Through the gauntlet, Warriors will have to capitalize against woebegone Rockets
A softer schedule will test an inconsistent Golden State team that needs wins for playoff chase
Well, that wasn’t very fun.
Spanning the All-Star break, the Golden State Warriors just completed what is almost certainly the toughest six-game stretch of their schedule. An absolute wringer of a gauntlet, the Warriors only managed to extract one win from the Western Conference Playoff elites. The harshest truth to emerge may well be the unpleasant realization that the answers that were made most clear by these tough games are also the least encouraging.
On the bright side: the Warriors still find themselves just three games back from their coveted 6th seed. Not out of the race, by any stretch.
When all the cylinders are firing, this is a team that can hang (and even occasionally beat) good teams. But this team feels increasingly like that sweet 70’s Stingray my friend’s Dad bought while we were in high school - feels great when it works, but mostly we just looked at it and talked about all the things that need fixing, and how awesome it was when it ran well.
Up next though, the Warriors schedule opens up into a fairly soft stretch. It’s time to take those lessons learned from the past six games and try to apply them against the tender underbelly of the NBA’s standings.
WHO: Golden State Warriors (20-20) at Houston Rockets (11-27)
WHEN: Wednesday, March 17th, 2021 // 5:00 pm PST
Fixing the hot rod
They say you can’t manage what you don’t measure, but thankfully the Golden State Warriors have all sorts of meaningful measurements and feedback about what’s going wrong, and where. Fixing these problems are a much bigger question than just identifying issues, but since both are important, let’s dig into the most glaring strengths and weaknesses - and then explore some potential solutions.
First of all, the Warriors key core is working. Stephen Curry is playing some of the best basketball of his career - which also means it’s some of the best basketball that’s ever been played on the planet Earth. Draymond Green is a bit less of a pure success story, but when the team wins, it’s almost certainly because Green was a dominant force. We’ll get to his lack of consistent force, and occasionally timid relationship with the hoop later, but for now we can just safely tuck our two brightest stars away as “good to go.”
In triage terms, it is the Warriors’ offense that’s the biggest concern - and it is a very real concern. The drop off when Curry isn’t on the court is precipitous.
Curry leads the team, playing about 34 minutes per game - which leaves about 30% of the game to exist in a Curry-less state. Long term, the hope is that the return of Klay Thompson (and the resultant freeing of the current lock of Curry and Green’s minutes) substantially changes this dynamic. Plus, Wiseman developing alongside another good draft pick, and perhaps Oubre staying and improving…
But now? The Warriors will still want to improve in the short term.
In thinking about a problem that appears to be a combination of inherent qualities of the roster, and some rotation decisions, it might help to have a visual aid (and yes, I did spend too much time putting this together). Here are the minutes played per game, charted alongside each players efficiency - shown here as points scored per 100 attempts. So to the right means more minutes, and the higher up on the graph, the more efficiently that player scores points.
Notice anything in particular about the heavy minutes group?
The reason that the Warriors struggle so much when Curry sits can be traced to the underlying roster construction. Again, Thompson’s return will fix some - but not all - of this. That circle represents around 49% of the Warriors total minutes played.
Looking down the spread, we can see that Juan Toscano-Anderson and Kevon Looney are efficient, but mostly subscribe to the Andris Biedrins “less is more” school of offense. Neither player shoots frequently (the lowest and second-lowest shot attempts per 100 possession on the team), and when they do it’s mostly off of an assist (84% and 78% of their shots were assisted, respectively)
So where else does the Warriors’ offense come from?
Enter the recent Jordan Poole and Nico Mannion pairing. One of the questions I’ve been seeing most frequently is why Mannion is in over someone like Damion Lee, and the closest I can come to an answer is to point towards assists. According to Cleaning the Glass, Mannion provides just over 23% of the team’s total assists while on the court (second to only Curry (30%) and Green (35%)) - Lee holds one of the lowest such marks on the team.
But the table provides some pretty clear options. More Toscano-Anderson, way more Lee, and a reduced role for Paschall - at least until his knee issue goes away and he’s back to normal.
So what this tells me is that the Warriors feel like they need a playmaker to maximize some of their secondary scoring options like Toscano-Anderson and Kevon Looney. I don’t know if it’s stylistic, or strategic, but it would explain Mannion over Lee. There’s also the entire defensive end of the court, where all of the scoring wing options are somewhat limited.
So where else does the Warriors offense come from when Curry sits? It’s a problem that the Warriors knew was coming. It’s a problem that is due to both roster construction, and prioritization of play style from the coaching staff. They really didn’t need a lot of extra scoring creation… which is cool, until suddenly you do need it!
Because of the historic output of the Splash Brothers, this team has been able to carry a lot of non-scorers; but now that Durant is gone and there’s no Klay, the engine can’t run as well on the aftermarket parts we found online for cheap.
Wow, the Rockets are BAD
At the height of the Warriors dynasty, the Rockets were one of the few teams to go all in and attempt to stand toe-to-toe with the high octane Golden State roster. They came close. Perhaps closer than any other team. And yet after failing to breach the shores of the dynasty, they limped through an irrelevant year last season with a depleted roster, got bounced quickly out of the bubble, and then James Harden forced his way off the team.
Now the Rockets are in full rebuild/tank mode. They come into tonight’s game riding a league-worst 17-game losing streak; tying the franchise record for going winless. The team’s last win was on February 4th… 41 days ago!
Most importantly, the Rockets will need to cobble together some guys. The team’s injury list is so long, it took me a moment to realize that’s what I was looking at in basketball reference. Normally, this is a pretty small table.
If the Rockets have a strength, it would probably be their defense - I guess? Ranked 12th by basketball reference, it could spell trouble for a Warriors team. As much as the Warriors struggle when Curry sits, the team could easily achieve a functional equivalent if the Warriors star has an off night.
This Rockets team is legitimately bad, and extremely banged up. The Warriors have to win this one.
Have to. 112-107