The Golden State Warriors’ 2021-22 season has been a tale of two separate calendar years.
Depending on where you stand and what your expectations were for this team going into the season, there are differing viewpoints one can take when assessing the Warriors’ 42-17 record — the second-best record in the Western Conference and the NBA.
To have the second-best record in the league going into the All-Star break is an unexpected but extremely welcome development. A team that was projected to be a middling playoff team in the West has overachieved above and beyond expectations.
They blew away preseason projections by displaying two-way excellence — a hallmark of an elite team and a typical predictor of a team’s championship-caliber nature. Early indications were that the combination of MVP/star power, veteran depth, and youth emergence was serving as the fuel behind the start of another golden era in the Bay Area.
In calendar-year 2021 — from October 19 to December 31 — the Warriors had a conference-best and league-best record of 27-7. Their plus-10.1 net rating was second overall, slightly behind the Utah Jazz’s plus-10.3.
They also had the unique distinction of being the only team that could be considered both as a top-five offense and defense. Their 111.7 offensive rating was fifth to end 2021, while their 101.6 defensive rating was the league’s best.
To emphasize how historic their defense was during the 2021 portion of the season, their defensive rating was 9 points better than league average — roughly equaling the 2004 San Antonio Spurs’ record for the best defensive rating relative to league average. Pretty good company.
A huge part of their success on both ends of the floor was the uninterrupted continuity, which resulted in consistent lineups, rotations, and making the coaching staff’s decision-making process easier and more linear. Having the luxury of availability puts you in a better position to mix and match accordingly, until the correct combinations are found and stability is achieved.
But in today’s pandemic-wracked world, stability and availability are precarious and fleeting luxuries. COVID-related absences from Draymond Green, Andrew Wiggins, and Jordan Poole threw a wrench into rotations and lineups. Add injuries (Green’s back issue that has kept him out of the last 21 games, Andre Iguodala’s recurring knee issue) and reintegration into the system after a long injury-induced layoff (in Klay Thompson’s case), and you’ve got a revolving door of personnel.
But perhaps the most debilitating aspect of all — besides Green’s absence affecting their defensive performance — has been Stephen Curry’s unprecedented slump. Simply put, the greatest shooter of all time hasn’t shot like it.
Which brings us to their 2022 numbers:
- 15-10 record
- 111.1 offensive rating (19th)
- 108.6 defensive rating (7th)
- Plus-2.4 net rating (10th)
On paper, these aren’t particularly bad numbers. The Warriors still have a winning record in 2022, mostly on the back of a defense that has stayed within the top 10 despite not being as sharp. They still outscore opponents by roughly 2 points per 100 possessions in 2022 — far from the blitzkrieg 10 points per 100 mark in 2021.
But their offensive efficiency has taken a considerable nosedive — and as always, it starts with the heart of their offense.
Stephen Curry’s up-and-down season
All discussion surrounding any rise or dip in the Warriors’ offensive production must always start with the engine that drives it.
Early-season indications had Curry as the odds-on favorite to win his third MVP award. He had the narrative fuel; him passing Ray Allen to become the undisputed three-point king was a foregone conclusion. But he also picked up from where he left off the previous season.
In his first 19 games, Curry averaged 28.6 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 6.8 assists, on 47/42/94 shooting splits and 64.5% True Shooting — which served as strong statistical backing behind his MVP case during that time. Adjusted for pace, he was scoring around 29 points per 75 possessions, which was around four points per 75 possessions fewer than his 2020-21 scoring pace.
But the scoring efficiency remained — and as always, Curry was the epitome of the unlikely union between volume and efficiency; he was on pace to set career marks for three-point field goals per game (5.5) and three-point field-goal attempts per game (13.1).
It’s no secret that Steve Kerr’s philosophy of constant ball and personnel movement — driven by playmaking juice and equal-opportunity energy — can go as far as Curry can take it. Almost every action has Curry as its focal point, even when he doesn’t get to touch the ball at all.
The magic begins and (mostly) ends with Curry, with the best example being the Warriors’ tried-and-tested signature half-court set: the low-post split action.
The action above starts out with a Kevon Looney “ram” screen for Andrew Wiggins, who “ghosts” the ball screen for Curry. The initial set flows into a “modified” split action — modified in the sense that it is essentially a three-way split. The added dive cut from Wiggins serves as both an additional option and as a decoy for the actual down-screen action for Curry, who is given an open three because Looney’s defender drops back and forgets to meet Curry on the other side of the screen.
To defend such an action requires discipline and near-perfect awareness and concentration. Switching or any sort of hedge or blitz are prerequisites for any sort of preventative measure on Curry.
But the moment you think you’ve stopped Curry in his tracks, other options open up and take you by surprise.
Derrick Favors meets Curry on the other side of the Looney screen and goes up for the contest. Curry’s man does his absolute best to fight over the screen and recover toward Curry, which gives Looney the freedom to dive toward the rim. With an undersized low man left to rotate and help from the weak side, Looney has no problems with finishing at the rim.
While Curry has almost always been the beneficiary of hard screens set by teammates, he also hasn’t been hesitant to do the dirty work himself, which has always been part and parcel of his character as a player. Arguably no other superstar in the league has been willing to set screens for teammates more so than Curry.
Whether it’s on inverted pick-and-rolls:
Or off-ball screens in the form of down-screens, “Flex” screens, or “Rip” screens/back-screens:
Curry generates plenty of scoring possessions through his willingness to set picks. His 1.2 screen assists per game and 2.8 screen-assist points per game lead all guards in the league. No other guard averages at least one screen assist.
But you’re probably wondering why I chose to specifically highlight Curry’s stats up till his 19th game of the season. Here’s the reason: Curry’s 20th game was against the Phoenix Suns on November 30, where he was held to 12 points on 21 shots, including a 3-of-14 clip on threes.
The combination of length, tenacity, screen navigation, and defensive IQ from Mikal Bridges was widely credited as the culprit behind Curry’s struggles during that game. But credit must also be given to the Suns’ team-wide defense, one that made use of conditional switching (switching 1-4, with actions involving Deandre Ayton being the exceptions) to stifle the Warriors’ pet motion sets — including their split action.
Teams with the defensive knowhow and the appropriate personnel are wont to switch almost every off-ball and on-ball screen the Warriors try to execute, while combining pressure, length, and physicality to wear Curry down — which has always been the formula behind turning an otherwise efficient offense into a muddled mess.
But even during those moments where the offense does work, it was simply a matter of Curry getting the shots he wanted but failing to convert — which has been a more common theme this season compared to previous years.
Which is a perfect segue to point out Curry’s numbers starting from their November 30 matchup against the Suns. In 35 games since: 24.3 points, 5.0 rebounds, and 6.1 assists, on 41/35/91 shooting splits and 56.6% True Shooting.
Such numbers are well below Curry’s standards. His two-point percentage during that 35-game stretch (49%) is two points below his career average. His three-point percentage has fallen well below the lofty expectations he has set for himself. His True Shooting percentage — typically among the top tier for his position, let alone the league — is only a couple of points better than league average.
Some teams have taken the Suns’ blueprint of switching and physicality and have applied it during their own encounter with the Warriors. Others have given Curry and his teammates the same open looks they’ve been getting, but the shots haven’t been going in.
The calls for more on-ball reps and ball-screen-heavy sets have become a yearly theme of sorts — even as the Warriors continue to be among the teams who run the least amount of pick-and-roll possessions with a ball handler (14.1 pick-and-roll ball handler possessions per game, 27th in the league).
The occasional flashes of Curry running variations of ball-screen action have mostly been effective, especially if they take the form of quick-hitting early offense.
Setting a side ball-screen for Curry that flows into pitch action forces defenses to have to be on their toes in terms of switching, navigating around screens, and meeting Curry at the level of the screen in order to close the gap. But there’s a pick-your-poison element to defending it: count on a defender who has trouble with screen navigation with a big in drop defense, and Curry will eat; step up to Curry at the level of the screen, and a defense in rotation will be compromised on the weak side.
While Kerr has kept most of his motion offense intact as the primary base of his system, he has been more lenient with running ball-screen action to get Curry going. Double drag screens, for example, are a surefire way of putting defenses on the backfoot.
Defenders ducking under one or both screens with no one to meet Curry at the level is more or less a death sentence:
A nice little wrinkle Kerr has inserted within his double drag alignments has been using Klay Thompson as the first screener. With Curry drawing two defenders around the second screen, a lone defender is left on an island against a down-screen action for Thompson — simple yet brilliant play design.
Despite the shooting struggles and arguably the worst slump of his career, Curry remains an instrumental part of the Warriors offense, to say the least. In 3,880 non-garbage-time possessions with Curry on the floor, the Warriors boast a 114.8 offensive rating, equivalent to the third-best offense in the league. That number falls to 105.9 in 1,687 possessions without Curry — equivalent to the 27th-ranked offense.
Additionally, the Warriors outscore opponents by nearly 12 points per 100 possessions during Curry’s minutes. Without Curry, opponents outscore the Warriors by nearly 6 points per 100 possessions — a monumental 18-point difference.
A better supporting cast with the playmaking and shot-making juice has boosted an offense that severely underachieved last season — but at its core, the fact still remains: even while slumping, the Warriors offense lives and dies on the shoulders of Curry.
A different defense without Draymond Green
More so than their offense, the Warriors have thrived throughout this season by banking on their strong culture of defense.
They are still the number-one defensive unit in the league (104.6 defensive rating — 6 points better than league average). But that has dropped considerably from early on during this season, where their defensive rating was once on a historic pace (to reiterate, nearly 9 points better than league average, equaling the 2004 San Antonio Spurs).
Switching has remained a crucial aspect of their scheme, but not to the same extent as it was during their dynasty years, despite having the requisite personnel to switch up and down the positional spectrum: a lengthy wing (Andrew Wiggins), “power” wings who can switch up in a pinch (Otto Porter Jr., Jonathan Kuminga), a point-of-attack hound (Gary Payton II), a big who can switch in a pinch (Kevon Looney), and an all-around defensive maestro who brings it all together (Green).
Despite the dearth of true-blue shot blockers, the Warriors have been banking on point-of-attack competency to limit opponents from getting to the rim — 27% of their opponents’ shot attempts have been at the rim, the stingiest mark in the league, per Cleaning The Glass.
The core philosophy has been keeping the action in front as much as possible, a prevention-is-better-than-the-cure approach that minimizes breakdowns and keeps the defense in control. Their mindset is simple: rather than letting the offense dictate things and making the defense react, our defense will take control and puppet the offense to where we want them to go.
Green has been instrumental behind that approach. His organizational skills and an ability to read and predict opposing offenses are arguably second to none. The fun in watching a Green defensive possession comes from knowing how to appreciate the nuance and minute details that force offenses to settle for inefficient shots, or even prevent them from getting up a shot in the first place.
“Scram” switching — off-ball switching to prevent mismatches — requires foresight and near-perfect execution to be successfully pulled off, both of which are within Green’s wheelhouse.
Watch Green sniff out what the Brooklyn Nets are trying to do in the possession above. Patty Mills sets a down screen for Kevin Durant, in an attempt to force Curry to switch onto the much-taller Durant. It seems as if it’s going to work — Curry prepares to receive Durant, while Green looks like he’s sticking with Mills.
But Green is adamant about not letting Durant have the mismatch. Green fights over Mills and recovers in timely fashion toward Durant to contest the shot and force the miss, while Curry gets to Mills in time to cut off a potential open corner look.
If teams intend to bring a mediocre pick-and-roll defender into the primary action, Green sniffs it out and forces opponents to make a choice: either you involve Green himself in the action (which Green will most likely switch — and good luck getting past him), or you take whoever’s in front of you off the dribble and try to make something out of nothing.
Without Green on the floor, breakdowns have not only been more common; the ability to compensate for such breakdowns through proper reactionary measures and on-the-fly processing simply hasn’t been there.
In 21 consecutive games Green has missed due to a back injury, the Warriors’ difficulty in several aspects — keeping opponents contained at the point of attack, pick-and-roll defense, defending on a string — was bared for everyone to see.
As I outlined in this piece, the Warriors have allowed more shots at the rim without Green’s presence. They’ve also dropped off in terms of rebounding — which seems to not only be a size (or lack, thereof) problem, but also an effort problem.
While there are organizational and infrastructural concerns that go beyond them, Curry and Green being present and being on their A-game remains as crucial as ever. A slumping Curry can only do so much to lift the offense; the team has a lower ceiling without Green to marshal the defense.
Add in these other factors: Thompson becoming the Klay Thompson of old in time for the stretch run and the playoffs; consistency from the supporting cast, especially from Wiggins and Jordan Poole; and the coaching staff finding a stable and consistent nine-man rotation they can trust during the playoffs.
With 23 games remaining, time is a sparse resource. Nevertheless, it’ll be interesting to watch how the Warriors will treat what little time they have left to prepare for what will be a rigorous playoff run.