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Warriors-Lakers preseason musings: The subtle nuances of advantage basketball

Thoughts about the Warriors’ ability to create advantages this season.

Golden State Warriors v Los Angeles Lakers

There were several takeaways from the Golden State Warriors’ 129-125 preseason win over the Los Angeles Lakers. Concerns over starting a small backcourt consisting of Steph Curry and Chris Paul were somewhat justified. Breakdowns in communication and confusion in terms of coverages on and off the ball were apparent, although whether that’s a function of a process of chemistry building, a night out in Los Angeles, or both is yet to be determined.

There was the typical second-unit experimentation where Steve Kerr was content with hockey substitutions while clearly trying out different combinations. Suffice to say, the second unit needs a healthy dose of grownup decision making — something that Paul happens to be an expert in.

The size concerns are also still there, and the question of whether Kevon Looney will have a viable backup behind him still looms large. Dario Šarić is directly behind Looney in the big-man depth chart, while Trayce Jackson-Davis — who had a welcome-to-the-NBA moment against Anthony Davis — has promise but is still very much a raw product without the guarantee of seeing meaningful minutes during the regular season.

Draymond Green is still sidelined with an ankle injury but has shown significant progress in his recovery process. He went through a long full-speed workout before the game, a bullish indicator of his progress. By his presence alone, some of the defensive concerns mentioned above — the lack of communication, the botched coverages, and the overall organization of their half-court defense — will get solved.

As for Green’s ability to survey the floor on offense and make sure that the ball finds its way to their offensive moneymakers, the Warriors have plenty of Green “doppelgangers” who can perform the same functions as him on offense — with the added advantage of being legitimate outside threats that defenses can’t freely leave alone on the perimeter.

The first “doppelganger” is Paul, who has taken Green’s role as an overall facilitator with the starting lineup. Sets that have Green just above the three-point line — 5-out “Delay” action, for example — are being run by Paul, with Curry as the usual off-ball chaos generator.

We’ve seen plenty of times where Green and Curry have that preternatural connection when it comes to hitting Curry on relocations. Paul and Curry look to have a similar feel for each other:

This budding chemistry between two of the greatest point guards of all time is continuously being developed. It started during a well-publicized practice court session together, where the two worked on guard-guard actions on the wing (called “Pistol” action or the “21” series).

One of those actions — a variant of “21 Chase” in which Curry rejects getting the ball back on the handoff, flares off of rookie big man Trayce Jackson-Davis, and generates an open lane for the rookie to roll to the rim — was a quintessential example of the kind of overt advantage creation Curry generates by simply doing things on the floor.

Another overt example of Curry generating an advantage: a classic exit screen possession that draws two defenders and opens the slip for the exit screener:

Paul isn’t just a direct contributor to Curry advantage-creation possessions — he can be a massive beneficiary of it, as well. When the Warriors run “Angle Pop,” a quick-hitting 5-out action out of “Delay” that generates empty-corner action between Curry and Kevon Looney, Paul parks himself on the weak-side corner and is rewarded with an open look due to the attention Curry garners around the handoff:

An added advantage for Paul as a distributor is that he can generate advantages himself on the ball because, quite simply, he has a functioning jumper. Defenses have opted to give Green space in the past because of their lack of respect for his outside shooting; some have been burned by that choice due to Green turning a perceived disadvantage into a major advantage by initiating handoff action with either Curry or Klay Thompson. Defenses who think outside the box have opted to crowd Green’s space to make such situations tougher to execute.

Defenses don’t have that choice against Paul due to his ability to pull up from range — especially if he sees defenders ducking under screens for him:

The sequence above is also noteworthy because of who Paul’s screening partner is. Šarić has worked with Paul before during their time together in Phoenix and have plenty of handoff and ball-screen reps in the memory bank, which makes their pairing with the Warriors a seamless endeavor.

Šarić being on the floor creates all sorts of advantages — both overt and subtle — because of his unique skill set. At 6-foot-10-inches, Šarić has all the makings of the ideal big-man hub and distributor that Green has been. Unlike Green, Šarić has the size and shooting component to go along with his playmaking chops.

As examples of how much Šarić’s presence on the floor makes a difference, take these two possessions — the first being a Wiggins dunk after making himself available in the dunker spot, but not before an advantage is created by both Šarić and Thompson linking up in handoff action:

And the second being this possession, where Paul makes a quick move against his defender and engages Davis in the paint, leaving Šarić open on the perimeter:

The difference lies in Davis’ behavior as a rim protector. In the first clip, Davis is reluctant to rotate deep in the paint — not only because of Thompson, but also because of Šarić choosing to park himself up top and making himself an option.

In the second clip, Davis is compelled to protect the paint to help his point-of-attack defender that was blown by — but gives up a Šarić three in the process.

Such is the value of having Šarić on the floor, which makes him the natural second-unit big in lineups where not having Curry on the floor turns advantage creation into somewhat of a Herculean effort. Paired with a point guard who knows how to run an offense while also being a threat himself, second units may do a better job trying to create half-court offense compared to years past.

Add in the fact that the Warriors may be better served starting a lineup that outscored 21.9 points per 100 possessions — which would’ve led the league, had it not been for it seeing only 27 games and 331 minutes on the floor last season — it may be more prudent for Kerr to stick to last year’s starting formula and commit Paul and Šarić, two of the Warriors’ best non-Curry/Thompson/Green advantage generators, to the bench mob.

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