Steph Curry had just drilled a huge pull-up three to put the Golden State Warriors ahead by three points against the Oklahoma City Thunder. All they needed to do was to foul up three, play the free-throw game, and take a contest that they led by as much as 14 points.
The last time the Warriors faced the Thunder, Andrew Wiggins was the one who hit the big shot to put them up by three. At the time, the smart play seemed to be to foul up three — foul on the catch, to put it precisely. Wiggins chose not to do so against Chet Holmgren, who hit a tough turnaround three to send the game into overtime and ended up being a loss.
The basketball gods have hilarious ways of working their magic. Not only did they place the Warriors and the Thunder in a highly similar situation in their next matchup; they made sure that the outcome ended up being the same — the Warriors heading into overtime due to Holmgren scoring three points in the clutch.
What was different was how the Warriors let Holmgren score three points in the closing seconds of regulation. This time, they *did* end up fouling up three. But the execution was poor. Draymond Green almost stole the inbound pass, which allowed Holmgren the time to catch the pass and get into an upward shooting motion. Green swiped down to foul — but it was too late.
Draymond Green fouls Chet Holmgren on a 3-point attempt as the Dubs are up three with 7.2 seconds left ... pic.twitter.com/3yRc40HHI1— Warriors on NBCS (@NBCSWarriors) December 9, 2023
After Holmgren made all three foul shots, the Thunder proceeded to outscore the Warriors in overtime, 20-18. That made it the second game in a row where the Warriors lost in overtime against them — and also the second game in a row where they lost because of being on the wrong end of a foul-up-three situation. But it’s entirely fair to argue that the game was lost much earlier than what transpired at the end of regulation and overtime.
The battle over which team controls possessions is perhaps the most important aspect of a game. It’s simple: Whoever has more possessions that end up in shot attempts and/or free-throw attempts wins the game.
That may be “duh” analysis, but as much as complex schemes can provide nuance behind why teams win or lose games, the Occam’s Razor approach can also be true. The simplest reasons behind why teams are good or bad are occasionally enough.
The Warriors’ most notorious Achilles’ heel with Steve Kerr as their head coach has always been turnovers. It’s a byproduct of their desire to play the beautiful game: pass the ball, constantly move, set hard screens for shooters, and cut into space created by the advantages of the initial action.
Whenever those notes hit, the Warriors manage to produce the most melodious style of play in all of basketball, one that rivals the early-to-mid 2010s San Antonio Spurs that became the standard for motion offenses in the NBA.
But whenever it falls flat, the opposite is true: tons of record scratching, out-of-tune strumming that sounds like grating on a blackboard, and lots of discordant play that would make one think this team hasn’t been playing together for more than a month.
The Warriors not only turned the ball over 29 times against the Thunder — a season high by an NBA team this season — they turned the ball over on 25.4% of their offensive possessions. In comparison, the Utah Jazz are the most turnover-prone team in the league in terms of turnover rate, at 17.6%.
In one game, the Warriors managed to beat that mark by nearly eight percentage points — and also beat the league-average turnover rate (14.2%) by more than 10 percentage points. To put it simply, that is untenable.
Which is why — despite massively outrebounding the Thunder by 21 (60-39) and hauling in 24 offensive rebounds — the possession battle evened out, due to the obscene number of turnovers they committed.
Of course, the heads of the snake need to be better in that department. Green and Steph Curry represent the Warriors’ penchant for walking on a tightrope. When their balancing act hits, it often results in an efficient and aesthetically pleasing product.
When it doesn’t hit, they fall flat on their face — and it’s not by any means a soft landing:
But the Warriors have and will keep living and dying on Curry and Green making these kinds of decisions — because that is, after all, their role on this team. You expect them to cut down on these kinds of turnovers, but it’s safe to say that at this point of their careers — Curry at 35, Green at 33 — they won’t be able to change who they are. You’ll just have to hope that the notes they produce hit more often than they miss.
But it wasn’t just Curry and Green who were culpable. Out of the 10 players who saw minutes against the Thunder, an astounding nine committed at least one turnover; eight committed at least two:
- Andrew Wiggins: 6
- Green: 4
- Klay Thompson: 4
- Curry: 3
- Dario Šarić: 3
- Jonathan Kuminga: 3
- Kevon Looney: 2
- Moses Moody: 2
- Brandin Podziemski: 1
Wiggins at the top of the list is interesting — and serves as a commentary on a larger structural problem the Warriors are having this season.
Some of the turnovers Wiggins committed looked like these:
The common theme between the turnovers above: Wiggins having to be a passer instead of a play finisher.
As much as possible, the Warriors would want Wiggins to finish possessions instead of being a middleman in the offense — that is, having to be the bridge between their initiators and finishers.
But the Wiggins conundrum becomes clearer when you look at how he’s struggled this season. The Warriors’ need for a secondary scorer behind Curry entails that whoever that secondary scorer is should be capable of advantage creation — especially off the dribble.
Wiggins has never had the handle to be consistently dependable as an off-the-dribble shot maker and advantage creator, which is why the best use of him on offense has been as a spot-up shooter or as a post-up isolation scorer — spots where his weaknesses are less pronounced and well hidden.
As a result, Wiggins has had the notorious distinction of having fewer assists (23) than turnovers (39).
Thompson has been more of an off-ball advantage creator, and the Warriors would want it to stay that way, given that it’s the best use of his shooting and gravity. He draws two to the ball off of pindowns, which leaves the screen setter open on the roll.
But put enough pressure on Thompson to make him a passer — and send help against the roll from the weak side, especially with an empty corner — and opponents will take their chances on Thompson the passer, as opposed to Thompson the shooter:
Kuminga faces the same weaknesses as Wiggins in terms of the handle but has been showing more aggression and verve when it comes to attacking the rim. The problems surface in the nitty-gritty aspects of his play: the decision making, the fundamentals, and knowing how to be useful in an offense that can easily turn the most athletic of wings into non-factors:
At the end of the day, however, all three of them don’t fulfill the criteria of an off-the-dribble scoring threat who can relieve some of the burden Curry has been carrying on offense — nor have they been collectively relieving that burden by committee.
As an indirect result, the ball is finding its way toward personnel who are either not equipped to make decisions, can’t create advantages on their own, or an unholy mishmash of both — in an offense that requires a ton of decision making and advantage creation.
It’s a conundrum the Warriors have been trying to solve for two seasons and counting. The 2022 championship served as a mask, with a supporting cast better suited to make up for those shortcomings and a starting crew that was a few years younger.
But no matter how old they are, no matter who’s on the bench this time around, the turnover problem has always been persistent. It’s a problem they know they have, have known in the past that they have, and will continue to acknowledge for as long as it still happens (and it will continue to happen with this offense on some level).
The first step to solving a problem is admitting that there is one. They’ve admitted for so long that they need to be better in that aspect.
It’s time to put up, or.... you know the rest.