I'm about to tell you a story, but not the whole thing because the end hasn't been written yet. This story revolves around an NBA team and the question "Who's Next?!" That phrase, has many connotations. For some it means, "what else could go wrong here"?, something this teams fan base has said many times over the past few decades. It contains an air of cautiousness when said that way. It's an application of Murphy's Law. But for other's, and for this group in particular, it has come to symbolize the aggressor. The predator, if you will. On the court the phrase has evolved into a statement of confidence. Not just confidence, but conquering bravado. It means; "We knew we could, and we did. Who is going to stand in our way?" And this team I'm about to tell you about has silently adopted this mantra. Speaking with their play, more so than their words. This team is a little bit cautious and a little bit ready to rumble, like a rattlesnake, curled up in an anxious lethal weapon.
Off to one of the best starts in franchise history, this team sits handsomely in a playoff seat because of a foundation. This foundation, of brick and mortar, was established last year under its then, rookie head coach. It may have not been visible at the time, but it was there. The bricks were playing defense, rebounding, shooting and defending the 3 pt basket. The 3 pt shooting came the easiest, the rest they were mediocre at best. Some nights the team was playing a sort of scheming NCAA type defense. Getting shellacked night after night on the boards. Giving up near league worst 3 pt% each game to its opponents. They were a mess on the defensive end to say the least. But that foundation was there, and the mortar started to harden to the concrete. The players started to believe in the coach's direction and intentions. For the first time in decades, the team had a little hope and the fog of a losing culture was gradually lifting away. They spent the off-season revamping the roster with players who would play well within the system. Not the flashiest players. Not the most skilled. But players with the right skills. At the draft they selected players that would compliment the team concept. The team wanted smart players who scrapped for every inch on the court. Instead of being burned, like so many times before by draft choices, the team went in the direction of the current instead of swimming upstream. Of the players brought in, the team addressed, in some way, all of its major flaws. They solidified their team rebounding, added 3 pt shooters, and players that could defend. Instead of swinging for the fences, they hit a series of doubles. And because of these off-season moves the team is playing together as a unit.
Last year they were 29th in OPP pts per game, 28th in OPP 3pt % and 30th in OPP REB per game and differential. This year they are 20th, 4th, 9th and 4th, a vast improvement. The REB differential from last year to this year is almost an 11 pt swing in the positive. And that is the foundation. This team is primed for a playoff run, something the fans have been craving for, for years. They are a win away from equaling last years win total and doing this within the teams first 33 games. They are doing all this by controlling the boards, hitting 3-pointers, and defending the 3 point shot. Furthermore, they are doing this while starting 2 rookies and having their all-star center out of action. If you haven't guess it already, this team is the Golden State Warriors.
The team by the Bay has beaten the Heat, Nets(2), Hawks(2), Celtics, Pacers, Clippers, and Nuggets on their way to a 22-11 record. They are 11-4 at home and a surprising 11-7 on the road. The way the team addressed their needs in the off-season is a major reason for the early success. Jarrett Jack and Carl Landry have provided veteran leadership and toughness that has led to this teams cohesion. They are playing team basketball and it all starts on the defensive end. David Lee leads the way in rebounding but it is an entire team effort that has marked the change.The Warriors starting 5 is averaging nearly 30 REB per game with Landry and Jack adding an additional 10 more off the bench. Now I'm not saying they are a defensive juggernaut like the Grizzlies or Bulls, but they have cut over 2 OPP pts per game since last season. They have also gone from being a -3.4 in pts differential to 2.3 this season, a difference of almost 6 pts per game, which has paid dividends in the win column. Helping the matter has been a healthy Steph Curry and an ever improving sharp shooter, Klay Thompson. The combo of Curry/Thompson is deadly on most nights when it comes to shooting the ball, especially from 3pt range. The duo combines for nearly 14 3pt attempts per game, sinking almost 6, a rate of 42%. Together, they are leading the team to a 39% 3pt pct, good for 5th overall in the NBA. The Warriors are also top 10 in FG%, PTS, FT% and TO differential. The team philosophy has shifted gears where the defense/rebounding is fueling the already potent offense. Mark Jackson has the team playing his style of basketball and they are thriving in his system.
Now, this season is far from over. The Warriors have jumped out to a 2nd place position in the Pacific and 5th overall seed in the Western Conference. But! There is always a but with these things. Golden State's strength of schedule, according to John Hollinger of ESPN, sits at 49%, or 16th out of 30 teams. I will point out that the West has 9 of the top 10 teams, including the top 6, when it comes to SOS%. Now what does that mean exactly? Well, for one, it shows the Warriors haven't faced the toughest opponents yet. It also shows that the worst part of the schedule is yet to come. Which leads me to my next point. That time is now.
The Warriors are about to play the Grizzlies, Blazers, @ Nuggets, Heat, @Spurs, Clippers, Thunder, and @Bulls all in the next two weeks. This stretch will be the defining point in their season. The toughest part will be the stretch including the Heat then @Spurs followed up by Clippers and Thunder at home and then starting an East road trip @Bulls. If they can make it through that stretch healthy and with a plus .500 record, they will be in good shape going forward. They would be right at the half way point and on pace for a 50+ win season.Who would have thought we would be talking about the Warriors at this point in the year with any kind of relevance? They are about to go through their toughest test of the year. It will show the teams true colors. We will know what this team is made of in two short weeks.
And as the fog clears over the San Francisco Bay, Jackson has made this team believe it should have a chip on its shoulder. They are playing with a New York swagger every time they lace 'em up. The foundation has been set. Whether the forms go up or not will be determined over the next two weeks. Contender or pretender? Either way, big things are happening in Oakland this season. You might not see it just yet, but you can hear it. It's just a whisper and its echoing throughout the arena, "Who's Next?!"