Seasons are sums of their parts. Over 82 games, a team is bound to go through winning streaks (I believe the Warriors have had a few of those) and rough patches (the current team state with a blowout in Detroit). As the Warriors hit the midway point of the season, exactly 41 games into that 82 game slate, we take a second to check out how far the team has come, where we are headed with the second half, and if there is any reason to panic.
Balancing out Expectations
All fans of Golden State of Mind had set the bar extremely high to start the year. It wasn't just repeating as champion, it was the chance that this could be one of the best teams ever. 24 straight wins to start the season, eclipsing the previous record of 15 and teasing fans with the thought of reaching the record for a team winning streak in NBA history. Where does a team go from there? Not only do you have fans, pundits and players talking about the team as unbeatable, but you set a tone for perfection and expectation that seemed almost impossible.
Injuries were the first hurdle to get in the team's way during the streak. Harrison Barnes went down in Phoenix after a freak accident stepping on an ankle, and was out 16 games. The team was designed to handle a loss like this, and Brandon Rush was able to step up in his absence. Combined with contributions from Rush and Ian Clark, it appeared the roster was deeper than we had imagined, and that the team could handle the wear and tear of an NBA season.
But then Klay Thompson missed some games with a bad hip. Steph Curry started to get kicked in the shins. Fetus Ezeli had a bad toe. And the injuries started to come in waves. This culminated in a tough game at home against Denver where the Warriors had nine healthy bodies suited up, and really were playing with seven all night after Curry went out. The starters were playing more minutes, teams were giving the Warriors a larger challenge, and things didn't seem as natural.
Injuries have lead to more wear on the roster. It is not just that players have lost time this season. It is the amount of minutes that other players, like Draymond Green, have had to play to fill in the holes. Green's MPG is up around 35 at this point - he averaged 31.5 last season, and this increase has shown in a bum knee, a tweaked ankle, and now a slump that should be rewarded with a game of rest or two. The rest of the starters, Curry and Klay, have seen slight increases from last years MPG mark, but the truth is last years number might have been an anomaly the team was destroying opponents and taking games off.
Conclusion - this is meant to happen, as it does with NBA teams The team started the season with too high of expectations, and now both the record and performance are balancing out. The work put into holding a streak like the team did was bound to cause regression in the players, simply based on rest and fatigue playing the minutes at the level they did to never have an off night. There is a problem at aiming at a season record like the Warriors seem to have in their sights (the Bulls 72-10 mark). It takes extreme effort by your team and leaves no room for bad luck, injuries and other random occurrences. Can the Warriors still make it? Sure. But fans and critics need to balance out those expectations to accept losses like Saturday night as things that happen over the course of an 82 game season.
Have the Warriors been as good statistically?
The 2014-2015 Warriors were historically good from a stats standpoint. Dominating the league in both offense and defense, they took everyone by surprise, blowing out lesser opponents nightly. With the roster coming back intact, the thought was "another year to only get better".
At the 41-game mark, we can make a few quick observations statistics-wise. The team has a long way to go, and these rankings can change, but they do tell a story about the current state of the roster.
The Warriors offense has been just as good. The Warriors defense is slightly regressing, and it's been showing recently. According to the statistics, the Warriors still have the best offense in the league, averaging 113.9 points per game. This is paired up with a top three point differential, seconnd best pace in the league, and top offensive rating. The team can score points, lead by the top scorer in the league Steph Curry. The issue? The defense has taken a bit of a nose dive. Since the end of the team's winning streak, the team is giving up points, and in bunches. Ever since the Christmas day beating of Cleveland, holding them to 83 points, the Warriors have only held two opponents under 100 points, both being the Lakers. This twelve game streak has seen losses to the Mavericks where they allowed 114 (notably without Steph Curry), a loss to Denver where they gave up 112 to a team that averages 98 per game, and Saturday's mugging by the Pistons.
From the naked eye, part of this has been lack of rebounding intensity and getting to lose balls, coupled with more dribble penetration by opponents. Both of these factors are direct results of overall team fatigue. Detroit out rebounded the Warriors 57-47, allowing Andre Drummond to net 21 boards on his way to team mutilation. When the Warriors went to overtime against the Nuggets, they allowed themselves to be out rebounded 49-39, including 13-7 on the offensive boards. Other teams are bringing their best effort, and out-hustling the Warriors to lose balls.
As well, the general defense is giving up more points. They average an allowance of 102.7 PPG, good for 18th in the league. Last season? They were 15th in PPG allowed, so this hasn't been as much of a regression as some would think. The difference has been in their defensive rating - giving up a full point more per 100 possessions. Is this caused by garbage time minutes in blow outs? By teams giving better efforts and scouting the team better? Who knows, but one suggestion? Different lineups have caused lack of consistency on defense. Harrison Barnes returned to the starting lineup on Saturday night, ending an experimental run where we saw Brandon Rush getting 15 minutes per game from the starting lineup. This team should have interchangeable parts, but we have seen some questionable rotations from Luke Walton. With the roster finally back at 100%, we should see more predictable lineups and a familiarity with each other that could return defensive intensity as the team gets back to normal.
Conclusion - the team should return to defensive consistency as the roster returns its consistency.
Where do we go from here?
Don't panic Warriors fans, there is still plenty to be happy about. Golden State still has the best record in the league at 37-4, a solid two games up on the Spurs. They have played 22 games on the road to 19 home games, but this did include a league-long 7 game road trip that ultimately ended their winning streak. They are currently facing some of their toughest schedule blocks of the season, getting 5 games in 7 nights over the last week, heading into match ups against the league elites.
The second half schedule for the Warriors will be noticeably harder than the first half:
- They still face the Spurs four times before the season ends, no doubt appointment TV with each match up.
- They get three match ups against the Thunder
- They match up against the East elite - a trip to Chicago, two games against Atlanta, and an east coast trip that will take the Warriors to New York and Miami, both playoff teams.
The bright spots? Steve Kerr will return at some point. This should no doubt give the team a mental spark and possibly focus the team back out of the recent mental rut. Also the team is healthy again, just in time for the big upcoming matchups. They key is understanding that a blowout like the one in Detroit is more of a wake up call than a red flag. This team is full of veteran experience and talent that should be able to recover and adjust. At the half way point of the season for Golden State, the high spots have definitely out-shined the recent troubles, and that should be remembered.