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The Warriors are fitting the profile of a two-way championship contender

Beating almost everyone placed in front of them so far, the Warriors’ elite two-way profile has the makings of a team that can go all the way to the top once again.

Chicago Bulls v Golden State Warriors Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Let’s get the caveats out of the way.

The Golden State Warriors are 11-1. Seven of those wins are against teams who are below .500, while one is against a .500 team. That leaves three wins against teams with winning records: the two Los Angeles teams and the Chicago Bulls.

It cannot be denied that the Warriors have faced an easier schedule than most. They have played only three road games so far, while finishing an almost unprecedented eight-game homestand that they managed to mostly dominate — albeit, mostly against teams they’re supposed to be dominating.

With that out of the way, let’s get to the fun stuff.

After their dominant 119-93 victory over the Bulls — who were Eastern Conference co-leaders with the Washington Wizards going into the game — the Warriors are leaving the comfy confines of Chase Center as a two-way juggernaut.

Take into consideration these numbers:

  • Second in offensive rating (112.8)
  • First in defensive rating (98.7, including being the only team in the league with a sub-100 defensive rating)
  • First in net rating, outscoring opponents by 14.1 points per 100 possessions — nearly 5 points better than the team behind them, the Utah Jazz

The recipe for a championship contender has always involved two-way competency. A top-five offense combined with a top-five defense instantly places a team within that echelon of contenders who can make it all the way to the top. These Warriors are proving early on that something special is brewing, and that it’s no mere fluke.

Stephen Curry: Screen-setter and screen benefactor

The offensive side of the equation, to no one’s surprise, is being driven by Stephen Curry. He continues to be the engine of a machinery that is the league’s second-most efficient, just behind the Philadelphia 76ers, who are coincidentally being led by another Curry.

Curry started out slowly, having several low-output games and statistically being not up to par in terms of his shooting and overall efficiency. But he is beginning to ramp up his scoring — the past three games have seen him score 50, 25, and 40, with a noticeable uptick in efficiency.

“It follows the usual pattern of how I start seasons,” Curry said. “A lot of it too is just staying aggressive, locked in on how I’m trying to get off on most nights, working through our system in offense and not really worrying about the output. It’s just about trying to find ways to win games and create momentum, and usually good things happen.”

Curry is now averaging 28.4 points, 6.3 rebounds, and 6.4 assists, on 45/40/95 shooting splits and 63.3% True Shooting — all vastly improved splits from a few games ago, boosted by a 40-point performance against the Bulls where he shot 6-of-7 on twos and 9-of-17 on threes.

But beyond the scoring prowess and sharpshooting pedigree, it’s the things Curry is willing to do for his teammates that exceptionally stand out. Arguably no other number one option, let alone a superstar of the highest magnitude, is willing to go out of his way to get his teammates going.

Curry’s willingness to set screens — both on and off the ball — is surpassed only by their effectiveness:

Peep at Curry setting a variety of screens for teammates above: “Flex” screens, down-screens for shooters such as Jordan Poole, inverted pick-and-rolls where Curry is the screener setting a pick for a bigger teammate, and even on inbounds plays, counting on his pull to attract two defenders, which leaves the inbounder open.

Curry averages 1.7 screen assists per game, and generates 3.8 screen-assist points per game — both of which lead all guards in the league, per NBA.com’s tracking data.

“(I’m) still trying to find opportunities for everybody,” Curry said. “Still trying to find an identity of how we’re going to win, and everybody being comfortable in their roles and all of that, but we’re winning and learning on the fly with some really good momentum.”

Defending Curry is a massive pain in the backside. It requires near-100-percent mindfulness and attentiveness — something that is almost impossible to achieve, even for a top-ranked defense such as the Bulls.

Such difficulty is glaring during the Warriors’ low-post split action sets. The Bulls mostly counted on its crop of competent man-to-man defenders — Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso — to navigate around screens and keep up with Curry on split cuts.

There were successful moments for them, but Curry found ways to break loose and punish the Bulls for dropping back their bigs on screening actions — both on and off the ball.

During those possessions where the Bulls tried to “top-lock” Curry — overplay him and deny him from using screens — Curry improvised through back cuts and relocating to open spots on the floor, with help from flipped screening angles and pinpoint passing.

This statistical nugget should come as to no surprise, but it is quite amazing nonetheless: Curry has been the most lethal scorer on off-ball screens, scoring 1.49 points per off-screen possession, per Synergy. Such play types are the bread and butter of the Warriors offense; even if Curry doesn’t get to score on them, the advantage situations created from them will allow his teammates to score in his stead.

Defensive variety and discipline

The Warriors are putting up a sub-100 defensive rating — the only team to maintain such a number this season — despite not having any All-Defensive-Team members besides Draymond Green.

Instead of high-profile one-on-one defense, the Warriors have been counting on their collective synergy and chemistry to make opposing offenses’ lives difficult. They’re making opponents miss — opponents shoot an effective field-goal percentage (eFG%) of 49.2%, 3rd in the league. They’re rebounding 75.5% of opponents’ misses — 7th in the league — despite playing a plethora of small lineups and having no bona fide 7-footer on the active roster.

Their 10.8 steals per game puts them at the top, while they are second in the league in deflections per game — 18.3. Passing lanes are never secure with the likes of Andrew Wiggins, Andre Iguodala, and Gary Payton II roaming and patrolling them.

Combining length, athleticism, and anticipatory guile, the Warriors are adept at luring desperate passes from ball handlers and forcing turnovers.

They’ve also been willing to mix up their schemes and looks. While they still heavily rely on the traditional man-to-man defense, the Warriors are among the most prolific zone users in the league — 5.1% of their defensive possessions have been in some form of zone, 5th highest in the league, per Synergy.

While the 1-2-2 configuration has been their most used form of zone, the Warriors haven’t been hesitant to throw out the “junk” defense that Curry himself has seen used against him in the past. They previously threw out a box-and-one against Trae Young, which was successful in limiting his touches and tempering his scoring and playmaking output.

They unholstered the box-and-one yet again, this time against Zach LaVine, with Payton being assigned the task of face-guarding LaVine and the other four defenders zoning up in a “box.” The Warriors were intent on limiting LaVine’s touches and preventing him from obtaining any sort of rhythm:

They also mixed in hedges and traps on LaVine, preventing outright switches and forcing the Bulls’ other four players to create offense without the help of their All-Star guard. The Warriors’ backline defense behind those hedges and traps were more than sufficient in rotating and holding out just enough for disadvantage situations to stabilize.

“Our motto has been ‘Strength in Numbers’ and we got guys that have not always been known as defenders, but everybody has bought in since day one about our defensive schemes and we have been executing so far,” Kevon Looney said. “We have been pretty good on the defensive end, but it’s a long season and we have to keep up our good habits.”

The Warriors have had an identity of a connected defensive unit since last season, where they finished 5th in defensive rating. But they largely failed to capitalize on their defensive pedigree, due to their offense — 20th in efficiency — failing to complement it, despite an otherworldly MVP-caliber season from Curry.

This year, with better-fitting spacing and playmaking personnel that serves as mutualistic fuel for Curry to lead the offense, the Warriors defense has tired out opponents and set them up for their offense to kill.

A humming offense and a stingy defense are two components of the NBA championship recipe — and this early in the season, the Warriors are looking like world beaters once again.