The NBA Finals start Thursday, and there’s only one place to begin our conversation about them. After a playoffs that has largely lacked drama, we’ve come to a compelling storyline. The Golden State Warriors vs. the Cleveland Cavaliers. Steph V. LBJ. All credit to Lebron, as he’s dragged yet another mediocre team (almost his worst ever) to the finals, albeit in a pretty terrible conference. Nevertheless, there’s a reason that Vegas favors the Splash Brothers and Company. Last year San Antonio proved that you could beat Lebron with a highly polished, highly efficient offense and stellar defense. Luckily (or unluckily, depending on your affiliation for this series), Golden State has all the tools necessary to take their place in the annals of NBA history.
Let’s start with the flashy stuff. The Warriors were the second-best offense in the league according to Basketball Reference, posting an offensive rating of 111.6. Golden State’s offense begins and ends with Stephen Curry and his game-changing talent. We’ve all seen the ridiculous threes he’s made.
Quick Aside: While it might be too early in his career to make this claim, Curry may already be the greatest three-point shooter of all time. Based on the sheer amount of threes he takes per game, his bulls-eye accuracy and the absurd degree of difficulty of many of his shots, he is well on his way to staking his claim as the GOAT.
Because he can pour in points from all over the floor with his sweet stroke, defenses have to morph toward him, opening all types of cracks for Warriors to attack. For example, when he operates as the pick and roll (PnR) ball-handler, his defender has to go over the screen and the screener’s defender has to hedge hard or he’ll simply stop and take the open off-the-dribble 3, which he shoots at 42.5% via NBA.com (which I still can’t believe isn’t an egregious clerical error).
In the video, Steve Blake does his best to go over the Draymond Green screen, even trying to hold Curry to keep him from escaping. Alas, Lamarcus Aldridge is a split second late in his hedge and the ball is out of Curry’s hands. Guarding Curry out of the Pick and Roll requires precision from both defenders involved. However, in the moment both defenders are focused on running Curry off the three-point line, the defense has left a 4 on 3 for the rest of the Warriors on the court. Often Curry takes advantage of this situation using one of the more underrated parts of Curry’s game: his vision and ability to use a wide array of passes to get the ball to the open guy.
Additionally, some offensive creativity introduced by head coach Steve Kerr has made for a vast improvement from last year. By accelerating Golden State’s pace allowing Curry and Klay Thompson greater license to create in transition, Kerr has unleashed a rapid and relentless attack reminiscent of the 7-seconds-or-less Phoenix Suns teams under Mike D’Antoni and current Golden State assistant, Alvin Gentry.
One of the actions Kerr has implemented is the use of the “Phoenix Drag Screen” in transition, and as the videos show, the Splash Brothers have thrived using the ball screen in transition. Plus, by using Green as the screener, if the defense hedges hard on Curry or Thompson they can simply flip the ball to Green so he can make a play in a 4 on 3 situation, something he has proved skillful at doing. Green’s offensive versatility from the power-forward position is another important factor in Golden State’s offensive game.
In terms of non-transition offense, Kerr has come up with creative ways to get either Curry or Thompson open, or use the threat of their shooting ability to get others open.
In this out-of-bounds-under set, Thompson cuts around the stagger screen and heads toward the basket, with Curry following. Tayshaun Prince falls asleep expecting Thompson to lazily cut to the opposite corner (Curry gets away with a little hold) and before the Grizzlies can react, Thompson has cut back around the screens for a wide open three. Kerr’s creative play design manufactures points for the Warriors in situations where they can’t push the pace. For instance, the league caught on to the Warriors’s “Elevator Doors” play, where either Curry or Thompson nonchalantly cuts through the lane only to burst through a double screen (coined elevator doors because the two screeners come together after the offensive player slips through, closing the door) near the top of the key.
So, Kerr drew up a counter that worked to perfection in the Warriors second round playoff matchup against the Grizzlies.
Instead of sprinting through the elevator door double screen set by Green and Harrison Barnes, Thompson screened Green’s man, Zach Randolph, and set him up for a wide-open dunk. Courtney Lee was so worried about staying attached to Thompson’s body that didn’t give any help as Randolph got picked. The threat of Thompson’s shooting stroke sucked all of the attention of Grizzlies defense, leaving Green alone under the basket. By using creative sets after dead-balls while at the same time encouraging the free-flowing transition attack after both makes and misses, Kerr, Gentry and the Warriors coaching staff have constructed an offensive strategy that maximizes the immense talent at their disposal.
Yet, in sum, while we can talk about Kerr’s creativity and leadership, Thompson’s shooting ability, Green’s versatility, or even Andrew Bogut‘s passing ability from the high post and Harrison Barnes’s overall development, Curry remains the crux of Golden State’s offense. During the regular season, the team’s offensive rating with him on the floor was 116.6, with him off: 102.3. This difference means that the Warriors went from being by far the best offense in the NBA with Curry on the court, to a bottom five outfit with him off (via BBall Ref). Curry is an offensive genius and makes this Warriors team run. I will share a very telling final thought on Curry from SBNation writer Tom Ziller: “The only flaw in Curry’s offensive game is his sometimes high rate of turnovers; even those carry a majestic air of attempted brilliance. Every miscue is committed in the pursuit of sublimity, and as such every miscue is excused. To critique Curry’s rare offensive failures would be akin to scolding Michelangelo for dripping a little paint on the floor of the Sistine Chapel.”
Despite all the focus on the offense, the Warriors were even better defensively this year. They posted the best defensive rating in the league at 101.4 (via BBall Ref). The blueprint for the defensive success came be summed by three factors. The Warriors’s athleticism and length at the wing, allowing them to switch across multiple positions, Green’s tenacity and versatility, and Bogut’s elite rim protection.
First notice the the seamless switching by Golden State’s frontcourt players. Barnes’s man, Landry Fields, sets a cross screen for Raptors center Jonas Valanciunas. As that happens, all three of Barnes, Marreese Speights (intially guarding Valanciunas) and Green are communicating. Green sees the action happening and drops down off his man to take Valanciunas. Barnes hedges the screen, leaving no room for the Raptors to thread a pass to Valanciunas before Green gets there, and then retreats back to his man. Speights then rotates up to take Amir Johnson, Green’s man. It’s a work of art. Then, once matched up with the 6’11” Valanciunas, the 6’7″ Draymond Green battles in the post and forces a difficult shot.
In this video, the Warriors again execute the big-to-big switch as Green and Speights switch men. Then, Green and Curry switch the pick and roll. Green goes on to slide up Kyle Lowry, one the better point guards in the league, and then invite him to the block party. All year, Green has been asked to guard 1 through 5 and has excelled doing so. His versatility is a important factor in Golden State’s defensive dominance.
Another example of the Warriors’s executing the switching-style defense is against the Grizzlies in their second round playoff series.
Watch as Green and Barnes switch the 3-5 pick and roll by Jeff Green and Marc Gasol. Then, as Gasol rolls to the basket, Barnes hands him off to Bogut, who eventually forces Gasol into a difficult running hook.
That the Warriors could master the communication and attention to detail necessary to effectively apply this scheme is a testament to the collective basketball IQ of the players and the coaching staff. Additionally, five members of the team’s rotation stand between 6’6″ and 6’8.” Thompson, Barnes, Green, Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston all play significant minutes and are all essentially the same height (Justin Holiday and James Michael McAdoo also fit the build but won’t be playing significant minutes in the finals). One can see why Kerr decided to implement this aggressive switching scheme. By doing so (and thus mitigating the effectiveness of screens) the Warriors were able to muck up opposing offenses, a major factor contributing to the league’s best defense.
On the back end, Golden State had the one of the league’s best rim protectors to clean up any mistakes. During the regular season Bogut allowed just 41.4% shooting at the rim, one of the best marks in the league. Further, according to NylonCalulus, his rim protection saved 2.08 points per game, second only to Utah’s Rudy Gobert. In the playoffs, Bogut has continued his elite defense, allowing a stifling 36.1% at the rim. Another part of the Warriors’s defensive scheme is to occasionally funnel opponents into Bogut, rather than let them get to the middle of the floor, because they known opponents will have a difficult time finishing over him. Effectively utilizing Bogut’s defensive prowess at the rim is the final piece to the team’s elite defense.
Thus, with the pieces already in place, Kerr and his staff were able to tweak a defense that was already very good and make it elite, similar to what they were able to do with the offense. Golden State was in the perfect position to make a big leap this year with a roster of improving players and a coach ready to take them to the next level. The Cavaliers better be ready for a blitzkrieg from the Warriors on both sides of the ball, and they will be.We’ll have more on Cleveland later, and you can never underestimate the King. But, ultimately, I don’t think they will be able to hold their lines. Even if Kyrie were at full strength, the Warriors were the best team in the league by a good margin this year. I don’t see that changing any time soon.