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Warriors’ links: Golden State’s defensive prowess, turnover problems, Stephen Curry’s ‘down’ season

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After a disappointing loss in Cleveland, the Warriors bounced back for solid wins at home. But questions persist about the significance of the team’s lingering problems ... and how much longer it will take to work them out.

Toronto Raptors v Golden State Warriors Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The most excited I have been about a Golden State Warriors’ game this season was probably their game against the Toronto Raptors following their disappointing loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers on Christmas Day.

I was definitely among those who didn’t put much stock into the Christmas game because: a) it should be quite clear that winning in December doesn’t mean a whole lot in June; and b) I was somewhat overconfident about the Warriors getting a win that day. So watching the Warriors blow a 14-point lead largely because the Cavs were able to make tough shots while the Warriors made some poor decisions with the ball was really frustrating.

I was looking forward to seeing how they would respond in their next game and what they gave us against the Raptors in the first quarter last Wednesday was some of the most exquisite basketball we’ve seen this season. It’s not at all a stretch to say that it was what we all imagined we’d see when the team added Kevin Durant this offseason after falling to the Cavs in the 2016 NBA Finals.

One thing that stood out on offense was that the players were so much more willing to make the simple play over the highlight-reel play (in the first quarter … ), which even included a good old-fashioned two-handed bounce pass, if I recall correctly. Yet what really stood out more than anything else was how locked in they were defensively. It’s not that they haven’t been good on defense to begin with this season — they have. But, until the face-off against the Raptors, I’m not sure we’d seen them defend with such purpose and intensity.

Of course, the game ended up being a bit of a roller coaster. But, the next day, Basketball Reference offered up some news I don't think we’ve been celebrating quite enough in between griping about when, where and how often Stephen Curry gets his touches: the Warriors have been playing extremely good defense lately and they could be one of the top defenses in recent memory if they can stay locked in as a unit for longer stretches of their games.

So, let’s start 2017 off by just celebrating a few things together, shall we?

The Warriors’ defense is good and only getting better

This hasn’t gotten as much attention as it probably should while people are trying to manufacture panic about Stephen Curry’s performance this season, but the Warriors are closing in on being the top team in both offensive and defensive efficiency this season.

After beating the Toronto Raptors last week, the Warriors passed the Memphis Grizzlies as the top defensive team in the league by the narrowest of margins. According to Basketball Reference, the team is tied if you round to the nearest tenth, but narrowly ahead if you extend things a bit.

Of course, there are different ways to calculate defensive efficiency, so the Warriors are either first or second depending on where you look. But the main point is that they’ve been extremely good defensively since starting the season a bit slow, as described by Anthony Slater of the Bay Area News Group.

...over the past month and a half, the Warriors have clamped down more consistently. There have been notable slip-ups — in Memphis, in the first half at Brooklyn — but defense, as much as offense, is at the backbone of a 19-3 push over the past 22 games.

During that span, the Warriors’ offensive rating was 113.1, relatively level with the first 11 games, but their defensive rating was 98.7, far stingier than the first third of the season.

For those that aren’t well-versed in all the advanced metrics, a little perspective on that 98.7 defensive rating:

The Spurs were tops in the NBA at 99.55 last season and they were on a historic pace for much of the season. The Warriors might not keep up that pace, but right now they’re playing extremely well on the defensive end.

And when you dig deeper, you see that Golden State is an extremely well-rounded defense to boot.

How important is Kevin Durant to the Warriors’ defensive success?

With the Warriors playing so well on defense, of course there’s a lot of talk about Green as a front-runner for Defensive Player of the Year after missing out over the last two seasons. It should come as no surprise that consecutive slights would have Green fired up to avenge the losses this season, as described by Kalama Hines of SF Bay Sports.

But the bigger revelation this season has probably been Kevin Durant’s defensive performance. Not only is Durant scoring, he’s rebounding and blocking shots, too — which has him becoming a type of well-rounded small forward that we haven’t really seen in the modern NBA.

And Durant’s defensive prowess this season had Brett Oswalt of NumberFire arguing that Durant should be a serious candidate for Defensive Player of the Year, though not necessarily surpassing Draymond Green.

...Durant and Green are pretty even, as evidenced by their 2.2 defensive win shares apiece. In terms of defensive box plus-minus, however, Green has a commanding 5.0 to 2.6 advantage.

If we turn to on/off numbers to answer the question of whether Durant or Green is playing better defensively, Durant would be the guy.

With Draymond off the floor, teams actually shoot at an effective field goal percentage 2% worse than they do with him on (48.8%). They also have a higher offensive and total rebounding percentage in his time on the court, as well.

In contrast, the Warriors have a better defensive rebounding rate (75.6%) when Durant's on the floor and allow a lower effective field goal percentage (47.6%). This, combined with his offensive impact, makes up a difference of -6.9 in net rating with Durant off versus on the floor, compared to Green's -5.2 (via NBA.com).

And, for Durant, the impressive thing is that he has done all of this without having to sacrifice much.

Unfortunately, Stephen Curry is experiencing a different tale of sacrifice this season.

How much do Curry’s struggles really matter?

After Curry struggled on Christmas Day against the Cavs, there was a somewhat overwrought commotion on social media wondering why he’s “struggling” this season. As stated previously, I loved his response to the question as he is still putting up numbers that even some Hall of Famers wish they could match. And it’s somewhat ridiculous to even expect that he would continue to play at the levels he has performed over the last two seasons. As it turns out, he’s human after all.

Yet, acknowledging all of that, Kris Fenrich of The Step Back dug deep into Curry’s numbers to compare this season’s to the last two and did a good job of quantifying what’s going on, including this tidbit about the nature of the game that I think just about anyone who has actually played competitively can relate to:

From my view, it’s not because they’re looking to tally assists, but because they’re relishing the moment, the flow, and the exploration of the beautiful. As an exceptionally amateur basketball player, even I am familiar with the pull of the unspoken connection between teammates. You play a pickup game with strangers and without ever discussing it, someone sets a pick on your defender and they roll hard (!!!) and you recognize it and hit them with the pocket pass as if you’ve practiced it your entire lives. The flipside of that experience is when everything goes as planned and they roll, but the pass isn’t there and yet, because you’re communicating and in synch with one another, you force the pass because you’re caught up in the moment and so desperately want to express that acknowledgement – “I see you!” What I just described is the most micro of microcosms of what I see when the Warriors force these passes and ignore perfectly appropriate open looks.

That’s essentially the longer way of saying what Hugo Kitano managed to summarize in less than 140 characters with his Kermit vs. Evil Kermit meme the other night.

None of that is to dismiss the fact that, indeed, he is not getting the same number of looks off the dribble. As Fenrich alluded, this has been Curry’s comfort zone in the past few year. But I think this needs to be seen as less of a problem and viewed instead as a process the Warriors are going through in maximizing their talent, which includes figuring out the right lineups.

Nevertheless, while Fenrich describes that flair as something of a virtue, there is also certainly a way in which it manages to be a major problem for stretches of the game.

How much do the Warriors’ turnovers really matter?

The Warriors’ tendency for flair is ultimately a combination of style and substance. For a player like JaVale McGee, it has actually resurrected his career — putting his athleticism to use in entertaining yet highly effective ways while simultaneously limiting the potential for future Shaqtin’ moments, as Jake Fischer of SI described last Wednesday.

The Play of the Year 2016 has to be Andre Iguodala’s ridiculous fast-break behind-the-back between-the-legs alley-oop to Shaun Livingston during the Raptors game. I’m not even sure how anybody would think that up or why one would feel compelled to do it in a game, but when the Warriors pull off plays like this they produce some truly glorious basketball. It’s just too bad that this bucket did not count.

McGee’s quote in the SI article seems to explain the 2016-17 Warriors as well as the Kermit vs. Evil Kermit meme.

With his Go-Go Gadget arms, McGee can stuff anything remotely close to the hoop. “I just know he’s gonna throw it and he doesn’t care about the turnover,” McGee told SI.com, twirling a strand of his beard as it stretched with his smile.

However, when they misfire on these fits of basketball creativity, bad things can happen.

As Connor Letourneau of the San Francisco Chronicle noted in an article this past Thursday — after the Warriors committed nine turnovers in the second quarter to squander their hot start — the problem is finding a balance for that positive penchant to share the ball and that problematic issue of throwing the ball away by oversharing, “...which is only negative when it comes at the expense of an open shot” (sort of echoing a point Fenrich made).

Letourneau quantified the dilemma as follows:

In its 28 wins, Golden State has averaged 14.5 turnovers. In its five losses, it has coughed up the ball an average of 19 times. And the Warriors often have been at their worst against some of the league’s best ... The league leader with 31.2 assists per game, the Warriors are 21-1 this season when dishing out at least 30 assists. No other NBA team has more than six 30-assist games. With 49 regular-season games left, Golden State is already the first team since the 1996-97 Bulls to record at least three 40-assist games in a season.

A call for patience

It’s worth emphasizing that this is neither some made-up narrative or something the team is in denial about. Letourneau quoted Kerr and a couple players about the issue and Ian Clark has commented on it from his perspective as well.

But rather than complain about it as some inherent fatal flaw, we need to see it as part of a growth process. Some turnovers will happen. In Letourneau’s article, Kerr set the goal at a reasonable 13 per game.

And, as a point guard (we agree on this now, right?), Curry is going to have to continue growing into a role in which he must balance an embarrassment of riches: otherworldly passing options and his own extraterrestrial ability to shoot the ball. But Golden State is fine. It is the fans who might want a bit more from Curry for the thrill factor than the Warriors actually need for success.