The NBA now finds itself in a precarious situation where one team has four players who would all, immediately and without hesitation from most teams, command a maximum salary slot. In addition to having two of the three (or four) best players in the league right now in Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant, both Klay Thompson and especially Draymond Green would be the best players on a lot of NBA teams. Adding Durant to an already historically great team was among the top free agency coups the NBA has seen, and just the mechanics of the move are interesting by themselves.
There’s absolutely no doubt that the NBA didn’t want this to happen. After Durant signed with the Warriors, Adam Silver was quoted as saying, “I don’t think it’s good for the league” while referring to the dominance of super teams like the Warriors and Cavaliers in their respective conferences.
During the 2011 lockout, the league instituted harsher luxury tax penalties for teams over the cap in an attempt to distribute the top-level talent more evenly around the league – a move that has probably backfired against the small markets. The Thunder were first pressured into moving James Harden in fear of future tax payments, and in combination with the skyrocketing salary cap (and Curry’s injury-forced smaller contract) it allowed an environment where the Warriors could fit Durant under the cap as an unrestricted free agent. The players’ union rejected a salary cap smoothing proposed by the league back in 2015 which was meant to diminish some of the drastic effect the NBA’s new TV-deal would have.
By and large, Durant’s decision wasn’t and isn’t popular among fans right now, and ex-players such as Charles Barkley have loudly criticized KD for jumping ship. But with a month until the start of the regular season, we can now put the weird cap machinations and criticisms behind us, and focus on what the Warriors will look like on the court, and what potential paths to beating them are available.
Better than 73?
For the 2016-17 season, the Vegas over/under for the Warriors is set at 66.5 wins, seven wins higher than for the 2015-16 seaso. Kevin Pelton’s model, which uses ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus system, puts the Warriors at 66.8 wins – and the thing about these different types of projection systems is that they are very conservative at both the top and bottom end of the distribution.
The reason why is rather simple… It’s extremely unlikely to win only 10 games like the Sixers did last season, or win the most regular season games in NBA history like the Warriors. By definition, historic seasons in either direction don’t happen often, so any statistical model regards those events as unlikely and is very risk-averse in avoiding extreme predictions.
How good these statistical models are at predicting the Warriors’ win totals is a question mark since there’s so much uncertainty about how well the Warriors are going to play together in their first year and whether or not it’s even possible for their offense to become much more efficient. Perhaps the Warriors’ offense has already reached a level where NBA teams just start hitting diminishing returns, and added value from talent doesn’t make as big a difference as it should.
Interestingly, the best performing publicly available model in each of the last two seasons has been the “Highly Plausible Win Projections” developed by Andrew Johnson of Nylon Calculus, which has absolutely destroyed the Vegas over/unders. This year, the Highly Plausible Win Projections have the Warriors at 73 wins again while the second best team, the Cavaliers, are expected to win 58 games.
Whether or not the Warriors find themselves close to the regular season win record again by March, in the absolute sense and in a playoff context the team is now better. Andrew Bogut was prone to long stretches of playing poorly last season when he wasn’t physically at his best, and the additions of Zaza Pachulia and David West should be more than enough to cover up for Bogut, even though the Aussie at his best is probably better than Pachulia and West. If things get difficult in the playoffs, those older big men don’t even really have to play much as the Warriors throw out their best small-ball lineups featuring Green at center.
The upgrade from Harrison Barnes to Durant is a super-powered boost in talent bordering on the unfair. Against the Cavaliers in the Finals, Barnes shot just 9 of 29 on three-pointers on attempts that were the most wide-open looks any player in the NBA is ever likely to get. Just replacing Barnes in the corner with Durant means a huge boost in shooting efficiency and, just as importantly, volume – as Durant won’t start hesitating at any point.
Barnes is a good post-up defender and really strong, which makes him a nice fit guarding power forwards, but at every other defensive skill Durant is plain better. Defensively, there are only a few wing players like Durant, who can both protect the rim and generate steals. Last season, the only wings to average a block and a steal per game were Durant, Kawhi Leonard and Giannis Antetokounmpo. KD should be a perfect fit for Golden State’s switch-heavy defense with his length and mobility.
Offensively, Durant does everything at an elite level. One of the scariest aspects of Durant’s game are his post-ups. In guarding pick-and-rolls against the Warriors, it suddenly becomes impossible to execute switch. Unlike Green, who isn’t a great post player, Durant averaged 1.23 points on post-ups last season, 0.15 points better than the second best player (David West) – meaning Durant was over 10 percent more efficient than anyone else, an absolutely nutty statistic. If opponents try to switch the pick-and-roll against Curry and Durant, they’ll have to worry about both Curry’s shooting and Durant posting up on little point guards.
Durant is a great, albeit slightly turnover prone, passer in the pick-and-roll, and one interesting play type the Warriors will employ are inverted pick-and-rolls where guards are screening for forwards. Green has been running these types of actions with Curry, but Durant’s off-the-dribble shooting will take them to another level.
Draymond Green pick and roll, Stephen Curry screening
Finding potential weaknesses
The Warriors aren’t completely impervious to downside – though nothing on the scale of what you can dream up for the rest of the league. But if everything that can go wrong (discounting for multiple disastrous injuries) does go wrong, others teams can start pulling pretty close.
By any objective measure, Curry had a Top 5 regular season last year. In all likelihood, he won’t be quite as good this year. Even with Durant on the floor, there’s just not much higher that Curry’s efficiency can realistically become. Curry has had better health the past four years after suffering through ankle problems earlier in his career, but there’s always a chance those injuries start rearing their head again.
Beyond their younger core, the Warriors are aging and some players are going to get hit with regression. Anderson Varejao is already virtually unplayable, and at this point in their respective careers, West and Pachulia could potentially just fall off a cliff. This would put Green in a tough position on the front line and the wear and tear against bigs every night could start getting to Green. Golden State is so far ahead of everyone else that either Curry or Durant could get injured and they’d still be favorites to win the title, but probably not so if Green goes down. Curry and Durant are able to replace what the other one does and staggering minutes between them makes a ton of sense, but no one on the team does anything similar to what Draymond does.
Two big-time contributors, Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston, are both over 30 years old and likely to be worse than last season. Iguodala has been hitting his three-pointerd at almost exactly 35 percent for three years now, which means teams have to closeout to him, but as players get older they start losing their legs and their shots can go quickly as well. In particular for Iguodala, since he’s not a good free-throw shooter (a big red flag for shooting percentages typically). Functionally this would mean that the Warriors new and improved “Death Lineup” would have four shooters instead of five, and Iguodala would be hanging around the baseline closer to the way a center operates.
As mentioned earlier, Durant is a great passer in certain situations, but he’s also only played in an isolation heavy system and has yet to show the ability to be a ball-mover in the offense (a significant difference, just ask Rajon Rondo).
Durant’s field goal attempts are going to come down from previous years, and the same goes for Curry, but there’s a risk the real odd man out will be Thompson. In a pure basketball sense that doesn’t actually necessarily matter, since Thompson’s gravity keeps the defense from rotating even if he shoots precisely zero times and his impact remains important. However, that could potentially make Thompson unhappy in the long run. There’s plenty to do in the Warriors’ offense even if you don’t get the ball, but for a player of Thompson’s caliber not getting those touches could be frustrating.
Although there are potential weaknesses, almost no combination of the factors mentioned above barring multiple horrific injuries puts the Warriors in a position where they are not the favorites.
The Western Conference is going through a transition phase, with young teams like the Jazz and Timberwolves ready to leap into the playoff picture, while the Mavericks, Grizzlies, Spurs and Clippers are aging. None of those young teams are good enough yet, though some of them will be ready to compete relatively soon as their young players hit their respective primes.
The Spurs have lost Tim Duncan’s defense, and replaced him with Pau Gasol, who has been a net minus defensively and on the glass for several years now (Gasol gets rebounds, but how many rebounds you grab doesn’t say much, since Gasol’s teams rebound better without him now). Once one of the best defensive players in the league, Gasol just can’t move enough to stay on the court against the Warriors. Still a dangerous team, the Spurs aren’t quite as sharp as they were two or three years ago.
The Clippers and Rockets are the only teams that can get anywhere near Golden State’s numbers offensively. The Rockets have to prove they aren’t among the worst defensive teams in the NBA and then they can be considered a threat, and the Clippers are bound to start showing the first signs of aging soon.
The lineup of DeAndre Jordan, Blake Griffin, Chris Paul, JJ Redick and someone pretending to be a 3-and-D wing has consistently been among the best five-man combinations in the NBA every year they’ve been together, and the Clippers have outscored opponents by over 16 points per 100 possessions in each of the last two seasons with their best four players on the court (for reference, the Warriors as a team were +11.6). Redick is coming off a career year, and miraculously Paul has avoided any slippage – coming into his 12th season, it would be astounding if Paul avoids that fate once more.
Among the top of the Eastern Conference, only the Cavaliers can play at a high enough level to challenge the Warriors. Basically, the argument here is that superhuman LeBron James can somehow save the day again. In Games 5 and 6 LeBron combined for 82 points, 24 rebounds, 18 assists, 7 steals and 6 blocks with just 3 turnovers… and in Game 7 he had a triple-double! That’s the type of performance that is going to be needed again. Being one year older with the burden of winning a ring for Cleveland lifted off his shoulder, a repeat performance would defy all sense.
You can find Mika Honkasalo on Twitter @mhonkasalo.