off of Gasol and put him on non-shooter Tony Allen. Bogut essentially ignored Tony Allen on the perimeter which allowed him to sag and give help on Gasol and Randolph inside. This put the smaller Harrison Barnes and Draymond Green cross-matched with the two bigger players of Gasol and Randolph.
But this is where the Warriors are changing the narrative of how teams think about traditional defense. The Warriors are not so concerned with “matchup” problems as they are with taking away your team’s strengths and pouncing on your weaknesses. The Warriors trust Barnes (a small forward) to be able to guard Randolph just well enough to make it hard for him to get an easy post catch and to battle him on the boards. Positions are less important than using personnel in a way that maximizes your team’s strengths (for the warriors this means quickness and flexibility on both offense and defense).
The Warriors have made a living out of mining players from the draft and in free-agency that are multi-dimensional and fit into their style of play. Guys like Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala, Harrison Barnes, and Klay Thompson are becoming the new face of basketball. Players that can defend multiple positions, make plays in transition, and have the flexibility to give their team a cacophony of options on both sides of the floor.
3. “Talent” Redefined
The Warriors are showing everyone how the game of basketball is starting to trend towards smart, flexible, and intelligent players who can read the game and make intelligent basketball decisions on the fly. They have shown us that “super teams” (i.e. LeBron’s Miami Heat) are not the only way to make it to the top of the basketball mountain.
Steph Curry is undoubtedly a superstar, but his supporting cast this year was comprised of A- and B/B+ talent that complimented each other in nuanced ways that allowed the sum of the parts to be greater than the whole.
How is my defender playing me? Is my teammate getting ready to make a cut? If so how should I space out to help them score more easily? These are the kinds of questions of that you can see Warrior players ask themselves as they learn to play their role in the symphony that is the Warriors offense.
In the classical sense of the word, “talent” is becoming less associated with guys like Allen Iverson, and more relatable to players like Draymond Green. Talent no longer strictly means just the ability to go 1 on 1 or score 40 points in a game. In a smarter, more fluid NBA the cream of the crop are guys that can evolve.
The players that more closely resemble a swiss army life compared to a machete are the players that will thrive in todays league. A guy that can go out and get 8pts and 8assists one night while guarding the opposing team’s 2 guard, then turn around the next night and get 14pts and 10rebounds while guarding the opposing team’s center are the talented players in this new NBA.
4. Pace, Space, and Jumpers
The Mike D’antoni teams of the mid 2000’s ushered in the Pace and Space era with their “7 seconds or less” offensive philosophy. Steve Nash was the maestro of those explosive Sun’s teams that steamrolled their way through the regular seasons. The big knock on that style of play was that you couldn’t play that style and still win in the playoffs. The Suns never made to the NBA finals despite having the best regular season records in multiple playoff runs. The critics claimed that up-tempo basketball (and jumpshooting teams) can’t win in the playoffs when the game slows down, the play becomes more physical, and there are less possessions per 48 min (check out our video about the “offensive basketball revolution”.
The Warriors have destroyed both of those notions in this playoff run. During the regular season the Warriors led the league in PACE (simply the number of possessions per 48 min) of play at 100.69 and they took the 4th most three point attempts per game with 27. So the Warriors played the fastest and were in the top 5 of the league in long range shots (an interesting side note, the Cleveland Cavs were second in the NBA in 3-point attempts during the regular season; so the both teams in the NBA Finals both ranked in the top 5 of the league in 3-point attempts).
Kerr’s uptempo offense (which Kerr admits is influenced by D’antoni’s philosophy) gives players the freedom to take shots early in the offense, to take quick threes, and to make plays in space. Building on the idea of “positionless basketball”, you will often see Draymond Green push the fast-break and either go coast-to-coast or penetrate and kick to open shooters. Even the Warriors most “natural” center Andrew Bogut will play 15+ feet away from the basket either looking for cutting teammates or initiating dribble handoffs.
5. A Leadership Revolution
The notion of the how modern NBA players demonstrate leadership qualities is slowly beginning to change when we look at teams like Golden State. The Warriors best player Steph Curry was just voted the NBA’s MVP and the most popular athlete with the millennial generation. Steph is not your typical superstar. He’s soft-spoken, a family man, involved with a ton of charitable work, humble, not physically imposing, and avoids the typical bravado and chest-bumping that have characterized superstars in the the NBA.
Curry leads by example and empowers his teammates to become the best players they can be. Andre Iguodala won this years finals MVP in large part because Curry opened up opportunities for him on the offensive end. The Cavs trapped Curry on nearly every pick and roll which allowed him teammates to play 4 on 3 behind the trap. Iguodala shot 40% from three for the series in large part because he got wide open shots as a result of Curry bending the defense.
Curry is not the only player on the Warriors to embrace this servant model of leadership. I recently wrote about on the humility of Steve Kerr (willing to take the advice of a video coordinator) and the selflessness of Andre Iguodala (he didn’t start a game until Game 4 of the Finals) probably saved the Warriors season. You can even point to guy like Andrew Bogut who was pulled from the starting lineup in Game 4 of the Finals and didn’t see the floor at all the last three games (after starting all year) as a great example of a guy who was bought into the success of the team. Not once did you hear him complain or gripe about Kerr’s decision.