The Warriors and Thunder: How the West Might Be Won

After Thursday night’s thriller at Oracle Arena, a mid-November game that could have been played in late May, in which Golden State and Oklahoma City battled down to the final seconds, fans got a sense of what the NBA looks like when coaches are committed to the fully modernized NBA game, complete with up-tempo possessions, fluid ball movement, and deadly accurate three-point shooters.  NBA pundits and experts are divided on how deep teams can go in the playoffs while lacking two things: 1) a defensive identity and 2) a legitimate big-man who can post up on the block and create double teams.

It’s a legitimate concern.  Defense usually wins in the playoffs, where the tempo slows down, teams that emphasize defense, rebounding and paint protection usually do very well.  Last year’s Golden State Warriors playoff run had just enough Andrew Bogut-inspired rim protection and rebounding, and hard fought Klay Thompson and Draymond Green defensive sequences to threaten the San Antonio Spurs in six hard-fought games.  The year before, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook led the Oklahoma City Thunder to the NBA Finals before falling to the Miami Heat in five games.  In order to get that far, Durant and Westbrook had just enough gritty stops from Kendrick Perkins, Serge Ibaka and Thabo Sefolosha (still one of the most underrated perimeter defenders in the game) in order to get out of the Western Conference and beat San Antonio.  However, the Warriors and Thunder continue to battle the constant criticism that their team identity is not “defensive-minded.”  And that criticism will continue until one of the two wins the whole thing.

Not Only More Threes, But Better Threes

The curious thing is this: the modern NBA offense does not require an old-school post presence, but does require a shot-creator. To claim that the avalanche of three-pointers attempted in the last five years is the difference misses a key point: the good teams don’t just attempt more threes, they attempt the highest-percentage threes, from the best spots on the floor — the corners — where the line is twenty-one inches closer (22 feet as opposed to 23 feet, 9 inches), and where small forwards and an increasing number of power forwards are camping out, waiting for the pass as the ball rotates more than it ever has before.  Last year’s top two teams in corner threes attempted: Miami 8.8, San Antonio 7.7.  Over the last decade, the number of three-point attempts per game has risen considerably.  In 2003-04, the average NBA team shot 15.9 three-pointers.  Last year, the average team shot 19.9 three-pointers. In a similar time span (2003-04 compared with 2012-13), the amount of corner three-pointers went up from 8.04 per game to 11.02 per game.  So far this season, the number has climbed to 11.32 per game.  To elaborate, 50.5% of threes attempted in 2003-04 were from the corners.  Last year, 55.4% were from the corners.  As advanced stats have shown the value of the three-pointer through stats like points per possession and true-shooting percentage, teams work harder, and succeed, at getting high-quality threes.  There are still legitimate one-on-one threats, players who can create their own shots out of almost any situation (Durant, Carmelo, LeBron and Harden are the best) but more and more, we are seeing the limitations of the old-fashioned post-up.  Overall, the overall shooting percentage on three-pointers last season was 35.9%.  The percentage from the corners was 39.3% from the right corner and 38.6% from the left corner. Golden State may not lead the NBA in three-point attempts this season.  They’re currently 5th with 24.7 attempts, but they’re first in 3-point percentage at 45.5, while Miami is second at 44.1%.  No other team is above 42.5%.

The Golden State Warriors and Oklahoma City Thunder epitomize the future of the NBA because they force opponents to deal with complex offenses in which as many as four offensive threats exist on the court at the same time.  Running the pick-and-roll as smoothly as any team, Golden State uses Steph Curry, Andre Iguodala, and David Lee as initiators.  Both teams are offensive juggernauts. Especially when they sit their best interior defenders (Bogut and Perkins).  Unlike Bogut, David Lee can initiate offense from the elbow and the top of the key, hitting the 18-footer with ease as evidenced in his shot-chart (see bottom chart), and driving and dishing fluidly.  Even with Bogut (who has great court vision and can facilitate) on the floor, Harrison Barnes’ ascendance during the Warriors’ playoff run proved that the Warriors offense is as explosive as any in the game.  With Lee returning from the torn hip flexor that took him out of the rotation after Game 2 of the Denver series, Barnes found himself playing over 30 minutes per game as a rookie.  Though Lee played sparingly in the Spurs series (no more than 12 minutes in a game, as he hobbled bravely around), Harrison Barnes began to connect on the corner 3 with regularity, and found himself finishing with authority at the rim, using his athleticism and wing-span.  The Warriors offense was rolling.  With the addition of the versatile Andre Iguodala, the Warriors now have the size to defend the best wing scorers in the league and a jack-of-all-trades offensive player who can run the team when Curry needs a break.

Unlike Perkins, Ibaka can drop in the baseline and mid-range jumper with ease. Ibaka was actually the best mid-range shooter in the NBA last season (see top chart).  His growth over the last four years has been stunning, and forces reluctant opponents to deal with the Thunder as a three-pronged attack, opening up driving lanes for Durant and Westbrook.  Below is Ibaka’s shot-chart from 2012-13. In particular, Ibaka’s 65.9% and 58.8% figures from the right baseline are noteworthy.  In addition, 46.9% from the top of the key is remarkable for a player who was initially considered a shot-blocking big man.

Serge Ibaka's shot-distribution and performance in 2012-13.

Serge Ibaka’s shot-distribution and performance in 2012-13.

David Lee's shot chart from 2012-13.

                       David Lee’s shot chart from the 2012-13 season.                                                               The top of the key and the right elbow extended are Lee’s sweet spots.

You may have heard about the Thursday night match-up.  The Thunder were coming off a back-to-back against the Clippers, having lost a close match-up the night before despite losing Ibaka in the 2nd quarter due to an ejection.  The Warriors shot 14 of 23 from long-distance.  The ball movement was stunning: 26 assists to only 7 turnovers for Golden State.  The game was well-played and yet the halftime score (62-62) made it seem as though neither team was playing defense.  The tempo, Russell Westbrook’s furious penetration and Klay Thompson’s shooting (5 of his first 6 from behind the arc) made it seem like NBA Live.  Were the teams playing great defense?  Probably not.  Were they playing excellent offense?  Yes.

Can a team without a defense-first identity win the NBA Championship?  We’ll see.  The Spurs, Clippers and Rockets will be fighting for the right to have a say in this debate. San Antonio can still call themselves a defensive minded team, with Duncan anchoring the paint and Kawhi Leonard capable of shutting down anyone he wants at any time on the wing.  The Clippers, like Golden State last season, are learning how to maintain that defensive mind-set at all times.  DeAndre Jordan will be the key to Doc Rivers’ defensive identity, and Chris Paul will continue to play as tenaciously as any point guard, but who will be the perimeter defender?  The Rockets are even less certain than the other four contenders, with Dwight Howard’s arrival helping in the paint, but slowing down the tempo and making Omer Asik redundant. If the Rockets can trade for a serviceable power forward, that would help.  Patrick Beverly is capable of becoming their go-to on-ball defender, but Harden and Parsons have to figure out ways to minimize their weaknesses.

For Golden State, Andre Iguodala may be the most important piece of this puzzle.  Iguodala’s ability to defend virtually anyone on the court under 6’10” will create problems for any potential playoff opponent.  Keeping Curry and Bogut healthy remain paramount, but the length, athleticism and tenacity of both Iguodala and Barnes may keep Golden State alive into June this year. So there it is, going back to defense as the key to a deep run.  But what about the team’s identity?  Well, it’s not so clearly defined. Maybe that’s what makes them epitomize the modern game: it’s not one or the other.  It’s not defense over offense.  It’s defense and offense.  LeBron has led the Heat to the Finals for three straight years, and two straight victories, because he and Dwayne Wed have dedicated themselves, with the help of Battier, Chalmers, Bosh, et al, to defense.  Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are the future of this league.  Players that came out of college with untapped offensive potential, who were already considered high-level defensive players.  Back to the idea of identity.  When things get uncertain, and when shots aren’t dropping, how does your team handle that adversity?  Can you get those two or three key fourth-quarter stops?  On the road?  It’s what we love about good teams.  They are determined.  They are unrelenting.  They dig deep.  But having the best shooting back-court in the game, with Steph and Klay, doesn’t hurt.  Especially because they too, are focused on the other end of the court.

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