Why the alarms?
Golden State's slow start, and the battles of hope we all face
If the season ended right now, the Golden State Warriors would finish 8th. Assuming they get through the play in tournament, they’d be facing off against the surprising New Orleans Pelicans. It is a weird season so far, but the top of the ladder still features some familiar names: the Memphis Grizzlies, Phoenix Suns, and Denver Nuggets are all in the upper playoff bracket. Golden State, all the way down in 8th place is still somehow only four games out of first place.
With a day off today before embarking on a big road trip that starts off against the Milwaukee Bucks and includes the Pacers and Nets, it seems like a natural check-in point. Six road games before coming back home to host the Grizzlies on Christmas gives the Warriors an extended look at themselves on the road (where the team is 2-11 this season).
Why there is hope
The core of Golden State is still plenty solid enough to win a championship. That’s why the team seems so cavalier about bringing in help this year to replace all those departed players (which amounted to about 30% of the total minutes played in Golden State last season). As Kevin Durant famously said in a different context, “don’t worry about what goes on at the top.” Check out the breakdown of the Warriors’ most used lineups. There are actually four lines of information here, with the team totals unlabeled at the top (grey highlight) and the three most used lineups in a table below :
Overall, the Warriors Net Rating of +3.2 points per 100 possessions is in the 71st percentile. But it’s the top three lineups below that top line that are the quickest way to provide objective evidence that hope for this squad isn’t misplaced.
The starters have been dominant. A +23.1 net rating lands that crew in the 94th percentile of all qualifying lineups across the NBA. Even if you totally discount the value of all the shared championships in the unit, their impact as a stand-alone number is real solid.
With Poole instead of Looney, the second-most used lineup is the most mediocre of the bunch, down at +9.2. Slightly above average, this is the so-called “Nickname Lineup” from last year that couldn’t figure out whether it was elite or unplayable. Some of that confusion has spilled over into this season - especially with both Thompson and Poole working through some early season hiccups.
With Poole instead of Klay, Golden State is blasting opponents out of the water with a massive +35.4 point advantage per 100 possessions. These are the most important lineups that Golden State is going to deploy in their most important moments.
Don’t let the slow start fool you. Afyer their first 10 games, the Warriors have had the 3rd best Net Rating in the league. It’s this core backbone that makes the little details around the edges more flexible. Also, remember that there’s not really any super teams right now, the Warriors aren’t gearing up to beat prime LeBron James any more. And more importantly, the season doesn’t end today, players and coaches are figuring stuff out, and Curry is still doing all sorts of mind warping stuff.
Why there is uncertainty / despair
Now that the sunny part is out of the way, let’s pick at the problems a bit.
If the good parts above were all about the core, the natural starting point for this section has to start with a question about everybody else. Here’s the bottom of the roster behind the top six, sorted by total minutes played this season (right column is their age):
Everyone is aware of the Two Timeline plan, and this is where the opportunity cost is coming around to bite the franchise a bit.
Jonathan Kuminga has made strides recently, and has begun to show positive impacts, especially when you separate out his minutes from the rest of this list.
A trade is always possible. The Warriors have plenty of young talent, as well as draft picks. Wiseman’s stock may not be especially high right now, but he’s still an intriguing player with upside.
Carrying four players at the bottom of your rotation that aren’t ready for NBA minutes isn’t that unusual; but what cannot happen is if that number of unready guys is something closer to nine. When/if Andre Iguodala is ready, that will insulate the bottom of the depth chart, and the progress that Kuminga has shown gets the team pretty well on their way to a workable playoff rotation… assuming they get there.
The only Warriors to play every game this season have been Kevon Looney and Jordan Poole. Thompson and Wiggins have missed five games each, Green and Curry both have missed three. As the franchise steered away from losses earlier in the season, it has meant a deeper reliance on this core. As the wear and tear accumulates, or random injuries occur, it could very quickly reveal a critical systems flaw. Like most NBA teams, Plan A is pretty much it for this year’s Warriors team - there aren’t good fall back options if one of the primary components of this machine goes down.
Another element that’s been misfiring a bit for the Warriors are some of the secondary scorers. Andrew Wiggins is having a fantastic season, likely on his way to his second consecutive all star berth. But Thompson and Poole both had some early season problems.
First, Jordan Poole. He’s had some rough shooting patches this season, and there’s been some general weirdness to his game. Partially due to an adjusting role that asks him to facilitate more (while also keeping his scoring up) and perhaps partially because he and Klay were having an ugly shooting contest Poole’s scoring efficiency is down (shown as Points Scored per 100 Attempts (PSA) below). He’s shooting 43% from the field and 32% on threes; and though his assist rate has increased substantially, so too has he been turning the ball over more.
Since this is the pessimist/doubter section, we will gloss over any improvements expected as Poole gets more comfortable under higher usage. Let’s just say he doesn’t get better and the Warriors need him to be more than he was last year.
Remember, for these tables from Cleaning the Glass, the colored numbers in the box are percentile rank. Blue is bad. Here now is Klay Thompson’s same block of statistics.
That dive in shooting efficiency has been a killer. Thompson is second on the team in shot attempts per game - 16.7 FGA/game, trailing only Curry (20.3). Klay, shooting all those shots is really going through it. Or was, before blowing up recently. Still, this is his second least efficient shooting year; you have to go all the way back to 2012, his second year in the NBA to find a lower TS%.
Whether these early season statistics are seen as predictive or not is largely a matter of personal viewpoint. Curry tosses those crazy threes up and turns around and runs the other way. Bob Myers and the Warriors front office are taking a bunch of guesses all the time, but there is a plan in place that they trust. The coaching staff had a lot of options, and just threw the spaghetti on the wall to see what would stick. It’s been a messy, weird ride so far.
I don’t think Golden State was necessarily hoping to be in 8th place a third of the way into this season, but I also don’t think those struggles warrant a panic just yet. Not when so much of what makes this dynasty a dynasty is still working.