A few hundred years after the Galactic Empire loses its grasp over the galaxy in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Series, the Foundation comes across the remnants of the old empire. And the Foundation finds that the crumbling and decadent empire is far, far stronger than they had been led to believe.
The NBA is about to find that the crumbling empire of the Golden State Warriors is in much the same place. They may no longer be light years ahead, but they’re still a force with which to be reckoned. Only a few years removed from a slew of championships, the Warriors finished 39-33 last season with a net rating of plus-1.0. That’s a solid foundation, but the Warriors actually had better offensive and defensive indicators than a normal 39-33 team; however, they were undone by losing the possession battle.
This year, they are better equipped to win that battle. And they’re off to a great start with a 7-point win in their season opener against the Los Angeles Lakers, theWestern Conference title favorites.
Dominant on the defensive end
Golden State had the fifth-best halfcourt defense in the NBA last year, per Cleaning the Class. The last team with a top-five halfcourt defense to miss the playoffs was the Miami Heat in 2016-17. But Golden State didn’t just defend the halfcourt well. They also forced opposing offenses to play in the halfcourt more than any other team.
Much of Golden State’s defensive dominance came from their opponents’ shot choices. Opponents took the third-most midrange shots against Golden State and the sixth-fewest layups. Golden State’s defense wasn’t just predicated on holding opponents to hard shots; they also defended well the few high-quality shots they did allow, holding opposing offenses to the seventh-lowest field goal percentage at the rim. Defenders like Kevon Looney and Draymond Green were phenomenal at walling off the rim and forcing the ball into the midrange. Andrew Wiggins had a great season as a point-of-attack defender. He rarely fouled and was great at blocking shots for a wing.
On the other end, the Warriors were less dominant but still strong. Steph Curry put together one of his best seasons and finished third in MVP voting. He won the scoring title and averaged 1.34 points per shot, which ranked in the 100th percentile mark for efficiency. Behind his dominance, the Warriors had the 10th-best halfcourt offense last year.
Given that the Warriors had such a strong foundation, then it’s a fair question to ask why they missed the playoffs after losing the play-in tournament. And though Golden State was dominant in some of the most important areas of the game, it was two elements of possession basketball that sank their chances: rebounding and turnovers.
Golden State was the fourth-worst rebounding team in the league last year yet was the only team among the bottom eight to finish with an above-.500 record. Green led the team in averaging a slim 7.1 rebounds per game, and when rookie James Wiseman was manning the middle, Golden State was especially overmatched on the glass. They allowed the second-most offensive boards, 10.7 per game. Great defense is undone when opponents corral their miss. To compound the issue, Golden State’s defense fell apart after offensive rebounds; they were 20th in the league in allowing opposing shooting efficiency after an offensive rebound.
Similarly, Golden State’s offense was undone by rampant turnovers. They committed the fifth-most in the league, 15.0 per game. More critically, the players with the worst on/off splits in impacting Golden State’s turnover rate were Wiseman, Curry, Green and Wiggins. The Warriors of course can’t keep those players off the floor this upcoming season, so they’ll need to find ways to ameliorate those weaknesses. Rather than changing the proven stars, like Curry and Green, the Warriors are adapting the rotation around the stars.
In fact, the new-look Warriors are well equipped not just to limit their turnovers this year, but also to rebound better. If the Warriors win the possession game, their stingy defense and Curry-led offense wouldn’t not be undermined from within.
Help from familiar faces
The Warriors will add (or re-add) Klay Thompson, Otto Porter, and Andre Iguodala to their wing rotation in 2021-22. Thompson and Iguodala are of course champions with enormous skill-sets, but even beyond their abilities, their presences should specifically help to address last year’s weaknesses.
In six of Thompson’s eight seasons, the Warriors committed fewer turnovers with him on the floor. Perhaps that’s because he dribbles so rarely that he doesn’t have many opportunities to commit turnovers. Another spot-up shooter, Porter has similarly helped his team’s turnover rates in six of his eight seasons and defensive rebound rates in five.
The Warriors’ system relies on non-star players making immediate decisions with the ball to sustain advantages. That’s why they went 14-5 in 19 games after Looney’s role increased after a Wiseman injury; the Warriors’ offensive system works when playing vets who can recognize patterns without thinking. The last time the Warriors went to the Finals, in 2018-19, zero role players averaged 3.0 or more dribbles per touch. Last season, three players did.
Thompson, Porter, and Iguodala will make better and faster decisions to extend the advantages Curry and Green create. Iguodala made his presence felt against the Lakers this week with a handy 12 points in 23 minutes off the bench – with zero turnovers.
On the glass, all three are big, physical players for their positions. Porter and Iguodala have always had excellent rebounding rates for their positions. They’ll help the Warriors box out and crack down into the paint to group rebound. Thompson and Iguodala of course have plenty of championship experience with these very Warriors, so they know what is required.
Even before the Lakers game, preseason returns suggested success. The Warriors committed the eighth-fewest turnovers and allowed the fifth-fewest offensive rebounds in preseason. They correspondingly finished 5-0. Preseason success is far from a certain predictor of regular season success, but the Warriors have reasons to expect improvement. In Curry, Green, Thompson, and Iguodala, they have an experienced, championship-winning core. And they were already a strong team. This is all without mentioning that when Thompson returns, if he can resume his role as one of the greatest off-ball scorers in history, the Warriors will add an elite weapon who can boost a strong offense into the stratosphere.
What it all means for Dub Nation
Unfortunately for the Warriors, Asimov’s Foundation eventually defeated the crumbling yet mighty empire. The Warriors are far from favourites this season. Juggernauts like the Los Angeles Lakers in the West and the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks take that honour.
But the Warriors are a legitimate contender this year. They have gone some way to addressing the weaknesses that held them back last year. Last season they didn’t make it out of the play-in game, as they committed 21 ghastly turnovers and meekly allowed the Memphis Grizzlies to collect 16 offensive rebounds, both far above Golden State’s already ugly averages. This year, expect the former dynasty to carry themselves with the pride and power deserving of a recent empire.