(This got really long. I'm sorry for what I've caused.)
Tonight's win -- against a strong Hornets team, despite the absence of our top four players -- was fantastic. It was one of our most impressive, most satisfying and most encouraging games of the season. But more than anything, it got me thinking about this team's most critical flaw.
We lost 34 games last year... this season, we'll probably lose, say, 52. Eighteen games is an ocean's worth of difference, and if we want to make the playoffs again anytime soon, we're going to need to make up most of that. Dramatic improvements aren't easy in the NBA; you usually need a star to show up, and Blake Griffin and Chris Bosh dreams notwithstanding, there's no particular reason to think one will.
So how do we get better? What's the most important thing for this team to focus on going forward?
Health is the easiest answer. A full season of Monta, and fewer nicks and scrapes in general, and we'll certainly improve. But health will be there or it won't... that's nothing that the coaching staff or players can really control.
Rebounding? Rebounding's an issue for us, and an area in which we can improve a bit next season simply by playing two bigs at all times (preferably Biedrins and Randolph more often than not). But let's not forget, we won 48 games last season despite getting significantly outrebounded by our opponents. We have been, and can be, a successful team without being a rebounding force.
Defense? Well, our defense definitely stinks, and ideally we'd improve it. But a team with this roster and this coach is never going to be all that good at defense. The best we can do is to slow the bleeding there a bit. Defense won't be our salvation.
A true point guard? Would be nice, I guess, but I just don't see a pressing need. Our offense has been decent, and it's been quite strong whenever Monta's played. He may not be a true point, but we seem to score just fine whenever we slot him there. I don't see a pure point guard being vital to our improvement.
So what is it? If it's not health or rebounding or defense or a new point guard, what is the key to improving?
The key is simple. To travel down the road to respectability, we need to focus on, well... the road.
Tonight's win clinched a winning record for us at the Oracle on the year. We'll finish no more than six games worse than last season at home, and we might cut that deficit to three or four games. And our 21-17 record is no fluke, either... we're outscoring opponents by 2.6 points per game at home, a better point differential than either the Hornets or Suns have on the year overall. At home, we're an above-average NBA team.
But on the road, we're 6-32, and with a -9.9 PPG differential, if anything, we're a little crappier than that record suggests. No NBA team's had an overall point differential that bad since the '99-'00 Clippers, and that team was no picnic. I mean, we are *disgustingly* bad on the road. We won 21 games on the road last season, and the most we can possibly win this year is nine. There is currently a *fifteen-game* disparity between our home record and our road record.
Now, a disparity between your home record and your road record is natural. Minnesota has identical home and road records this season... every other team is better at home than on the road, and in several cases the gaps are big. The Hawks have as big a gap between their home and road records as us, and Utah's gap is a bit *bigger* than ours... they're 32-7 in SLC and a mere 14-23 on the road. Teams tend to struggle more away from home.
Still, there's nobody quite like us. At home, we play like a six seed... on the road, we play like one of the worst teams in league history. So the obvious questions are 1) why, and 2) what can be done about it?
The first answer people might throw out there is youth -- the idea that our guys are just too inexperienced to pull out wins in front of unfriendly crowds. I imagine this is a factor, but I don't think it's an overwhelmingly large one. Portland is even younger than we are (the absent LaFrentz skews their numbers), and they're a fairly solid 17-20 at home. Memphis and OKC, two young and thoroughly crappy teams, edge us by a game on the road. Young teams do struggle on the road, but they don't usually struggle like *us*. I don't think youth is the whole answer.
Fatigue probably plays a part. Teams play many more back-to-backs on the road than at home, and the second half of back-to-backs are very hard games for teams. I'd think that'd be doubly true for a team that plays at the fastest pace in the league and shoots lots of jumpers. But in fact, we're 5-9 in second halves of back-to-backs... 3-0 at home, 2-9 on the road. 2-9 is pretty bad, but we're 4-23 in all of our other road games, which is only marginally worse. So fatigue isn't really the answer either.
I'd expected the biggest factor to be defense. Anecdotally, my impression is that the enthusiasm of the Oracle crowd spurs this team into more of a defensive effort than they usually give on the road. But the numbers don't bear that out at all. Our opponents score 112.9 points per game in Oracle and 112.6 points per everywhere else, meaning we actually give up *fewer* points on the road. I think our home defense has been a tiny bit better than our road defense, as our opponents score those 112.6 non-Oracle points more efficiently, with fewer shot attempts and turnovers. Still, the difference is miniscule. Our defensive effort on the road is not the problem.
It's our *offense* that's killing us on the road. We take the same number of shots both at home and on the road, but we miss 3.5 more of them on the road, we take 5.5 fewer free throws on the road, we record 3.3 fewer assists on the road, and we turn the ball over an extra 1.5 times on the road, to boot. The result? We score 115.5 points per in Oracle and 102.7 per on the road, for a mind-boggling differential of 12.8.
This is... pretty weird. Most teams aren't like this. For most teams, their worse performance on the road is due to worse defense, with slightly worse offense on top of it. For us, it's all due to a catastrophic drop in our offense. You can explain some of this with context -- our schedule has been home-heavy during our most prolific periods, when Jack was hot and Monta was around -- but not all of it. We just seem to forget how to score on the road. 'Buike, Biedrins, Monta, Randolph and Wright all shoot significantly better in Oracle than elsewhere... Jack only shoots a little better in Oracle, but is much more productive generally there. And Maggette's disparity is absurd: he shoots 54% from the field in Oracle, but only 38% elsewhere.
I'm not exactly sure how a team goes about addressing this, but at the risk of straying too far off the stats reservation, it seems to me that this team could use a little more confidence when it hits the road. I'm not talking about the swagger that a guy like Jack puts forth -- I'm talking about confidence in your offensive game plan and confidence in your teammates. Even in this disaster of a season, the young, flawed Warriors have responded and played well whenever crowds have cheered them on... they've played smart, enthusiastic team basketball in Oakland. On the road, they've settled for isolation and gunning far more often, and it's hurt them horribly.
The key guy is Nellie. Monta can try to lead the offense, Jack can try, guys like Marco and CJ can try in their brief appearances, but really it's on Nellie to make these guys play smart offense. It's his bread and butter, it's something this team can do fairly well when directed properly, and it's not like Nellie's busy teaching guys about defense.
To make the playoffs next year, we'll need to be able to squeeze fifteen wins out of road games. To do that, we'll need to play significantly smarter offense away from home. And that will only happen if Nellie demands it. He's gotten nice offensive play out of this team in Oakland, but he needs to keep their focus sharp elsewhere. Without that, the Dark Ages 2.0 will continue.