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What did we learn from the Warriors’ preseason?

The NBA preseason never offers absolute truth nor does it uncover any heretofore unseen problems. With that in mind, what did we see in the Warriors’ performances, and what could these glints and flashes hint at?

NBA: Preseason-Portland Trail Blazers at Golden State Warriors Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

125 days after losing the 2016 NBA Finals, the Golden State Warriors wrapped up the annual preamble to a new NBA season. The scar tissue in the hearts of players, coaches, and fans is still raw and sensitive. The arrival of Kevin Durant, in a blaze of fearlessness, was a soothing ointment to ailing spirits across the Bay Area — but it’ll be a few more years (titles) before time, the only true healing force in the universe, can numb us to the sting of humiliation. That sting will gradually fade into a dull pain. Sempiternal, but livable.

In the meantime, basketball continues to be played. The Portland Trailblazers visited the raucous confines of Oracle Arena on Friday night, in a matchup that always delivers high-paced pyrotechnics and showmanship between the two familiar teams. The Trailblazers are a team constructed upon a solid offensive foundation of Westbrook-lite Damien Lillard and jitterbug CJ McCollum, surrounded by a wiry cast of wings and mismatched forwards.

Steve Kerr had to be pleased to be able to face the combustable Blazers team in his team’s final preseason game — a “dress rehearsal” for the regular season, to borrow his wording. Last May, it was Kerr’s Warriors who ended the insurgent rise of the young Blazers team in the Conference Semifinals, though not before coach Terry Stotts and co. devised schemes that threw the Warriors towards the drawing board for counters — a rare occurrence in the Warriors’ 88-win march to the sea that ended on the shoreline of 89.

As it turned out (and as Steve and I were no doubt hoping for), Stotts threw all those strategies back into the mixer to see how the reloaded Warriors grappled with them.

Defense

Stepping into the size-18 shoes of Aussie Andrew Bogut, Zaza Pachulia found himself thrust immediately into defending high pick-and-roll action involving Meyers Leonard and one of Portland’s shifty primary ballhandlers in Lillard or McCollum.

Just as his more acclaimed predecessor, Pachulia’s slow-footedness and solid frame all but took him out of the play; like a football read-action play, the ballhandler reacted to if Pachulia shifted his weight up to protect against a midrange shot or if he fell back to deter a drive. Pachulia’s disadvantage led to an early Portland onslaught as Lillard found scoring opportunities by merely calling for a screen.

Steve Kerr was forced to replace Pachulia with Andre Iguodala early into the first quarter, or risk a home blowout on the eve of the regular season. The revised Small Ball Death Squad: KD Edition, like its predecessor, relies on heady rotation, communication, and fierceness in order to thrive on defense. The crux of the lineup’s defense is familiarity with each other, as the lineup appears at times to swarm in a hivemind, creating havoc and disorder for the offense while maintaining solidly linked on defense.

Early on against the Blazers, the linkage was shoddy. Rotations were late — if they happened at all — as Lillard continued to find his way to the doorstep on drives. Ed Davis racked up a quick six free throw attempts against the SBDS when Draymond Green and Durant were forced to foul after late switches.

The defense in the preseason has generally looked like preseason defense: when these six or seven games are used as conditioning for some of the guys on the court, the less glitzy side of the ball can sometimes be neglected.

With that said, some of these issues won’t be remedied with the application of regular-season hustle. That’s not to say that they can’t be fixed, but things like trust between players on rotations have to be built by experience. An on-court hourglass of experience and familiarity is filling up in trickles as KD and David West and Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson find out each others’ tendencies. These things take time.

Elsewhere across the lineup, David West continues to live up to his billing (that I just attributed now) as the anti-Mo Speights. Certainly, the two share similarities in their lateral agility (or lack thereof) and silky 18 foot jumpers, but by and large West embodies everything that Speights does not.

On one noteworthy sequence, coming directly after a great find to a diving Ian Clark, West ruggedly bodied up on an aggressively flailing Ed Davis, staunchly holding his ground in the low post until he forced the Blazers to swing the ball and go to their second option.

There were moments in which West’s advanced age and general lack of explosiveness were evident: when he strays beyond 13-15 feet from the rim, he’s a constant liability to be blown past on a cut or drive by lither 4s and 5s. Even so, his cerebral toughness is a visible boon to a defense that would otherwise lack old-man grit -- after all, guys don’t end up consistently at the top end of DRPM year to year without being helpful in some fashion.

Going back to Zaza for a minute: he allowed 52.4% shooting at the rim in 2016, an obvious uptick from departed (and dearly missed) Bogut’s 45.1%. The league average, for reference, was at 60.8%. While Zaza was never billed as a rim protector, it’s still going to take a while to adjust to seeing Lillard finishing at the rim over a vertical Zaza, or Los Angeles Lakers guards zipping care-free to the hoop.

Rookie Patrick McCaw, meanwhile, continues to impress with his stringbean hawkishness. Saint Patrick can often be seen snaking along the baseline after an opposing big snatches a rebound. He’ll make a few probing jabs at the ball when he senses an opening before gliding back on transition. McCaw has a preternatural ability to sit in passing lanes in the places where the passer can’t see him.

None of this guarantees he’ll be a plus defender in his maiden year. He’s 6’7 and when he sits in the passenger seat of a car, that little light that indicates the passenger airbags will deploy doesn’t turn on. That’ll be a problem against the larger wings in the league, which McCaw will be asked to guard. Kerr showed his hand in that regard on Friday: McCaw played as the third guard with Shaun Livingston and Curry/Clark in the first and second halves (more on this later). On top of the fact that McCaw’s bones account for 96% of his total weight, rookies in general struggle to defend bigger, faster, and more skilled NBA players.

The most hyped 30th pick in a long time, Kevon Looney, also flashed a solid skillset on defense that bodes well for his NBA future.

Against the Lakers, Looney twice got the best of big man Julius Randle in a one-on-one fastbreak situation. On one sequence, he knocked the ball out of bounds with quick instincts and quicker hands. On the next, he held his ground and anticipated Randle’s movements and forced a jump-ball.

While Looney has a ways to go on offense, he has already displayed a prodigious ability to secure offensive and defensive rebounds — the finishing touches on any successful defensive stop. In that regard, he has that rare rebounding gene: he seems to play the game a half-second in the future, getting to spots on the floor to secure a rebound before any other rebounder has deciphered what bounce the ball will take off the rim.

A lot of the hype comes from the circus-show body Looney possesses. Stretch Armstrong blushes at his skyscraper standing reach (9’2”) and his F15-sized wingspan (7’4”). His nickname should be The Typo, because that’s precisely what front office suits had to have been thinking when reviewing his combine measurements.

While Iguodala scuffled to a tentative offensive showing through large swaths of preseason, his defensive chops remain immediately evident. His 20-inch arms look inessential or outright gratuitous until you see him rip the orange from the grasp of a guy listed as 30 lbs heavier than him from underneath the basket. His sixth sense for stripping the ball and superhuman ability to advance the ball from defense to offense was on display particularly against the Blazers.

Let’s clear the air: JaVale McGee is not a good defender. I love the guy. He is, in a literal sense, the biggest goofball on earth. He might be the most athletic 7-footer since Wilt. He has all the combine measureables that go into being a great shot-blocker. There’s no physical reason why he shouldn’t be the greatest shot-blocker of all time.

But the schism between common fan perception and the reality bared out through numbers exists in this nuance: there’s a difference between having the capabilities of a shot-blocker, and actually being an effective shot-blocker. McGee is often (sometimes, by his own admission, on purpose) out of place on defense. He doesn’t deter shots, he invites them for a chance of blocking them. That’s the opposite of what Ron Adams and common sense dictate.

McGee is also regularly seduced by the Dwight Howard bad block: Jordan Clarkson flailing tosses up a meek finger-roll that has zero chance of finding rim. McGee swats it into the 32nd row. Scowls. Gets on YouTube highlights. Tim Duncan or Bill Russell would have already corralled the shot and passed it up court, putting two more points on the board instead of gifting the opposition something tantamount to an offensive rebound.

Through interviews, both player and coach have stated they’re working on these issues. It’s scary for a 28 year old to be unlearning habits that should have been broken in high school, but there’s a reason why McGee is a few months removed of teetering on the cusp of NBA irrelevance.

Despite the harsh tenor, I’m hopeful. With Adams at the helm of his instruction and his NBA career on life support, McGee has his last, best shot at redemption carved out for him. If he can control his body and build the correct mindset to operate within the defensive construct, he can be effective.

Preseason McGee was tantalizing in small spurts. It’s bittersweet to be content with “tantalizing” when McGee has the one-in-a-million athleticism and frame to be “devastating”. But the lesson learned in rooting for McGee is to accept progress, big or small.

Others: Curry was his usual self, gambling at times on swipes but generally being a safe, sturdy cog in the defense ... Klay Thompson continues to let his shooting performance dictate his efforts on the perimeter: his activity and eagerness to move around off-ball defense acutely increased after a short surge in scoring from him in the second half of the Blazers game ... Draymond Green’s effort was hit-or-miss throughout preseason, but his defensive tenacity is about as likely to abandon him as Steph’s outside shot ... Durant continued his shot-blocking showcase from the Western Conference Finals, but can reliably get lost off-ball a few times a game.

Offense

In the coming weeks and months, my colleague Apricot will no doubt be churning out Explain One Plays detailing exact how Durant and Curry are leading their inevitable scorched-earth march across the NBAscape.

For right now, though, here’s a few things to highlight:

KD and Steph are getting on the same page, slowly. In the first half of the Blazers contest, KD and Steph had a few lost connections. KD is still grappling with the Warrio mantra of constant motion along the perimeter.

On one sequence in the first half, KD and Steph somehow ended up standing next to each other at the top of the key. Both Blazer defenders (in a moment of “What do we really have to lose?”) sprung a double on Steph out of bewilderment. Steph calmly allowed them to approach, sucking them into his gravity well before lofting a no-look pass over to the wing for a KD three... but KD had shadowed Steph, apparently looking to give Steph an outlet so that KD, in turn, could ISO at the top.

The ball sailed out of bounds, turnover.

Then, at the end of the half, we got an early look at the KD - Steph PnR. It worked, albeit disjointedly — it forced a switch and rotation across the board as defenders shuffled and crumpled under the combined gravity of the participants. But Curry waited too long to feed the ball to a cutting KD, and lobbed it over as KD had posted a smaller defender. KD had to pass back out to the perimeter to Iguodala, who wasted the possession in one of those “so smart that you’re dumb” plays.

Pachulia is a veritable Bogut on offense. Except, not really. Hear me out:

One of Steph’s highlights of the night was on a completely broken play. He weaved around a Draymond screen and meandered around the midrange, thoroughly spooking the Portland defense. He noticed Pachulia and McCaw scrunched in the corner, pointlessly waiting for something to happen. Then, defying logic, Steph darted towards them to further muddy up the corner.

It was free form jazz. It was improv. And Pachulia headily figured on the fly exactly what Curry was doing: he shut the impromptu elevator doors on the Blazers defenders trailing him, causing a Blues Brothers pile-up of Blazers as Steph hit a corner three.

Pachulia has that whip-fast processing time. He’s a smart, rugged, screen-setting foreign center. He’s a great passer and reads defenses well when he’s scouting them out at the top of the key as his teammates orbit around him in motion.

But he differs from Bogut in that he offers a further offensive wrinkle (as if the Warriors needed it). He’s well-equipped with a 16-foot pop shot as a bailout option, but it goes further than that. When he scans the defense, he’s also partially looking for scoring opportunities himself. Bogut didn’t do that; like Iguodala, he showed an outright aversion to score at times that bordered on the detrimental.

Zaza is as aggressive as he can be without taking shots away from the Fourriors, and that is fantastic news. He runs the floor when Green or Durant corrals rebounds. A few times, he got an early seal on his defender and the Warriors were able to lob the ball to him. Those plays generally result in free throws, which Zaza generally convert in a departure from Warrior big man tradition.

McCaw, again. One of the early knocks on the kid from St. Louis is his inconsistent form on his jump shots. Something to watch for is his shooting base, particularly on longer-range attempts. His foot placement seems wrong, although it may suit him to have a wider, staggered stance — it’s hard to tell until he takes more shots.

He does have a knack for close-range half-hooks and floaters. They don’t seem rigidly practiced (he’s not whipping out the Skyhook anytime soon), instead they seem more instinctual and reactionary. His game-winner against the Denver Nuggets is an example of his ability to weasel into the nooks and crannies of a defense, and of this ad-lib repertoire of in-close runners.

Others: Looney’s discomfort outside of 3 feet, along with his sub-65% college FT% suggest a heavy workload in the gym ... Klay Thompson’s shooting slumps no longer mean a titanic workload for Curry or a miracle outburst from a tertiary scorer, thanks to the addition of the 3rd highest all-time PPG scorer (hint: not West or Pachulia) ... James Michael McAdoo continues to not look like an NBA player ... It took all of 7 preseason games for KD and Steph to have huge scoring outputs in the same game, after 5 seasons of fans pining for Klay and Steph to do the same.

Lineups and Roles

It’s already been indicated that McCaw is being groomed to not only shoulder some of Leandro Barbosa’s ~1000 minutes, but to relieve the burden of some of Livingston and Andre Iguodala’s charge. He’s often been plugged into areas of the lineup not previously inhabited by Barbosa, but by Livingston and/or Iguodala.

Going back to that three-guard lineup of Clark/Curry + Livingston + McCaw: Barbosa only played 30 minutes last year with Livingston and Curry, or 3% of his minutes. Perhaps McCaw’s time operating as a Liguodalingston surrogate is coming sooner rather than later.

Speaking of Liguodalingston, neither of the steady peripheral-core veterans had a strong offensive showing in the preseason. Livingston’s normal operating zone in the mid-post has been encroached and gentrified by Durant, although it wouldn’t be hard to call a Livingston post-up while Durant hung out along the three point arc occasionally.

Iguodala vacillated between trigger-shy and rusty. He had a few signature “so smart you’re dumb” gaffes late in the shotclock against the Blazers.

These two veterans spent a lot of time on the court together last year -- six of Iguodala’s nine most-used lineups included Livingston, and vice-versa. This year may be the year that Steve Kerr splits up his two-headed bench dragon:

With Kevin Durant comes more intricate staggered rotations. Kerr has said he ideally wants to keep two of the Fantastic Fourriors together. Draymond-Curry and Durant-Klay seems to optimize an even spread of shooting, size, defense, rebounding, and playmaking ability. Durant and Klay have an oft-publicized relationship as after-practice shooting partners, and the Dray-Curry pick and roll was the Warriors’ most devastating play last year (though it may have been supplanted by the Durant-Curry PnR).

Naturally, Livingston and Durant should see a lot of minutes together in the second and third quarters. Curry and Durant should see minimal overlap of minutes, and Livingston is thoroughly entrenched as Curry’s chief backup. From this supposition, we already have 50% of the Warriors’ primary non-starters, non-SBDS lineups:

A) Livingston - Klay - Durant - X - X

B) Curry - X - X - Green - X

Wings (Iguodala, Clark, McCaw) Bigs (West, Looney, McAdoo, McGee, Varejao, Pachulia)

Assume that any of the bigs can occupy the last X in the lineups and basically function interchangeably. Placing Iguodala in Group A pushes Durant to the 4. With that move comes increased strain on defense. In addition to that issue, Iguodala in Group A leaves McCaw and Clark with Curry in Group B — forming the lightest 1-3 lineup possible from any configuration of Warrior players.

Iguodala’s most natural fit would be with Group B, along with one of Clark or McCaw and a nameless big. Group A will likely be pretty hefty, with two bonafide bigs next to an already lengthy lineup of Liv - Klay - Durant.

Speaking of small ball, Kerr actually played a Curry - Clark - McCaw - Iguodala - Green lineup in the first half against the Blazers.

You just can’t get any smaller than that without having Kay Felder or Isaiah Thomas on your team. But did it work?

On that particular night, against that particular team, yes, it did. The Super Small Ball Lineup moved well (as it should) and found traction on defense in part because of some point-blank misses from the Blazers, but also through some solid fundamental team concepts.

It’s hard to see this lineup seeing the light of day in the regular season with regularity, or perhaps at all. Kerr seems to have put the impetus on lowering the strain on Green, and reducing the aging Iguodala’s workload must also be far up on Kerr’s wish list, too. Having each play up a position in the same lineup is entirely counter to both of these objectives.

And thus, the regular season begins...