It's perhaps unfair to characterize the Golden State Warriors offense as an unfurled beast cramped in a cage, ostensibly possessing the latent talent to wreak irreparable damage among the New York Citys of the world and realizing itself as a dangerous entity now unleashed. But that's how it's been described to start this season. Around every part of Warriors fandom, the "team with the fewest passes" moniker is met with inextinguishable disgust. The eye test met the advanced statistics — though this isn't as advanced as it should be. The numerous isolations told us exactly what the numbers would. And now, just four games in, Steve Kerr has helped to create an amicable conjoinment between advanced statistics and aesthetic basketball, something Mark Jackson was never willingly able to achieve.
Seth Partnow of, well, pretty much everywhere but Nylon Calculus here, goes in-depth on assisted and unassisted effective field goal percentage. To no one's surprise, the Mark Jackson Warriors held the largest gap between the two. This was in part because of the isolations, which he notes, and the perpetual turtle-paced halfcourt offense. It gets trickier here when we start to parse whether it was a function of personnel. Jordan Crawford was the backup point guard for most of the season and the team was without Festus Ezeli, Shaun LIvingston, Leandro Barbosa, or even a Justin Holiday. Then Partnow posits this:
All else being equal, if Golden State improved merely to an NBA average portion of their shots being potentially assisted3, it would have been worth about 2.3 points per game in improved offense. This "bonus" would have put Golden State roughly equal to Oklahoma City for the seventh ranked offense in the league and left them with a Net Rating equivalent to the Clippers runner-up spot. In other words, the it could have been the difference between being merely a very good team and an elite one.4
So how are the Warriors going to add the theoretical 2.3 points per game?
I'm going to revisit three plays during the course of the four-game winning streak to start the season that's stuck in my head since watching it happen live.
Kerr is actually having some of his players post up in isolation settings. However, these are not just pure isolations. Andre Iguodala, Draymond Green and Shaun Livingston have been the fulcrum for the triangle-based post-up offense. Harrison Barnes, David Lee and Klay Thompson are the recipients of pure isolations but they've been few and far between. Note the off-ball movement here as Festus Ezeli screens Thompson as he makes a dive cut straight to the basket. The play becomes 10 times more lethal when a guard screens a guard and one pops to the three-point line, as Curry and Thompson have done on multiple occasions. But this play shows how Kerr looks at the mismatch with Damian Lillard not as a scoring opportunity against him but a scenario in which the defense will fall asleep off the ball.
From the moment Bogut stepped on the floor with Kerr as head coach, he's been something of a point-center. Like Boris Diaw on those Seven Seconds or Less Phoenix Suns, Bogut is operating as the pinch-post passer and has perfected the butt screen — when a person holds the ball up high and lets the cutter run by while sticking his behind out impeding the defender's path to the cutter. Misdirections have led to the highest rate of turnovers in the league but also the ability to make the best of defenders a step late.
Leandro Barbosa faking the dribble handoff essentially sets a screen for Curry who drifts out to the three-point line and realistically only needs half a step, if that, to get his shot off. He got a whole one and the end is, well, inevitable. The downside to all this backdoor cutting and movement is the risk of careless passes, but the more the team gets acclimated to each other's tendencies the more I expect the number to go down. It's not going to be perfect after a few months together but this is quite a start.
Kerr's awareness as a coach has also been superb. Thompson hadn't made a shot yet and after sitting on the bench with two quick fouls was still getting into the flow of the game. Welp.
1. Curry sprints down to the baseline thanks to a Draymond Green backscreen.
2. J.J. Redick sees Chris Paul chasing him and turns his entire body to him, a cardinal sin when also tasked with sticking to another excellent three-point shooter.
3. As Curry takes Redick with him, Green and Bogut set a staggered screen — not that it was needed much — for Thompson at the top of the key.
4. Now two steps behind, all Redick can do is challenge the air.
5. Shot goes in.
After all this, the Warriors are now seventh in offensive efficiency. However, the reliance of Stephen Curry is stark as the on/off numbers remain similar to last season's. The monumental changes are sustainable enough, in theory, that David Lee as a bench scorer (when healthy), Iguodala as a secondary ball-handler, Livingston as a mismatch nightmare, and Barbosa as a pure scorer should mitigate some of those fears. Simply passing the ball, about 60 times more per game, doesn't necessarily make a great offense. But the passing is crisp and purposeful enough on a team with talented enough passers and cutters to make it all work. This isn't the same as a bad team moving the rock around because there's nothing else to do.
What's perhaps most impressive is the coaching staff's ability to supercharge an offense while keeping a top-5 defense in its exact place to start the season (actually ranked first in defensive efficiency). There's plenty left to improve on if the Warriors want to get where they think they belong, but it's been a fascinating and successful 4-0 start to the season and Kerr's coaching career.