‘Strength in Numbers’ has become a core part of the culture for Steve Kerr’s Golden State Warriors organization.
But inconsistent rotations to open the season got me wondering a crazy question: is there such a thing as too much depth?
Kerr has been performing a juggling act to start the season, trying out lots of different combos, and struggling to find a clear rotation.
At present the Warriors are deactivating a player every night who could contribute.
On Monday against the Clippers it was Kevon Looney’s turn again; in the previous two games, Kerr deactivated Jordan Bell despite him being one of the team’s more effective big men to start the season.
It’s worth remembering how we got here. Kevin Durant took a bigger than expected discount so we could bring back Shaun Livingston and add Nick Young on the taxpayer mid-level exception (MLE).
Going into the summer, both re-signing Livingston and using the taxpayer MLE seemed farfetched.
Along with all three of the centers returning from last year, Omri Casspi signing, and Jordan Bell’s emergence, there’s a bit of a logjam going on.
Struggles with the second unit
The most obvious place to start are the lineups that begin the second quarter without Stephen Curry.
First, playing without Steph Curry is hard. His unique style of play has revolutionized the NBA, and nobody can replicate what he does.
It’s no coincidence Curry has stormed the league in plus-minus over the last three years:
- In 16/17 he led the league with + 1016
- In 15/16 he was second behind Draymond Green with + 1022
- In 14/15 he led the league with +920
And just for good measure, he even the led the league in plus-minus pre-Kerr with a rating of +573 in the 13/14 season.
The task of backing up Curry and nominally playing point guard has fallen to Livingston in the last few years.
But Livingston is a very different player. Indeed he plays more like a playmaking wing in the mold of Andre Iguodala than a traditional backup point guard.
With the lineups to start the second and fourth quarters containing Livingston, Iguodala and David West, the game understandably slows down. The problem is that the slower the Warriors play, the less effective they are. Just check out the stats...
Of the lineups used for more than 100 minutes last year, the ‘long-ball lineup’ including Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant alongside Livingston, Iguodala, and West, had a pace of 96.65 possessions per game and a net rating of 13.3.
The other most common second unit featured Green instead of Durant and played at a pace of 93.73 with a net rating of 11.7.
Neither of those stats sound too bad, but compared to the Warriors’ other main lineups, they were both noticeably slower and less effective.
- The regular starting crew of Curry, Thompson, Durant, Green and Zaza Pachulia played at a pace of 103.65 and had a net rating of 23.1.
- The so-called ‘Hamptons 5’ of Curry, Thompson, Iguodala, Durant, and Green played at a pace of 107 and had a net rating of 23.9.
- The starters with Javale McGee instead of Pachulia played at a pace of 107.25 and had a whopping 32.1 net rating.
About halfway through the season, Livingston was moved off this second unit last year. He spent almost all his non-garbage time minutes in the playoffs on the floor with Curry. This was part of the move to play Curry and Durant together more, but it also utilized Livingston as an auxiliary player rather than initiating the offense.
The problem was that in the playoffs this left Ian Clark, Thompson, Iguodala, Green, and West as the default second unit. They had a great defensive rating of 98.7 but were just as slow at a 95.35 pace, and couldn’t score enough, actually ending up with a negative net rating of -4.
That’s why they brought in Nick Young - to add some offensive punch to the second unit.
Finding a role for Nick Young
It’s still early for Young but so far the results haven’t been great. Livingston started off the season back on that second unit. The ‘long ball’ unit has already played the second most minutes of any line up so far - with a familiar net rating of 11.8 at a pace of 95.96.
Compared to some of the other units, it’s by no means a disaster, but it still feels like we’re not maximizing the talent on the roster. Indeed, the last two games have seen Livingston back with Curry and company.
Young had a decent debut, concentrating on catch and shoot opportunities to nail six three pointers, but overall was a -10.
But with inconsistent minutes he’s not looked his swaggiest so far. He’s struggling to move off the ball, over-dribbling or taking bad shots, and demonstrating poor defensive awareness.
Some of this is likely teething pains. But part of the problem of this added depth is that it means more tinkering. Young plays one game, then Patrick McCaw plays. (If it continues like that, then it’s the turn of one Swaggy P against the Spurs. Yeah...)
There’s no chance to get into a rhythm or gain familiarity with new teammates. For a shooter like Young who is new not just to the team, but the style of play as well, that is a real challenge. He’s not being put in a position to succeed.
Of course, integrating Young means less minutes for the promising McCaw and the other new summer addition Casspi.
Without a backup point guard on that second unit, the Warriors need ball and player movement, sharp cutting, willing passing, and stout defense. That’s what both these guys bring, but so far they’re getting lost in the mix.
Clearing the logjam
One route the Warriors could take is to treat Nick Young like his former teammate and fellow cinnamon fiend Javale McGee. They can use him for specific match-ups, or when the team needs a jolt of energy and someone to make some shots. And nearly always playing with the starters.
The stat that gave many of us hope when he joined was the 40% shootings from three and the 170 made threes that he shot in catch-and-shoot situations last year.
So perhaps it’s best to have him do that, rather than put him in a situation where he’s being asked to do things he’s proven over his career he’s not so good at — moving without the ball or initiating the offense, for example.
The second unit could then feature McCaw and Casspi along with Thompson, Iguodala, and West.
They provide the cutting needed without a point guard and there would be a consistent unit to start the second quarter that can move the ball and defend. If a bit more offense or defense is needed, Durant or Green can be brought back a little bit earlier.
With Livingston going back to playing alongside Curry, or as an Iguodala alternative, this could ease the logjam.
And these two changes could lead to reduction in Iguodala’s load a bit, keeping him fresh throughout the season.
It could also reduce Durant’s and Thompson’s minutes. So far this season Durant is playing a team high 36.4 minutes per game with Thompson second on 34.3 minutes per game.
One of the points of the ‘Strength in Numbers’ philosophy is to keep those numbers down.
The big man conundrum
This only deals with the wing logjam though. There is the added challenge with the bigs…
The Warriors possess five guys who can contribute—Pachulia, West, McGee, Bell, and Looney—competing for one spot on the court. That’s not to mention that when the chips are really down Draymond Green is the best center the team has.
However, the big man rotation on closer inspection is potentially less concerning.
Over the course of the season they'll be bad matchups for McGee, and Zaza and West are old enough that they'll be plenty of time for Bell and Looney to show their stuff.
And we may need all three of Bell, Looney and Damian Jones next year if the current trio of centers leaves.
Strength in numbers is a work in progress
Overall, though the Warriors are currently lacking coherence partly as a result of their extended depth.
It’s important to note that over the course of the season it will likely work out fine.
In the end, come playoff time, things will get tightened up and there might be one or two having to sit. Because of the playing time throughout the year, if anyone is needed they should be ready (that’s the theory anyway).
Indeed, against the Clippers it was noticeable that the rotation was much tighter and more clearly defined. It wasn’t until garbage time that Casspi and Young got to strut their stuff.
And of course Durant’s selfless discount may well pay off later down the line when it’s Thompson’s and Green’s time to sign contracts. Thompson has already said he might take a discount (though not as large as Durant’s).
But right now Kerr’s got some work to do to finesse the various pieces at his disposal into the finely-tuned machine that we’re used to seeing.
All statistics thanks to Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com