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Experience and improvisation are keeping the Warriors afloat

The starters are carrying a heavy burden early on.

Sacramento Kings v Golden State Warriors Photo by Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images

The Golden State Warriors run an intricate collection of offensive “sets” — emphasis on the quotation marks, because the more accurate term to describe what the Warriors run are “concepts.”

Understanding these concepts, internalizing them, and translating them into a coherent on-court product requires a multitude of factors. For one, it takes time — the more years and reps you’ve spent under such concepts, the more they’ll be second nature to you; the more your skill set fits under such circumstances, the faster you’ll pick them up and get the hang of them; and the more your teammates fit around you like puzzle pieces, the more you’ll have trust in each other to paint an exquisite picture.

The Warriors’ starting unit survived a 2022 playoff gauntlet and came out of it champions. The chemistry they built was rewarded with rings and a place in the history books, but it wasn’t a smooth process whatsoever. Growing pains, literal pains in the form of injuries, and possessions spent trying to create and maintain harmony consisted of the process that led to arguably the most cohesive five-man lineup in the NBA.

Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Andrew Wiggins, Draymond Green, and Kevon Looney are the grown-ups in the room. Theirs is the example their understudies aim to replicate to a certain degree — enough to make sure that when the majority of the veteran crew sits, there will be little-to-no fall off in quality and production.

Experience is one heck of a teacher. At different points of their careers, they were the ones being taught, but the onus now falls on them to be the ones doing the teaching using their well of experience. Concepts aren’t something they need to be reminded of; they are the tools they use to keep the team afloat and full of culture and identity.

The trust Steve Kerr places in them is unlimited — so much so that even traditional concepts and sets that the team has been running for years are kept novel and fresh because of the five’s ability to execute them at the highest level possible. One example that stands out is a classic set that puts pressure on defenses using the Warriors’ deadliest weapon: Curry.

“Thumb out” is when a ball handler — either Curry or Jordan Poole — receives a side ball screen, after which the ball handler passes the ball to the big on the opposite slot/wing area. He then follows the pass and receives the ball back through a handoff, which is collectively called “Get” action.

If the opposing defense involves someone who has trouble keeping up with Curry or Poole around several screens, the set works to perfection. Even the most tenacious of defenders with the screen navigation chops to compete have a difficult time chasing Curry/Poole and staying close to his hip.

The caveat whenever running this particular set, however, is that most teams are used to seeing this and are virtually expecting the Warriors to whip it out at some point. The Denver Nuggets during the first round of last season’s playoffs certainly saw this particular “Thumbs out” possession coming:

With head coach Michael Malone calling out the Warriors set, the Nuggets counter “Thumb out” by simply switching the screening actions. Jordan Poole fails to generate an advantage in isolation against a capable defender in Aaron Gordon, and a turnover is translated to points on the other end.

Fast forwarding to their 2022 preseason tilt, the Warriors once again run “Thumb out.” The Nuggets are all too familiar with it at this point, so one would expect them to execute the appropriate counter. But what the Nuggets didn’t expect was that the Warriors had already lined up a counter to their counter:

Instead of the “Get” action, Looney sets a wide pindown for Thompson in the corner — a curveball thrown at the Nuggets and catching them off guard. Whether this is an audibled improvisation by the players on the floor or a pre-planned variant, the veteran squad’s execution turns out to be as crisp and perfect as it could possibly be.

Another “Thumb out” variant made an appearance against the Sacramento Kings, coached by former Warriors assistant Mike Brown. Having spent six years as Kerr’s right-hand man, Brown is most certainly familiar with how the set works; as such, he’s as well equipped as the Nuggets and Malone were — in theory, at least — to see it coming a mile away and counter it accordingly.

When Poole runs it with JaMychal Green as the ball screener and James Wiseman as the handoff hub, Poole uses movement craft to direct Davion Mitchell into Wiseman’s screen and gain separation:

However, the Warriors couldn’t rely on it working again the next time around. Besides familiarity, Brown is a defensive-minded coach who’s able to change coverages on the fly and give offenses different looks; his direction of the Warriors defense last season — buoyed by a culture of accountability — was a huge factor behind their second-ranked defense. The possibility of Brown blowing up another “Thumb out” possession was significantly high.

But the Warriors already took that possibility into account:

In order to deny the “Get” action, the Kings double Curry around the initial ball screen. All Curry needed to do was to get the ball to Green, which — as a grizzled veteran against numerous blitzes and traps — he manages to accomplish.

This places the Kings in an immediate numerical disadvantage. Three defenders are keyed in on Curry and Green; only one defender is left to defend the pindown action for Thompson, forcing the rest of the defenders scrambling in rotation. Thompson sees the low-man rotation and kicks it out to Wiggins in the corner. A final swing pass to the open Curry on the wing punishes the tilted defense.

The very next offensive possession, the Warriors run the exact same “Thumb out” variant:

Without a hard double on Curry, the “Get” action is allowed to happen. However, Curry doesn’t get the ball back; instead, Green sees Looney setting a “Veer” screen — a wide pindown set after a ball screen — for Thompson. Domantas Sabonis is ball watching and recognizes the second-side action a beat too late; in his panic, he jumps out to discourage a shot, but Looney is already rolling past him with no help from the strong side due to the empty corner. Thompson finds Looney on the roll for the dunk.

Same actions, different variants — but most important, the knowhow and feel to see which ones to run, which options to choose, and the chops to execute and improvise on the fly. Such traits are what makes the Warriors starters among the best of the best, and why these Warriors are favored for another run at the top when the playoffs come around.

At this very moment, however, the same can’t be said for their youth-laden backups.

As expected, the starting group has outscored opponents by 43 points (45.2 per 100 possessions) during their 41 minutes on the floor together — a small sample size spread out among three games, but nevertheless intriguing.

However, in the 58 possessions where Kerr has opted to play all-bench lineups — that is, not one of Curry, Thompson, Wiggins, Green, or Looney on the floor with bench units — the Warriors have been outscored by 35.8 points per 100 possessions, per Cleaning The Glass. The noise of a small-sample size doesn’t make this trend an overwhelmingly alarming one, but it is a trend, nonetheless.

The solution is quite simple: Kerr can opt to stagger his starters with his second-unit mainstays, something that has been his modus operandi throughout the entirety of the dynasty. The only credible reason behind his sudden preference for all-bench lineups was the lack of proper conditioning among his starters, particularly Thompson and Green.

Once Kerr feels that his stalwarts are back to peak fitness levels, expect him to return to staggering his starters and — along with the other experienced veterans in Donte DiVincenzo and JaMychal Green — having them “chaperone” the Warriors’ talented but inexperienced backups.

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