“The Warriors aren’t built around Curry. If they were, then he’d average 40+ points per game.”
That was Eric Apricot popping into our Slack chat and weighing in on what was wrong with the Warriors. This was a few days ago, before the most recent display of ineptitude that resulted in a blowout loss at home to the Oklahoma City Thunder.
And sure, he’s right. Coach Steve Kerr would certainly scoff at the notion that this paradise of egalitarian basketball is built around any one player. Ball movement, spacing, unselfish play. This team clearly works hard to live the “Strength in Numbers” slogan like it’s a mantra. But these losses are revealing an ugly dichotomy hidden behind all those high assist numbers: this clearly doesn’t work as well without Stephen Curry; and this team is top-heavy.
The reverse Ewing effect
The “Ewing theory” is a premise that describes a team getting better, somehow, after losing their star. Patrick Ewing went down against the Indiana Pacers in the 1999 NBA playoffs, but his team rallied to reel off three wins over the next four games and advanced to the NBA Finals.
With Curry, it appears as if we need to invent a new theory: The Curry paradox.
There’s no way this team should struggle this much without one or two players, no matter how critical. Thinking back to those Monta Ellis years, we would have been stoked to have both Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson as our franchise cornerstones. That’s a title-contending team - or it should be, anyways. But something weird happens when you look at the on/off numbers with all the permutations of our four main players on the court together:
...the Warriors go from plus-16.9 to plus-14.8 to plus-13.9 to plus-14.3 as you keep removing an All-Star from Curry. But as these numbers show, Curry is impervious....it’s clear: He is the system.
Ethan Strauss wrote an article on the Athletic that dove deeper into some of the differences with and without Curry. You should read the entire article, but the main point is that the team slows down without Curry - we went from one of the fastest teams to the second-slowest - and our half court sets are simply not the same without him.
There’s something else league observers note about this team: The Warriors are not so refined in the half-court, on account of playing so freely when Steph runs the show.
The Warriors don’t call a lot of plays, having relied on a more improvisational approach that’s stirred by Steph. So, when Curry is out, the Warriors’ record starts skipping. What used to flow freely slows and stutters, till the song is just labored breathing between mid-range jumpers.
A hidden dichotomy in Golden State’s offense
Beyond the systemic concerns, it’s worth noting that the Warriors “get everyone involved” is far from the populist rhetoric that we espouse. Last year, our core four players (Curry, Thompson, Durant, and Green) took over 50% of the team’s field goal attempts; throw in the departed Nick Young and David West and that value climbs to nearly 70% of the shots that the team took.
So this isn’t just about designing the offense differently, or picking up another bench shooter. Our supposedly-egalitarian offense is more akin to hegemony.
Just looking back a few years, the progression that led here is clear. After moving away from Leandro Barbosa and Mo Speights, the team learned that they did in fact want more shooting. Nick Young was... a mixed result. However, his departure leaves a hole in the roster - one that is partially filled by Jonas Jerebko. But this is an imperfect solution, and one that has exposed the lie hidden within the Strength in Numbers slogan: most of that strength comes from the top.
Without those top players (Curry and Green are out, Durant and Thompson aren’t shooting well), you get a lot of what we’ve seen over the past week or so. And it ain't pretty.
You see, while it may make sense to run an entirely different offense when Curry isn’t available, that is an unrealistic request - especially mid-season. Instead, it seems like we may all just want to bow our heads in thanks, and await the return of the team as designed. Don’t forget, it’s not just Curry and Green we are waiting for - Demarcus Cousins, our biggest free agent acquisition since Kevin Durant, has yet to make it onto the court.
There’s no fancy offense that will bump Andre Iguodala’s scoring average up to 18 points per game, and Damion Lee (as nice as he looks sometimes) isn’t going to carry a significant scoring burden successfully.
And that’s the secret truth of this team - our Strength in Numbers slogan is outdated but the Warriors’ true strength actually comes from just a few significant contributors.
Thanks and gratitude
Happy Thanksgiving everyone!
From all of us here at Golden State of Mind, we wish you and your family and friends well in the holiday season. Be kind, be grateful, but above all: be gold-blooded.