Narratives drive the NBA. No matter how pure your basketball intentions, narratives float to the surface of the league’s lake, enticing all who dare to watch the sport. Cupcakes. Triple-doubles. Processes, and trust.
The beauty of narratives is that they offer us stories, arcs, protagonists, and villains. The danger of narratives is that they risk clouding reality, or at least taking precedence over it.
Such is often the case with the Golden State Warriors. Success breeds narratives: the Dubs are simultaneously the team that so many love to love, and the team that so many love to hate.
The narrative that wove around Golden State this summer was simple: the rich get richer. And while this narrative certainly wasn’t incorrect, it did take the attention away from some deserving places. Namely, from Omri Casspi.
It’s easy to look at Casspi as a glorified Matt Barnes. A late-season addition last year, Barnes served the increasingly vital role of position-less perimeter player who can defend multiple positions, and knock down threes off the bench. When the season ended, Barnes was given a high-five and an open door, and in came Casspi to fill the void.
Except it’s not that simple. It’s not nearly that simple.
We tend to lump players into groups: starters are starting-caliber players, whether they’re winning 70 games or winning 20. Bench players are bench players, occasionally offering value as high-octane offensive weapons (think Jamal Crawford and Eric Gordon), but primarily biding time until the starters are well-rested.
Under these antiquated definitions, Omri Casspi is simply the second, third, or fourth man off the bench, a miniscule improvement as court gatekeeper. In reality, however, he’s an exceptional basketball player, who not only would be starting for many teams, but fits perfectly with what the Warriors do. Labeling him as anything other than a stellar addition who makes the team demonstrably better is simply a disservice.
Casspi’s fit with the Warriors
Casspi’s importance to the Dubs begins with coach Steve Kerr. After being handed the reins to the Golden State machine, Kerr promptly eschewed the traditional notion of bench play. By moving the low-scoring, do-everything Andre Iguodala to the pine, and promoting the higher-scoring, do-little-else Harrison Barnes to the starting five, Kerr committed to high quality bench play. He rejected the concept of isolation-heavy bench scorers chucking up shots (much the opposite of what his predecessor did), and implemented a team-oriented offensive style that mimicked the success of the San Antonio Spurs.
While the Warriors’ leading bench scorer (Andre Iguodala) averaged only 7.6 points per game last year, the bench unit as a whole was second in the league in assists and net rating, and first in field goal percentage, per NBA.com. And if there was a free agent this year ready to excel in a motion offense and provide immense value regardless of box score results, it was Omri Casspi.
Casspi provides the spacing that oils the Warriors machine: in 2015-16, his last fully healthy season (and the season used for all stats to follow), he shot 40.9% from deep. However, it’s not just the results Casspi gets, but how he gets them. When coming off a screen, Casspi averaged a whopping 1.16 points per possession, a mark that put him in the 90th percentile. When spotting up, he splashed in 1.02 points per possession, good for the 70th percentile.
Casspi is also an exceptional (and willing) cutter, a trait that is not only vital to Golden State’s success, but something that Matt Barnes struggled with. Casspi’s length, knowledge of screens, and ability to finish through contract make him a strong weapon heading to the hoop, which in turn opens up spacing for both he and his teammates.
If you’re reading this article, chances are you’ve watched a few Warriors games. And if you’ve watched a few Warriors games, it’s likely that you’ve noticed how much their ball movement-heavy offense relies on screens, cuts, and finding the open man. It’s here that the team and Casspi walk in nearly parallel lines.
Casspi possesses neither highlight athleticism, nor an angry scowl, which often leads to the perception that he struggles defensively. While unlikely to earn any Defensive Player of the Year votes, Casspi is quite competent on that end of the floor, and able to defend 3’s, 4’s, slower 2’s, and small-ball 5’s. He’s not a lock down defender by any stretch of the imagination, but his length and sound fundamentals in help defense situations afford him great success within a strong defensive scheme.
Of course, I’d be remiss to exclude the reason the Warriors have Casspi in the first place. No, not Lacob and Co.’s willingness to dig deep into their pockets, but the New Orleans Pelicans.
Thank you, New Orleans
The Pelicans acquired Casspi last year in the DeMarcus Cousins trade, only for Casspi to suffer an injury in his first game. New Orleans promptly waived Casspi to make room for former Warriors legend Reggie Williams, who saw action in all of one game before the season ended. In the process, the Pelicans lost Casspi’s Bird rights, and essentially their ability to sign him this offseason.
New Orleans recently signed Tony Allen and Darius Miles, because they had no small forwards, and no money. Had they retained Casspi’s Bird rights, he would not only be starting and getting heavy minutes for that team, but might be the difference between the lottery and a first round date with the Dubs.
The league consistently tells us, both subtly and overtly, that the Warriors have rigged the system unfairly. And yet, the league continues to make mind-boggling moves, making teams notably worse, and opening further doors for the Warriors.
Despite that all, Omri Casspi is more than just a forgotten castoff from New Orleans’ poorly-run ship. And he’s more than just a replacement for Matt Barnes. He’s a very good player, and one of the primary reasons we can expect the defending champs to be even better this coming year.