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How Warriors turned it around
Bradford Doolittle [ARCHIVE]

Basketball Prospectus | January 5, 2013

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
Stephen Curry has played a key role in the Warriors' surprising success this season.
The league's hottest team takes the court on Saturday for a rare in-season, home-and-home set against the same opponent -- and we're not talking about the Los Angeles Clippers. The Golden State Warriors will face the Clips at the Staples Center seeking a fifth straight win, a streak tied with Detroit for the league's longest. The last win was an impressive 21-point shellacking of L.A. on Wednesday, the Clippers' worst loss of the season.

Golden State has won five of six and 15 of its last 19 to climb within three games of the top spot in the Western Conference, and hasn't lost consecutive games in nearly two months. This is rarified air for a franchise that has made the playoffs just once in the last 18 seasons. At 22-10, Golden State is 12 games over .500 for the first time since the end of the 2007-08 season.

I love to cite old basketball analyst proverbs, and one of the most basic is that a team's point differential is a better predictor of future success than its actual record. When I first decided to write about the Warriors a couple of weeks ago, Mark Jackson's crew was playing well and stood 17-8. But with a scoring margin of about +1.8 points per game, it seemed obvious that Golden State's record far exaggerated its actual strength. On top of that, the Warriors didn't fare well in the preseason projections we did at Basketball Prospectus, so from my standpoint they started the season with an expected baseline of 28-54. When expectation mixes with what appears to be an exaggerated reality, the story angle seems simple: The Warriors would sink.

With that in mind, I caught up with Jackson and the Warriors in Salt Lake City last week, where I proceeded to watch Golden State dominate the Jazz with timely shooting and stifling defense. Against one of the league's biggest teams, the Warriors won the battle of the boards and were generally more physical, a trait seldom associated with Golden State squads over the last two decades. Needless to say, I came away impressed, and the win added to a striking list of road wins that also includes Minnesota, Dallas, Brooklyn, Miami, Atlanta and the Clippers, whom they will try to beat for a third time on Saturday.

Instead of Golden State's record regressing towards its point differential, the opposite has occurred. The Warriors keep winning, and have been doing so by increasingly impressive scores. Since I originally began to plan a story on them, the Warriors have increased their scoring margin to +3.2 points per game. On a per-possession basis, only five teams have a better differential than Golden State for the season. Over their last 10 games, the Warriors have outscored their opponents by eight points per contest.

According to my power rankings, which only gradually phase out preseason projections, the Warriors currently rate as a 45-win team. If that seems low, consider that even after their recent burst, the Warriors' point differential translates to 50 wins over a full season, while their winning percentage projects to 57 wins. So there is still some over-achievement in Jackson's won-loss record, though it becomes less and less stark with each convincing win. If the Warriors go on to be the 45-win outfit I've got them rated as, which would be 17 wins more than projected, Golden State would easily rank as the league's most surprising team. Every win they get above that is another point in favor of Jackson taking home this season's Coach of the Year award.

So, how are they doing it?

It starts with the emergence of Stephen Curry and David Lee as one of the league's top one-two combinations. Curry currently ranks eighth in the league in WARP, and is fifth over Golden State's last 10 games. Lee, who drew "MVP!" chants from Warriors fans near the end of Wednesday's win, ranks 18th in season-long WARP and 12th over his last 10 outings. On the season, the Warriors join the Spurs, Knicks, Thunder, Lakers and Clippers in having a pair of top-20 players.

"(Curry) is an All-Star, there is no question about it," Jackson said last week during my stop in Salt Lake City. "He's playing at an elite level, defending, being a maestro for us on the offensive end, attacking. It's great to see him healthy and really being a catalyst for this basketball team."

Curry's success isn't surprising, as his individual winning percentage (.631) tracks well with SCHOENE's preseason projection (.644), but his contribution to a top-10 defense can't be overlooked.

"(It's been) a commitment to it," Curry said. "You can talk about it and watch film in the summer time, but you have to be committed to it. It's tough during the season when you feel like you've been playing good defense but a team is still scoring on you. We have a team that's not afraid to call each other out when we're slipping up."

Rocky Widner/NBAE/Getty Images
David Lee's rebounding has improved this season.
Lee is outperforming his forecast significantly, with a .592 percentage against a .505 forecast. He's done so by taking a smaller share of the scoring load, instead becoming a secondary playmaker at times, and also by crashing the boards better than he has since his days with the Knicks.

Down the roster, Jackson has gotten key contributions from a nice mix of veterans and youth. He's used rookies Harrison Barnes and Festus Ezeli as starters, and while neither has contributed much on offense, both have helped on the defensive end. Ezeli wasn't expected to get much burn in his first season, but with Andrew Bogut out he's the only legitimate post defender Jackson has at his disposal. But Jackson has been canny by only using Ezeli when post defense is most needed; otherwise, Jackson generally plays small.

A big area of improvement for Golden State has been bench play and that effort has been spearheaded by offseason veteran acquisitions Jarrett Jack and Carl Landry, who rank third and fourth on the Warriors in WARP, respectively. Lineups including that pair and resurgent backup center Andris Biedrins have been among the Warriors best defensive configurations.

"(We have) more talent, via the trades and free agency and the draft," Jackson said. "We have better people in the locker room. On top of that, we have guys that are committed to putting in the time before and after every practice."

The Warriors are better on both ends of the floor this season, but whereas the offense has improved only slightly, the defense has taken a giant leap and is the biggest reason why Golden State has climbed so far up the NBA ladder. The Warriors have improved from 26th to eighth in defensive efficiency, which is in many ways more impressive than the Clippers' jump from 18th to fourth on that end. And Golden State has done this with without Bogut, one of the league's best defensive centers when healthy, and Brandon Rush, perhaps the Warriors' top perimeter defender entering the season.

"It's really amazing what's taken place on the defensive end for us," Jackson said. "Especially when you consider the fact that we lost our two best defensive players. We understand that, and I think guys understand that we don't have a lockdown defender and we've got to do it by committee. That spirit of togetherness that we talk about, it goes hand-in-hand offensively and defensively."

How has this happened? The Warriors rank in the bottom five in both steals and blocks, but rate third in opponent effective field-goal percentage, and second in defensive rebounding percentage. Former Golden State teams, insofar as they played defense at all, featured lots of steals that transitioned into fastbreak opportunities. These Warriors are far more disciplined than their predecessors. In essence, they've been buying what Jackson has been selling.

"The difference between a good defensive team and a poor one isn't really that many missed shots," Lee said. "The biggest difference is clearing up the defensive glass, and that's something we were horrible at last year. Now we're up there among the leaders. That's been huge. Last year, we'd get a stop and the team would just tip it in. That along with contesting shots better, little things, has been big."

So, is the Warriors' success sustainable? We're going to find out real soon. According to an on-air graphic during Golden State's win on Wednesday, the Warriors' first 12 games in January are against opponents with an aggregate winning percentage of .564. Only the Suns face a tougher road. Eleven of those 12 opponents would currently be in the playoffs if they started today, and seven of those teams would have homecourt advantage in the first round.

From a statistical standpoint, this should be the time that the Warriors begin to play down to preseason expectations, at least a little bit. However, Golden State's recent trends are undeniable. This is not the Warriors team we thought we were going to see. As of this morning, my system has the Warriors with a 0.2 percent to win the championship. Before the season, that number was zero. It's progress, and everything by the bay seems to be blowing in the right direction.

Posted by: overkirilenko (14427) on 13-01-05 03:38:19
In Reply to: We need a superfan to post this story; How dubs turned it around posted by the prodigy on 13-01-05 02:53:35

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