Golden State’s Hot Start Examined

 In 2013-14, the Warriors were a solid 12th in offense and 4th in defense.   Entering the 2014-15 season, the Warriors looked like a fun playoff team with second round upside behind developing youngsters Steph Curry and Klay Thompson.  The odds makers had them set for 52.5 wins in 2014-15 but did not consider them a real title contender.  They then exploded to a 67-15 record and a string of NBA Finals appearances.  They had the best defense in the NBA but the real improvement was on offense where they jumped up to 2nd in the NBA and few saw it coming.

The historic Warrior run had looked like it was finally finished.  Curry was still pretty much the same excellent player but the cast around him had degraded to the point where the dynasty seemed over.  Now the Warriors are 18-2 with the very familiar rankings to what they put up in 2014-15 (2nd on offense and 1st on defense again after being 20th in offense and 5th on defense in 2020-21).  So, is it really 2014-15 again in Warrior Land?  The Warriors’ schedule so far has been a bit soft (28th weakest SOS coming into Sunday) but they are winning in such a dominant fashion it’s hard to give too many demerits for that fact. 

Let’s see what the Warriors are doing differently from last year so we can how sustainable this awesome start will be.  Here are some observations:

-Curry is as good as ever.  He shot slightly more frequently last year and with slightly better efficiency but he still has a ridiculous .649 TS%.  Though Steph’s usage is down, he is taking a career-high 13.8 three-pointers per 36 minutes and getting to the line a little less.  Clearly, having secondary shooting threats has given Curry a slight break in trying to carry the offense quite as much.

-The biggest offensive change this year might be Draymond Green.  He’s always been an incredible defender but his offensive effectiveness really dipped the last few years.  In 2015-16, Green was one of the best players in the NBA.  He could defend anyone and he hit .490% from the field and .388% from three.  Alas, this was an anomaly.  Over the next five years, Green shot an execrable .293% from three (275-939).  This year, Dray is shooting .563% from the field, by far the best of his career.  His three-pointers are still not great (.316%) but he’s made a conscious decision to stop shooting so many (only 1.1 attempts from three per game versus 2.7 for his career).  On top of that, Green’s shot chart shows that he’s limiting the shots he’s taking to close-in attempts.  In fact, 72% of his shots from within 10 feet of the rim and he’s making them at a high rate.  Green is likely to regress a little bit in his shooting but his new approach of avoiding the three has done wonders for the team’s offense and there is no reason to think that he can’t keep shooting efficiently all year. 

-Andrew Wiggins will never be a great offensive player but he is versatile and is having his best season (career-best .602 TS%).  His approach doesn’t appear much different other than that he is shooting a marginally more shots closer to the rim and he is hitting long two-pointers at a high percentage, which is likely flukey.  He is basically filling the same role Harrison Barnes did for the Warriors from 2014 to 2016.

-Kelly Oubre and Kent Bazemore really struggled last year.  Oubre shot .316% from three and Bazemore shot very well but didn’t do much else (he turned the ball over a lot and didn’t pass or create shots).  Their replacements have been solid.  First, Jordan Poole has shot pretty well in extra minutes as Klay Thompson Lite.  Advanced stats don’t love Poole but he really can create shots (26.0 usage) and is an able passer.  In other words, he’s a multi-dimensional threat.  In addition, Gary Payton II’s advanced stats are off-the-charts (22.2 PER, .764 TS%, .295 WS48, 5.8 BPM).  There is no way a 29-year old hustle guy can keep that up but he’s legitimately good bench guy and is giving GS great energy minutes for low cost (exactly the type of player that every other expensive super team prays to find). 

-It’s not fair to pick on James Wiseman but the team offensive success in his absence is quite conspicuous.  Kevon Looney still gets 20 minutes per game to bang with other big men but, instead of Wiseman, the Warriors can play more Draymond or try stretch big Nemanja Bjelica, who gives the team spacing that Wiseman can’t.  Bjelica has his weaknesses but the offense works better with him out on the perimeter.  Young Wiseman had a ridiculously low 4.9 assist% versus 15.6 for Bjelica this year.

-It will be fascinating to see what Steve Kerr and the Warriors do with the returning Thompson and Wiseman. Thompson hasn’t played in a game since June 2019 and may not be the same player.  Can he take minutes back from Poole?  I’m skeptical but hope that Klay can recapture some of his old form.  Wiseman is very young and needs to develop but GS is too good to really have him eat up too many minutes learning.  Wiseman will have to sit or he could possibly eat into Looney’s minutes, as they fill similar niches.

All this is a long way of saying the Warriors won’t win 70 games but are a serious contender.  They have made some shrewd adjustments and most of the improvements appear sustainable.  Green, in particular, deserves credit for remaking his offensive game to something that fits the team better.  Amazingly, the Warriors have now reopened a title window that seemed sealed shut, assuming Steph can hopefully stay healthy.