Back to the future: Curry, Kerr will need to re-invent the Warriors - they've done it before
New faces and different challenges are going to require some significant adjustments to how Golden State plays.
The Warriors dynastic run did not succumb to gentle erosion.
Instead, it was a violent tidal wave of bad fortune that put an end to Golden State’s chase for a Threepeat. The subsequent thorough washing via last year’s season-long soaking at the bottom of the NBA standings - and then another season-ending injury to Klay Thompson - has the franchise teetering on the brink of irrelevance.
But this team isn’t done.
It would be beyond foolish to count out any team led by Stephen Curry - the best shooter in the history of basketball. Curry is in his prime, and the Warriors front office have done what they could to shore up the breach in the roster precipitated by the untimely departure of Kevin Durant and all of the resultant cascade of roster moves, retirements, and injuries that followed.
Entering the 2020-2021 season, the roster is a patched-together beast that will definitely be better than last season’s woeful 15-win campaign. But in the NBA, being mediocre can sometimes be worse than being bad - and that’s why coach Steve Kerr, and the rest of the returning champs, are going to have to modify their approach.
When Kerr came into the job, he immediately transformed the team’s offense. This is all well documented, but it’s worth a quick rehash from right after Kerr’s first season:
Last season the Warriors played the 6th quickest tempo in the NBA, averaging 98.5 possessions per game. Under Kerr the Warriors have become the fastest pace in the league at 101.3 possessions per game. This directly correlates to Curry & Friends moving from 11th in the NBA in fast break points per game to 1st. With help from offensive coordinator Alvin Gentry (also, shoutout to Luke Walton), Kerr has built an offense which employs pace to wear down opponents
Kerr inherited a team which finished around the 50-win mark before losing to the Los Angeles Clippers in the first round of the playoffs. Kerr came on, revolutionized the offense, and made the team (which returned its top seven rotation players) into a perennial playoff team, which eventually ended in five trips to the finals over the past six years.
Mid-stream, the coach and Curry (along with everyone else) made a major adjustment to welcome the uber talented Kevin Durant into the mix. Klay Thompson, who famously quipped “I ain’t sacrificing shit” was here for all of it, and it was Thompson’s flexibility and willingness to do so much work without the ball that helped it all go so smoothly.
Instead of Durant and Thompson, now this team will be working with Andrew Wiggins and Kelly Oubre. It’s a far cry from the all-world talents that stacked this roster into comical territory just a couple of years ago.
The question at the core of this season, the same at the crux of the team’s future chance at more championships is a simple one: can Kerr, Curry, and Draymond Green carry this team into the upper echelon again?
Kerr was asked a similar question early last season by Tim Kawakami of The Athletic, and was adamant that the current pass-heavy system isn’t going away - even without a bunch of All Stars next to Curry:
"We're not reinventing the wheel. We're still gonna be the Warriors. We're not gonna all of a sudden turn into the Rockets -- change our offense -- and have one guy go high pick-and-roll 70 times a game."
So… what will they do with this roster?
My guess is something in between the old and the new, something that will lean on that first year with Curry as the undisputed focal point.
A cuttier, faster team, but with the same principles
As staunchly as Kerr defends the overall strategic approach of his team (pass a lot, no limited isolation plays, keep everyone involved), he has demonstrated an admirable flexibility - though it may only show more sporadically than some would prefer, it is there.
Whether it be making a lineup change in a critical Finals to insert Andre Iguodala into the lineup, or using more pick and rolls with Kevin Durant, Kerr’s shown some flexibility. And this year, he’ll need to show even more.
Remember when Curry did this?
According to Kerr, this exact play changed his perception of what Curry could do.
"That was probably the last time I ever put my hands on my head when Steph took one of those shots," Kerr recalled. "That was probably [a few] months into my first season coaching, and it just took that long to realize, 'OK, these are actually good shots.' Because they were never good shots for anybody else who had ever played the game."
Now it’s time again for Kerr to redefine what makes him put his hands on his head in exasperation. He needs to let Curry shine in a way that he hasn’t done in the past few years. Now, there’s no one to share the spotlight with, this is fully Curry’s team, with a supporting cast.
Curry’s usage percentage (the estimate of plays used while on-court) has hovered around 30% throughout Kerr’s tenure. In limited action last season, it jumped to the highest of his career: 33.6%; higher even than his 2015-2016 assault on the league. Though the box score numbers weren’t up there with Curry’s normal standards (it’s just a five game sample after all), it is indicative of the acknowledgment that in order to succeed, this team will need more Curry.
As Anthony Slater wrote in his fantastic treatise for The Athletic, Oubre is a lethal transition weapon, converting 27% of his total points from transition attacks. It’s not just volume scoring either, Slater goes on to point out that Oubre’s 1.23 points per fast-break usage are the second-best among the top scorers in this regard.
If Slater sees it, you can bet the Warriors front office sees it too.
Looking at the rest of the new hires, it’s easy to see the writing on the wall. Golden State just drafted James Wiseman, a 7-foot-1, 235-pound athletic center with the footspeed of a wing player. Unproven, and just 19 years old, we can safely expect Wiseman to struggle in the half court sets; but out on the open court, he will almost certainly have the speed advantage every single night.
In place of Thompson and Durant, the Warriors have Andrew Wiggins, and our old pal, Kent Bazemore running the wings alongside Oubre. While a clear drop off in overall positive basketball impact, this is a long, athletic team that offers options that weren’t available to Kerr in the past.
Back to Slater, the Warriors have adjusted their pace in the past - these aren’t necessarily stable numbers - and will need to do so again in the upcoming season.
The skeleton Warriors were a slog last season. Only 14 percent of their possessions were in transition. That was the eighth-lowest. They were slow. A season before, the last season of the Kevin Durant era, 18 percent of their possessions were in transition, the sixth-highest.
But that’s still probably not quick enough — at least not for the Curry, Oubre, Wiggins, Green, Wiseman lineup.
As Slater points out later, this is not a roster that seems to be especially well suited for a high efficiency half court offense. While they’ve got plenty of decent shooters, you simply cannot replace the impact of players in the caliber of Thompson or Durant.
But that doesn’t mean it can’t work. Just turn up the speed and watch the chaos happen.
Run for it, Marty!
The Warriors will report to training camp in about a week, meaningful basketball games will be played less than a month from now - so the Warriors don’t have a ton of time to slowly work through this.
Between Curry and Green, this team has ample ball handling ability in their starting lineup, and with the wings manned by the speedy legs of Wiggins, Oubre, and Bazemore, this is a team built to go fast.
And just as Thompson has demonstrated over the years, it’s an approach that doesn’t require everyone to rack up a ton of assists. Curry will cause the chaos, all the rest of the squad needs to do is figure out a way to thrive in it.
Unlocked at maximum speed, this should be a fun team to watch. All Kerr and Curry need to do is something they’ve done multiple times already: adjust, but not lose sight of who they are.