Kirk Goldsberry of Grantland wrote up a pretty good analysis of what makes the Splash Brothers great yesterday, including glowing words about Golden State Warriors superstar Stephen Curry and an interesting tidbit about the team's ball movement.
A recent study by the Harvard Sports Analysis Collective found that the Warriors passed the ball less frequently than any other team in the league this season. At first glance, that number may seem bad. But when you consider who their primary ball handler is, it becomes less objectionable.
Curry is not a normal NBA point guard. He’s not Jeff Teague, Ricky Rubio, or Brandon Jennings — he’s a portable jump-shooting savant who also happens to run his team’s offense. He perpetually surveys the floor in hopes of trying to find the Warriors’ favorite scoring option: himself...Together, the Splash Brothers are one of the most entertaining duos in the game, but it’s important to remember that the origins of their brilliance often lie in the not-so-glamorous grunt work of screeners and the nifty behind-the-scenes architecture of the coaching staff.
The whole article is worth a read for more about what we already know makes Curry great and how the combination of screens and off ball movement makes the Splash Brothers great, but his point about ball movement and the heavy reliance on Curry stood out as interesting because it was linked to data that matches what others (like Grantland's Zach Lowe) have observed.
Not only are the Warriors ranked 30th in ball movement according to the HSAC's study but also 22nd in "run score" - the Warriors are one of 10 teams in the league to have both a negative "pass score" and "run score" for the season, which means they both move the ball and themselves less than the estimated rate (adjusted for possession time). In other words, despite having a dynamic duo in the Splash Brothers that is extremely difficult to defend when they're moving off the ball, the Warriors run one of the most stagnant offenses in the league.
Of course, the Warriors are in good company in their stagnancy - the other five playoff teams with a double negative are Brooklyn, Indiana, Miami, Oklahoma City, and Toronto - so they're not the only ones who have found success with less movement than the likes of the Spurs, the most "active" team in the league. And as Goldsberry notes, when you have an offensive star like Curry (or LeBron James? Or Kevin Durant?), maybe this is just less of a big deal. It also has to be noted that the frequency of ball movement doesn't necessarily imply quality ball movement - underscoring that point is that the Milwaukee Bucks, Philadelphia 76ers and Utah Jazz all ranked in the top 10 in both pass and run score.
But it's the combination of the Warriors' over-reliance on isolation plays throughout the season and a turnover problem that might make the analysis of movement more relevant to them in particular: how much does the Warriors' lack of movement contribute to their turnover problems?
It's worth noting that the Warriors improved from the most turnover prone team in the league earlier in the season to a mediocre team by season's end (13.8% turnover rate), which is an impressive improvement. That downward trend in turnovers was evident as early as February, but at times when they're at their most turnover prone, they seem particularly stagnant while looking for individuals to make plays and forcing things instead using the off ball movement and screens that Goldsberry highlights.
Part of what has made their small ball lineups work in this series is that it seems to force them into doing the opposite of their norm: they've shown better spacing and have multiple ball handlers/decision-makers on the floor to get the ball moving. And during the regular season - as with this series - their small ball units have had among the lowest turnover rates of any lineup (10.9%).
People can try as hard as they want to justify and ignore the turnover problem, but - for the most part in this first round series - the Warriors have been at their best against the L.A. Clippers during stretches when they've kept the turnovers to a minimum as they did in their Game 6 win last night. Their eight turnovers as a team in Game 6 matched Curry's individual total in Game 5. Whether more movement is the answer is probably a longer discussion requiring more data than we have access to, but it might help find an answer that some of us have already speculated about.
For more on the Warriors first round playoff series, check out our Warriors-Clippers playoff series section.