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The Warriors’ bench: An examination of a less-than-ideal result with excellent process

A loss is a loss, but the bench has been one glaring silver lining.

Golden State Warriors v Denver Nuggets Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Losing by three points against the defending champions — on their home court that is 5000 feet above sea level and after having been on the road for what seems like an eternity — isn’t a bad thing at all for the Golden State Warriors.

There’s often a thin line between looking at the process over results and treating results as the be-all-end-all. A loss is a loss — no one likes to lose, especially when the Warriors looked like they were about to pull away at times against the Denver Nuggets.

But consider these facts: All Warriors starters posted negative plus-minus numbers — while every bench player was a positive. The Warriors outscored the Nuggets by seven points in the 13.5 minutes without Steph Curry on the floor. In nine games, the Warriors are an incredible plus-38 (!!!) with Curry on the bench.

Knowing how the Warriors fought tooth and nail to even stay just below the surface in the past — sometimes failing to do so and sinking into deep waters — whenever Curry sat down, that is by no means an insignificant development.

The sample size is still small for the numbers to be taken with absolutely zero caveats attached to them. But in the 130 minutes that the Warriors have played without Curry on the floor prior to their game against the Nuggets, they have been:

  • Outscoring opponents by 11.96 points per 100 possessions
  • Has an offense (113.46 offensive rating) that would rank 12th in the league
  • Has a defense (101.50 defensive rating) that would rank second in the league

One oft-stated rationale for acquiring Chris Paul in the offseason was getting a player who could run the offense smoothly in the absence of the Warriors’ offensive engine. While Paul isn’t off to a great start in terms of scoring production and efficiency, the effect he’s having on the Warriors’ bench mob isn’t to be scoffed at.

Another reason for Paul’s acquisition: The belief that with him running the point with young talent who are primed and ready to showcase what they’re capable of, they can “out-talent” most NBA second units. For the most part, that assertion has rung true — and it continued to be true against the Nuggets’ bench.

The Warriors’ bench unit outscored their counterparts by a whopping 30 points (42-12). With the insertion of rookies Brandin Podziemski and Trayce Jackson-Davis — both getting minutes with both Draymond Green and Gary Payton II unavailable — the tone was set for the Warriors to establish their superiority over the Nuggets’ reserves.

With Nikola Jokić on the floor, the base pick-and-roll coverage the Nuggets employ range from a conventional drop-back scheme to a screen-level meet-up. Since they were facing Curry, the latter was the coverage of choice for Jokić, who the Nuggets would rather not have on an island against Curry.

Without Green, the Warriors had trouble trying to find a release valve against Jokić screen-level meetups. Late in the fourth quarter, they found the Kevon Looney answer — having him play the Green role of being the short-roll playmaker, with Jonathan Kuminga and Andrew Wiggins as the play finishers.

But this possession that ended with a Jackson-Davis alley-oop bucket — with a “ram” screen from Paul that preceded it that gave Jokić another thing to think about — also can’t be ignored:

Without Jokić on the floor, having Zeke Nnaji as a switchable big makes it possible for the Nuggets to switch practically every screen, both on and off the floor. This makes it difficult for the Warriors to run their typical motion offense and necessitates the need for switch-beating concepts and other sources of advantage creation — such as hunting for the matchups that are low-hanging fruit.

One example: feeding Kuminga the ball in the post and seeing how the defense reacts to it:

The Nuggets make the mistake of sending someone to swipe the ball away from Kuminga and leaving Moses Moody open — an unnecessary move, given that Peyton Watson had Kuminga contained in single coverage. Kuminga makes the correct decision and feeds Moody the ball, who drills the bank three.

A mini-theme of this game was Kuminga and Moody’s small moments of effective decision making. In a vacuum, they weren’t enough to seal the deal against the Nuggets.

In the long run, those are decisions that will make it tougher for them not to see time on the floor:

Kuminga in the post again, this time with Julian Strawther on him. The rest of the Nuggets defense has their eyes on the post action — making them prone to weak-side 45-cuts, which is exactly what Moody does.

He cuts into space and Kuminga finds him. To be fair to the Nuggets, Christian Braun was in position to contest the shot, but Moody puts up a better finish.

Kuminga post-ups may not seem like an efficient form of offense, but the numbers so far have been stating otherwise. Prior to the Nuggets game, the Warriors are scoring 1.174 points per possession on Kuminga post-ups that also include passes to a teammate — 76th percentile, per Synergy.

There’s hidden optionality on some of these playtypes despite its seemingly stagnant nature. As long as the rest of the four players on the floor help Kuminga create efficient offense — e.g., the two Moody buckets above — it’s not a bad form of offense at all, especially against switch-everything lineups like the one the Nuggets employed with their bench.

When Kuminga does get a matchup he likes in the post, having him power through for a turnaround jump hook isn’t a bad option at all:

It might not seem like it due to their ages — they’re both 21-years old — but Kuminga and Moody have the tenure for them to know the nuances and rules of the Warriors’ often-complicated principles on offense. Cutting into open space is one of those rules, like what Moody did above.

Another rule: slip inside after setting down screens, especially when they’re for Curry or Klay Thompson:

That rule isn’t exclusive to *just* screens for Curry and Thompson. if there’s an opportunity to slip inside, take it — as what Podziemski does here after curling the first screen in “Stagger Away” action:

Given the right pieces, the right situations, and the right players who know how to execute, the second unit can — on some level — approximate the effectiveness of the offense with Curry on the floor. The flashes have been there:

The harmonious movement of the possession above is made possible by a couple of things:

  • A 5-out configuration with Jackson-Davis handling the ball up top (called “Delay” action) that stretches the defense.
  • “Chicago” action (pindown into a DHO) for Paul that involves Jokić in the action and compels the low man behind him to stay put (which leaves Moody unguarded in the corner).
  • Podziemski’s weak-side 45-cut as second-side-movement window dressing for Moody to get open for a corner three.

When paired with effort from a defense on a string that constantly plugs gaps (watch the rotations after Paul comes over to double Jokić in the post):

And a next-man-up mentality on defense — as displayed by Moody, who is employed as the top man in the Warriors’ 3-2 zone, a role Payton usually plays:

The Warriors’ bench gives them plenty to be bullish about despite the loss. They’ve been a significant factor behind the Warriors’ 6-3 start. Seven of those nine total games have been on the road, and in a significant departure from last season, they have a winning road record — 5-2.

“Nobody likes to lose, but you look at the fact that we can play a lot of better on the margins and we can execute a little better... yes, you feel as good as you could,” Curry said after the game. “We have a competitive spirit and togetherness that is nice to see develop this early in the season.

The key word: togetherness, something that the Warriors’ bench unit has been consistently flashing.

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