Q&A With Warriors Aficionado David Barnes, March 2014 Edition: Western Conference Playoff Race Heating Up


If you’ve watched the Golden State Warriors this year, or read about the Dubs, you have undoubtedly learned how important Andre Iguodala is to the team’s success. After a 12-game absence early in the year, in which the Warriors went 5-7 while Iguodala dealt with a hamstring injury, the team heated up and the #fullsquad trend happened. After a brief lull, the Warriors are back to playing closer to their peak level on most nights. A few unexpected losses briefly gave rise to what now seems like somewhat overblown criticism due to the nature of the no-mistakes-allowed Western Conference playoff race and the success of last year’s run. As is so often the case in sports, how we perceive a team to be doing is as much about expectations as it is about the results.

Let’s start with the results.

Golden State vs. The Best in the West

As of Thursday, March 6th, the Warriors are 38-24, having won 7 of their last 9. The Dubs have a 23-4 mark against below .500 teams and a record of 15-20 against above .500 opponents. However, their record against the top teams in the West, who will be their playoff competition, is more important. Against the top 5 teams in the West, they have a record of 5-8:

vs. OKC (1-2)

vs. SA (0-2)

vs. LAC (2-1)

vs. HOU (1-2)

vs. POR (1-1).

*If you remove the 12 games without Iguodala, they are 5-4 vs. the West’s Best:

vs. OKC (1-1)

vs. SA (0-2)

vs. LAC (2-1)

vs. HOU (1-0)

vs. POR (1-0)

With Iguodala, they lost to the Spurs by two points on two separate occasions.

If you need more convincing that the Warriors tend to rise to the occasion, they have won 4 of their last 5 against these five teams. Further persuading? On Tuesday they became only the 4th team this year to beat the Pacers in Indianapolis. No small feat.

Point Differential

Another way of measuring a team’s play is overall point-differential. This metric is an offshoot of the one used among Sabermetrically-inclined baseball folks, termed “Pythagorean Record or Bill James’ Pythagorean Theory of Baseball.”

Theoretically, when a team consistently blows out its opponents, it must  be a dominant team. In general, the highest point-differential teams tend to have excellent overall depth. Consider the team that goes up by 18, then removes its starters and wins by 13. In contrast, a team with weaker reserves might win by 7, giving up more points in garbage time. That depth helps considerably over the course of the 82-game season when players are injured, and teams are playing busy stretches of 4 games in 5 nights. It matters less when the playoffs arrive and the rotations are trimmed down from ten to eight players. Also consider that the Warriors are substantially deeper now than they have been throughout the season, thanks to trades and health (more on that below).

This year, the Western Conference point-differential leaders are the Thunder, the Clippers and the Spurs. All have a PD of +6.2 or higher. The Warriors, Blazers and Rockets currently sit between +4.7 and +5.2.

However, using with-Iggy/without-Iggy numbers you get another story. With Iguodala, the GSW point differential increases from +4.7 to +6.0.

Iguodala and Bogut: Defensively Dominant

You probably know that Iguodala and Bogut are dominant defensive players. If you want proof, one metric that sheds some light is RAPM (courtesy of @talkingpractice via the site www.gotbuckets.com). Regularized Adjusted Plus-Minus. Simply put, when taken alone, plus/minus is a highly flawed stat. Adjusted plus/minus helps. Regularized Adjusted plus/minus helps even more. This season, Iguodala’s 3.9 defensive split is second in the NBA only to the ancient Kevin Garnett, Bogut is third, ahead of Marc Gasol. For more RAPM leaders, click here: http://www.gotbuckets.com/statistics/rapm/2014-rapm/. To read more about Iguodala’s defensive brilliance, read this MUST-READ (I use caps sparingly) piece by Matt Moore, of CBS’ eye-on-basketball blog, from January 2013. One of the takeaways, which will be familiar to those who’ve focused on Iggy’s perimeter defense, is how well he funnels the opposing player toward the defense. When the opponent who dares to penetrate against Iguodala is then met with the stellar rim protection of Andrew Bogut, Golden State dominates the defensive side of the ball.

Due to those unexpected home losses earlier in the season (Washington and Charlotte especially), the Warriors are highly unlikely to finish above the 6th seed. Currently, GS sits at 6th, but they are only 1 game ahead of 7th-place Phoenix in the loss column, and two fewer losses than Dallas and Memphis in the West.

***

Now for the Q&A: a back-and-forth on the state of all things Golden with Warriors Aficionado David Barnes

JH: Which of the top five teams in the West do you think GSW matches up best with?

DB: Right now it’s probably Portland. Not sure I buy the Blazers and while their bench is far improved from last year, given the improvement of the GSW’s own bench they should probably be able to get at least one win in Portland and hold home court. If I had to pick a second team it would be the Clippers just because of the dynamic of the matchup. They really do get up for The Clip Show and they are a different team (Dubs) when they get up for another team. More on that later when we get to Mark Jackson…

JH: Agree that they are a different team when they “get up” for the opponent. Impossible to “get up” for 82 games. Each of the top 6 in the West have dealt with injuries to important players this year. Portland and Houston have been healthiest, though Houston lost two of their better defenders (Beverley and Asik) for portions. Portland withstood the brief absence of Aldridge well, though they faced weak competition. It’s really hard to tell which of those West teams will withstand the rigors of playoff basketball best. My guess would be OKC, the Clippers and Golden State, if all defenses are functioning at their peak. Patrick Beverley and Terrence Jones are huge wild cards for Houston. Beverley has been impressive lately, adding a somewhat reliable three-pointer to his already relentless defense. His play against Miami was sensational. Very few defenders refuse to back down against LeBron. Watching him pester LeBron on several occasions was delightful. Wesley Mathews and Nic Batum are keys to Portland’s hopes. Portland’s defensive intensity will have to rise collectively, especially from their reserves, to win in the playoffs. 

***

What has happened to Harrison Barnes? Are opponents more prepared to force him toward the basket? Was his wild success during last year’s playoff run a mirage?

DB: What’s happened to Harrison Barnes is the coach (See? I told you I’d get back to MJax). Last year’s success wasn’t a mirage but the blessings of a remarkably advantageous match-up. Even this year in the short minutes he’s gotten at the 4 he’s played well. Give him a big guy and the wondrous athleticism that the man possesses emerges. He attacks the basket against bigger, slower fours, gets the 10-12 footer that he can consistently hit and he also runs the floor. The thing that holds him back is the thing that makes him a very engaging young man. He’s thoughtful, defers to his teammates and totally disappears in that mindset. Put him at the four and he’s a different guy. Unfortunately he very rarely ever gets significant burn at the four.

JH: The point about Barnes’ mindset is an insightful one. Not every player is a 6th man, offensive weapon. Barnes does not have the mindset of those scorers, and putting him in isolation seems to make him press. Jackson was in a tough position regarding the rotation, but clearly Toney Douglas wasn’t helping alleviate any of the pressure. The only way to force that mismatch, with HB at the four is to put him in the starting lineup, and David Lee’s presence (and contract) made that tricky.

***

JH: Steve Blake or Jermaine O’Neal? Who are you loving more right now and who has a better chance to make a difference come April?

DB: Both and yes, they will both make a difference in April. If pushed it would be JON because of his leadership credentials and experience but Blake is such a good fit for this team, albeit with the same sort of quiet demeanor that is already the standard for the locker room.

JH: Why does GS struggle so severely when anyone other than Curry is involved in a possession lately? How much do you attribute to lack of penetration? Lack of transition opportunities?

DB: The beautiful flow that this team is capable of and that brought them so much attention by the national press last spring isn’t the standard type of play for the team this year and I’m going to say that again, a lot of that is coaching. MJax believes in matchup offense, despite the fact that the analytics show it hasn’t worked. They go to isolations that result in blocked shots (DLee) and stagnant possessions that manifest themselves in turnovers for Curry, who ends up looking like a careless ball-handler when he’s anything but. You have more than enough perfectly-capable-to-exceptional passers to ensure that at least three guys should touch the ball every time down the court and given the outside shooting, smart cutters, good finishers, this should create all the penetration you want. Now that Crawford is at the two and Blake at the one, they can handle the moments without Curry better than any other time this season.

***

JH: It seemed like nothing came easy for a stretch before the All-Star break. I thought Klay was getting worn down. Lee’s injury obviously weakened the offense as well. Seems like they need a few new wrinkles and of course could use a more explosive version of Iguodala who can penetrate more easily.

How much of the criticism for the offensive predictability does Mark Jackson deserve?

DB: A great deal of it. From the hockey substitutions to his insistence on playing guys who aren’t carrying their weight and I put both Klay Thompson and David Lee in that category. If Lee is not going to hit the 15-footer, why have him in the game at critical points? His stubbornness results in blocked shots, stale offense and turnovers. Why not play Draymond Green who will rebound, play defense and raise the quality of play unlike Mr. Lee. And if Klay’s worn down (he’s still a very young player who’s got a lot of wear in his tires already) play Blake and Curry together (ala Jarrett Jack) and play Blake at the one and Curry at the two. Jackson says he doesn’t do that for fear of defensive mismatches but hey, their defense has not been great so whatever.

JH: What are favorite developments of the last month? Least favorite?

DB: I like the second unit! Blake and Crawford, Barnes, O’Neal and Green are a tough bunch and capable of holding their own. They are flexible enough to crossmatch and have Green on second-tier fours on defense and let Barnes attack those same fours when they are on offense. Love Blake who’s a consummate pro. Really understand why Kobe was so upset when they dealt him and really want him back next year and no more experiments like the Toney Douglas affair.

Least favorite is the refusal to learn from the many bad losses. This is a team that can play with anyone which makes the losses to Charlotte and others of their ilk galling. If they come out unprepared or unmotivated or just not ready to play, that’s on the coach. Jackson’s calling card is his great relationship with his players but that’s to the detriment of the team when he’s playing guys that aren’t ready to play. Rebounding in the NBA is about will and if they are lacking the will than the coach needs to be accountable.

Other Concerns:

DB: How did the whole Jermaine O’Neal not having a passport thing happen? Isn’t that a fire-able offense for someone? That speaks to a franchise that does not have its act together and when you’re a six seed fighting for the playoffs those sort of mistakes are going to come back to haunt you. I do enjoy watching Iguodala play defense but who knows how many games that hamstring of his cost them. Unavoidable as it might have been, the lingering impact of that still haunts them.

Final Thoughts:

DB: The franchise transition over two years is staggering and how does any group of fairly young men handle something like that. From lottery to a team that nobody takes lightly no matter where the game is. And as infuriating as the coaching is at times, there is a toughness to this group that makes one believe anything is possible and by that I mean anything.

JH: The win at Indiana was most definitely a statement win. Crucial contributions from Jordan Crawford early and Draymond Green throughout. DG finally hit some threes, after going 2 for his last 24! They almost gave away Thompson’s awesome 4th quarter, and Curry’s ball-handling open court turnovers and stepping out of bounds were brutal. What was awesome was how Klay saved Steph. When they lost the 12-point 4th quarter lead it seemed like this might become a season-defining loss. Instead, they came out on top. Funny that it was an isolation post-up that was the game-winner. Klay’s post-up confidence has to rise with that one. Great win.

Side note: The Pacers are getting away with the same kind of defensive harassment those KG and Perkins Celtics teams got away with. Reputation is helpful, especially at home.

***

David Barnes is a tried and true Warriors aficionado. Jonah Hall always enjoys the back-and-forth. 

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