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Golden State Warriors pre-All Star season review

Heading into the All Star break, the Warriors sit at 48-4. Where have they come from, what have they done, and what can we look forward to?

Jennifer Stewart-USA TODAY Sports

There are a million and one ways to qualitatively, quantitatively, or anecdotally describe how good the Golden State Warriors have been through the All Star break. There are just as many ways to showcase how fast this particular core has ascended from mediocre to good to great to the greatest. Lets look at a few, to fully appreciate what that last sentence meant visually.

Season Key Additions Simple Rating System (SRS) Score
2015 - 2016 -- 11.51
2014 - 2015 Shaun Livingston, Steve Kerr, Ron Adams, Alvin Gentry* 10.01
2013 - 2014 Andre Iguodala 5.15
2012 - 2013 Draymond Green, Harrison Barnes, Festus Ezeli 1.32
2011 - 2012 Klay Thompson, Andrew Bogut, Mark Jackson*, Mike Malone* -2.79
2010 - 2011 David Lee* -2.00
2009 - 2010 Stephen Curry -3.28
2008 - 2009 Jamal Crawford*, Corey Maggette* -3.80

*No longer with the team

Notice how the SRS column steadily climbs out of the abyssal plain, only interrupted by the 2012 season which saw Curry sit most of the year with tender ankles and Monta Ellis traded for an injured Bogut who joined Curry on the bench. Then note the subsequent huge improvement the Warriors saw once Curry and Bogut rejoined Klay Thompson and Harrison Barnes on the court the next year (Draymond will have to wilt on the vine for a few years before anyone bothers to check is he's good at playing basketball).

One thing worth noting, that did not happen consistently enough on a year-to-year basis for it to warrant its own column, is that Joe Lacob, Jerry West, and Bob Myers — the engineers behind the Warriors' ascent into the NBA stratosphere -- have not only shown an aptitude for bringing in the right people, but also for letting the wrong people go in lieu of better options. Nowhere is it more apparent than in the quantum five-point leap in SRS rating from 2013-2014 to 2014-2015, which reflects the coaching change from Jackson to Kerr. Livingston is a nice player, but his mere presence does not create unprecedented team-wide improvements.

Andre Iguodala's grand entrance before 2013-2014 is another case of the SRS positively responding not only to the addition of a great contributor, but also the departure of poor ones. Jarrett Jack and Carl Landry were hard-nosed competitors and not much else for a Warriors team that Lacob and co. were attempting to metamorphose into something grander, in which Iguodala played a part in and players like ISO Jack did not.

This is what such a commitment to building the right team looks like in the end. Curry's first year in the league saw the team win less than three in every ten games before the All Star break. This season they've lost less than one in every ten games, and Curry is the only player still around from those 2009-2010 days. His coach is different. The team owner, advisor, general manager, supervisor of player medicine, and possibly janitor have all changed around him. As someone who has been with the Warriors since before they began this franchise-wide ascent, it's unsurprising that cleansing the culture and rebranding the entire organization required an exodus of everyone except #30.

Perhaps lost in the hubbub of 73 wins and multiple MVPs and Kevon Looney's unstoppable, scorched-earth campaign into our hearts is that the on-court improvement may not be the most miraculous turnaround for the Warriors. The Warriors having anemic morale and a toxic locker room is not ancient history. Dell Curry did not Larry Riley to draft his son just six years ago, about the same time when Klay Thompson was scratching his head, wondering if there was a team that played in Oakland.

From an inimical irrelevancy to the model franchise of the entire NBA, in the time span of attaining a bachelor's degree at San Francisco State University.

A look back

With only four losses on the docket, it's hard to be critical of anything without first acknowledging that any faults in planning and execution have been minor at worst. This is, after all, a team that has trailed only 37 minutes in the past 11 games — and hasn't trailed in the fourth at all over that time span. With that caveat that none of these negatives are harbingers of a new dark era, let's peruse some less-than-sterling observations of the pre-All Star break Warriors.

No lineup featuring Harrison Barnes at the three has a point differential better than the team's average (+13.0). Only two of the ten lineups above the average feature Barnes at all, and one of them has only played 21 minutes together. This is more a negative for Barnes' agent, as it muddles up just how valuable Barnes is to the team. Instead of the classically understood concept that he plays two (or more positions) well, which increases his versatility, he only contributes to a better-than-Warrior-standard lineup as a four.

Of course, five of his seven lineups are strongly positive, so the team is still outperforming its opponents most of the time he's been on the floor. But the team hasn't been outperforming itself when he's been on the floor as a small forward.

There's ample time during the rest of the season for Barnes to reassert himself in his small forward role, and lineup data from less than a season of games can be strongly influenced by a few bad stretches of play from a certain group. For Barnes to be worth what he views himself as worth, though, he'll have to display fluency at both forward positions, and not just the four spot.

The four-man combination of Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston, Marreese Speights, and Leandro Barbosa that usually starts out the fourth quarters of games has a -6.4 point differential per 100 possessions. They foul at a higher rate than all but one Warrior lineup and the only other four man group that shoots worse from the field relative to their opponents features Barnes in place of Speights.

It's not hard to see why the Warrior starters usually check back into the game with the score a little bit tighter than when they left it. It's strange, as Iguodala features in the top seven best lineups by PD, and the two worst lineups by PD. In any case, Kerr has been fiddling with the third quarter minutes as of late, attempting to bring in Klay earlier to minimize these bench minutes.

One explanation for this group's inability to score is Speights' early-season slump depressing their numbers. Another would be that Iguodala and Livingston's pass-first mentalities allow the defense to play five-on-three in the half court, swallowing up Speights' midrange jumper. One way to counteract this would be to play folk-legend Brandon Rush with the unit and run endless Livingston - Speights pick-and-pops, forcing the defense to keep switching until someone leaves Rush on the perimeter for an open shot.

The final major negative for the first part of the season is brought to you by Festus Ezeli's creaky knees. The center is currently out at least six weeks after undergoing exploratory arthroscopic surgery on his left knee. He has now had a surgery on each knee and has now appeared in just 55% of the total regular season games the Warriors have played in since they drafted him at number 30 overall in 2012.

Ezeli's injuries only complicate Myers' negotiations next summer. There are myriad reasons to believe that this is simply a one-time ambush of injuries and complications; a veritable bump in the road that will be forged through and soon forgotten as Ezeli progresses through his playing career. The major negative effect of this injury is the way it complicates general manager Bob Myers' ability to evaluate him and set a reasonable contract value on his contributions. Myers has time and again proved himself a brilliant manager, and he was gifted a laughably under-paid Curry contract as he began his tenure that has allowed him to navigate the salary cap while obtaining better players. The summer of Iguodala has been his magnum opus so far, but this upcoming summer with two extensions in Barnes and Ezeli looming and the prospects of a Kevin Durant signing flitting around Myers' peripheral vision could prove to be his best, if he can play the Warriors' cards right.

It could also be potentially disastrous if he doesn't.

The good news from the first part of the season is more readily apparent. No one has ever won as many games in so short a time span as the Warriors have. It's still unclear if a fully healthy Warriors squad is better than a fully healthy San Antonio Spurs squad, but age and attrition has so far favored the blue and gold.

Stephen Curry continues to skew everything we thought we understood about the usual improvement curve. One has to wonder whether his late-stage bloom into greatness was delayed due to the year off he had, or if it was inspired and motivated by those same early-career problems.

Klay Thompson continues to be the second greatest shooter of all time. Draymond Green is enjoying a banner year as the world's deadliest under-seven footer roll man. Andrew Bogut and Iguodala have quietly maintained their steady veteran defensive roles, and Livingston has taken his turn to have a career-best shooting year.

The sun shines on the Golden State.

A look ahead

The Warriors have nothing left to prove this year. A 25-5 run through the remaining 30 games gets them the greatest record of all time, but that seems less and less important the closer the start of the playoffs approach.

The most crucial things to do, in order of decreasing importance, are

  1. Stay ahead of the Spurs in the standings. While Tim Duncan's return means the Spurs will get a nice boost back into historically-great defense, Manu Ginobili's absence and the general middle-agedness of the roster means that Gregg Popovich may call it curtains on trying to overtake the Warriors in the standings by late March. This decision to call the dogs off will also hinge on if Popovich believes the Oklahoma City Thunder are beatable in the playoffs. The Spurs, sans Duncan and Ginobili, almost dropped a game to a geriatric Kobe Bryant at home, and needed a buzzer beater from Kawhi Leonard to avoid overtime against an Orlando Magic team that is 4-16 since New Years Eve.
  2. Experiment with lineups and strategies against potential playoff opponents. Coach Kerr and co. should be in full-on test drive mode when playing any of the currently seeded 4-10 seeds in the West. There's no better time to test new looks than in a regular season game. Included in this category is for Kerr to not reveal his full hand to Popovich in the last three games versus the Spurs.
  3. Intersperse games with playoff rotations. Remind the core players' muscle memory what high-intensity minutes feel like before they have to learn on the fly in the first round.
  4. Strategically rest high-usage players. This is lower than the others because, well, the Warriors have had a relatively easy workload so far. It's not imperative, but the less minutes a player plays, the less chance injuries (both freak and accumulated stress-related) occur.

Almost every action the Warriors should and should not take is dictated with the Spurs in mind. While none of the remaining match ups carry much weight — the two times the Warriors play in San Antonio is on a second game of a back-to-back, lessening their takeaways and results significantly — a bigger strategic chess game is being played with the notion that either the Spurs or the Warriors will be the champions this year in mind. For the first time in a long time, LeBron James' team is largely irrelevant from the bigger championship picture.

There is still a lot of basketball to be played in this season, but that fact also displays the gluttonous bloat of the season. There is a lot of meaningless minutes to be played, with only the superficial motivators of individual awards and team goals of win totals making the individual games passingly interesting

Unless, of course, Popovich remembers last season's last-minute regular season collapse that may have eventually led to their elimination in the playoffs. If the Spurs throw caution to the wind and make a mad sprint to the finish line instead of giving Tony Parker and Tim Duncan their usual mid-March vacation, this regular season becomes very interesting. In any case, we've just seen the greatest first part to a season yet.

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