If there's one way the Golden State Warriors made the game of basketball look at their peak, it was easy. The effortless, boyish enthusiasm of Stephen Curry propelled him to back-to-back MVPs while carrying the Warriors to five consecutive NBA Finals appearances. Klay Thompson was a smooth shooter with effortless stroke and mild-mannered personality. The nonchalant, quiet Kevin Durant was a silent assassin -- his start in Brooklyn is a reminder just how loud his game can talk when he's the focal point of an offense.
Around the three cheat code teammates were the perfect role players. Draymond Green was a triple-double waiting to happen, content doing the dirty work, quarterbacking the defense and setting the table for others to eat. Andre Iguodala stepped up when he was needed as a veteran presence, physical defender and timely mismatch. Guys like Shaun Livingston, Kevon Looney, Andrew Bogut and David West all learned their roles within a unique, revolutionary offense.
The result was an innovative yet finely tuned machine. The ball zipped side-to-side in Steve Kerr's masterstroke ecosystem. Perimeter relocations of their elite shooters, zig-zagging through the lane, off misdirection screens and towards each other were brutal actions for opposing defenses, and required a level of nuanced IQ for teammates to spot. Their switch everything defense, aided with off-ball trades to blanket Curry, required five men thinking as one. When they were at their peak and all these cylinders were firing, the Warriors looked unstoppable.
And we took them for granted.
Now, Kevin Durant is gone. Klay Thompson is hurt again, done for the year with an Achilles tear. Many of the elder statesmen from those championships have left, either cashing in to secure their own bag or casualties of the insane luxury tax payments procured just to keep the core together.
The replacements have arrived. While there are many with high ceilings and individual talents, the experience and IQ they lack make it so much more apparent how special the Warriors dynasty really was. Andrew Wiggins is a massively talented player, but hasn't appeared comfortable with how to play second-fiddle to a player like Curry. Rookie James Wiseman has flashed peaks of unfathomable athleticism and upside, but he remains greener than a St. Patty's Day in South Boston. Kelly Oubre Jr. has struggled with shot selection and is a ball stop at the most frustrating times. The list goes on.
It's going to be the most difficult season for Dray, Kerr and Curry to tackle together. Teaching these new guys how to fit in the system on the fly, with shortened offseasons and little room for error, is an ambitious task. Doing so while winning games is even harder.
Offensively, the ball movement of those championship teams was always built around the unique threat of Curry. Sure, he could run off staggers and floppy action or individual screens all day. But patterned playbooks are able to be scouted, and defenses can take back an advantage when they correctly anticipate what is about to happen. Patterned plays (A lead to B, which leads to C, which leads to D) can be interrupted. If the goal is to get the ball to Curry, and that's step D, a wise defensive team will recognize A, then do something during B or C that prevent D from even happening.
Instead, Kerr devised a system that was free-flowing, with principles based on reads, built entirely around the movement of Steph and, to some extent, Klay. Teammates like Draymond, Iggy and Livingston were all elite, Hall of Fame caliber passers. They quickly adapted to the principles and embraced their roles: find Steph when open, help him get open or get the fuck out of his way.
The most clear instance of this brilliance came with Steph's baseline relocations. Whenever he'd drive the lane and pass out to a teammate, it was followed by a dead sprint back to the 3-point line, usually the corner. The idea was simple: as he gets rid of the ball, his primary defender stands up from his stance, eyes the ball and loses track of Curry. That's the perfect time for him to relocate to the corner, where he's far away from emergency defenders to notice and snuff out the action:
Of course, the Warriors would frequently have players stationed in the corners, a frequent home for high-value jump shots.
Those players became so adept at feeling the relocation as it was occurring. They'd jump inside the 3-point line and screen a man (often times their own) while Curry relocated to the corner.
It wasn't a play call, there wasn't a plan to end up here. It was just free flowing, high-IQ basketball:
Watching these possessions back, it's clear what the other four guys are thinking whenever Steph is cutting. What's going through their mind might sound something like this on their inner monologue:
"Curry Curry Curry Curry Curry Curry Curry Curry Curry Curry."
It takes a mature level of selflessness to be programmed that way, and the Warriors' brilliance was in how everyone got there -- even Durant.
Check out a possession like this, where Curry dumps the ball into the post and clears through the lane. Most defenses will breathe a sigh of relief when a top player throws the ball into the post. Even more will pay great attention to the guy with the ball. That's not at all what the Warriors are thinking. They're trying to find a way to get the ball back to Steph:
When Steve Kerr was hired to replace Mark Jackson, there were two aims. First was to get a spirited leader with championship experience, someone unafraid to think outside the box and reach his players in a meaningful way. The second: innovate on offense around a once-in-a-lifetime backcourt where they would break the mold, straying from conventional wisdoms and not copying trends around the league.
Kerr was the perfect hire in both regards. We can't push his culture aside from what he built, getting all role players to buy in and accept their roles, both as veterans or youngsters. Want more proof of his brilliance in that regard? Look no further than JaVale McGee's shot selection to start the year in Cleveland...
For the offense, Kerr was a multi-time champion under the tutelage of Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich. Both coaches were, rather famously, averse to ball screen offense. Jackson's success came with great players in the Triangle Offense, a read-and-react scheme where player and ball movement was paramount. Popovich's offense wasn't as constricting with its rules, but equally valued cutting and passing.
The traces of Kerr's offense were pretty consistent throughout: stay away from the pick-and-roll. Since every other team had it as the staple of their offensive attack, defenses were trained to stop it. Bringing two defenders, instead of just one, towards Curry presented too many risks and a large amount of unpredictability. The Warriors wanted to take the advantage for themselves, standing out as that one unique offense on the schedule and protecting Curry from blitzes all at once.
The Warriors were always near the bottom of pick-and-roll frequency during those championship years:
27th in 2014-15
30th in 2015-16
30th in 2016-17
29th in 2017-18
30th in 2018-19
They were also near the top in effectiveness. Here's their league rank by points per possession (PPP):
2nd in 2014-15
1st in 2015-16
10th in 2016-17
1st in 2017-18
1st in 2018-19
Each playoffs, the same question came up: when would Kerr play through the Steph-KD pick-and-roll? Since it's so effective, it seemed foolish to keep it marginalized. But the head coach never wavered.
Even in a year off, where Curry was largely absent, Durant was sitting out in Brooklyn and Thompson nursing a torn ACL, the Warriors didn't ramp up their ball screen attack to league-average levels. Synergy Sports estimates they generated 17.4% of their offense from the pick-and-roll, still in the bottom-third.
It was a small concession with different players, but mainly without Steph. The wheels began to turn heading into this season once Klay was injured. Would Kerr still stick to his guns and try to force the other guys to conform to their motion-based system, digging his heels in to the style that helped win them championships? Or would he concede to the whims of a young, disorganized roster and sprinkle in more opportunities for Steph to play with the ball in his hands than ever before?
The Warriors franchise is certainly not in a bad place. Between the 2020 and 2021 drafts, Golden State has three first-round selections -- two of their own and one acquired in the Andrew Wiggins-D'Angelo Russell deal. Wiggins joins Kelly Oubre Jr. as long, athletically talented wings who have scored in volume in their pasts. The 2020 draft pick, James Wiseman, has exceeded expectations of many, letting his natural talents shine while he transitions from high school to college with a three-game stop at Memphis in between.
While the talent level is high, the collective fit, feel and IQ is not quite there. Oubre and Wiggins aren't exactly known for their 3-point shooting; Oubre forgetting how to make any time of shot to start the season was amongst the most comedic early season developments. To start the year, he is 6-40 on jump shots and only 13-29 on half-court attempts at the rim. You have to expect those numbers to somewhat stabilize to his norm by the end of the year.
The shots falling isn't the major issue with Oubre. He's not taking the right ones. Half his jump shot attempts are off the dribble, an incredibly high number for the team's third cog at best. He looks unsure of himself for when to pull the trigger and when not to, and the amount of thinking on each possession is clearly hampering his effectiveness:
As for Wiggins, he's been... fine. An above-average start from the 3-point line and below-average finishing. His numbers are a tad lower than they were in Minnesota (to be expected) but he hasn't been a disappointment or a negative in many ways.
What these two, and many other young Warriors wings, lack is the feel for those Curry relocations just yet. Players are trained to take open catch-and-shoot threes, as it's a good shot when created by someone else in a high-value area. Confident young whippersnappers like theirs will fire away when left alone. For Golden State, it's a good shot, but not a great one, whenever Curry is zooming around.
âThere have been plenty of moments where you can see Steph is thinking about those corner relocations and his teammates are instead succumbing to the allure of their own 3-point attempt:
Gaining the knowledge to read these occurrences before they happen will take time to develop. It will delay if willingness to do so gets in the way. It's why the Warriors have looked somewhat out of sorts to start the year: Kerr and Curry are expecting the rest of the team to function like the old Warriors did. The new Warriors simply can't keep up.
The return of Draymond to the lineup has sparked Curry. In the three games that Green has played in, Curry has put up 26, 62 and 30 points, going 17-40 from 3 and only averaging 5.8 assists. Without Green: 26.5 points, 7 assists and 31.8% from 3-point range.
Without Green, Kerr would push a little more steady diet of Curry ball screens. Now that Green is back, there's at least someone out there with the creativity, vision and experience to direct him open when he artfully dashes around the court. The experienced guys who have played with Steph, like Draymond and Looney, know their roles and how to spring Steph free amidst semi-transition chaos:
With Draymond back in the lineup as a secondary handler at the forward spot, moving Looney back in the starting lineup might be a solid choice. It gives two experienced guys who can run motion looks for Steph, while Oubre and Wiggins fall more in the cutter/ finisher territory.
That's no slight on Wiseman, either. He's been pretty good for the Dubs, despite a few defensive baptisms that any rookie big man starting would experience. He's not incredibly tight with his shot selection, taking first jump shot available from mid-range or top of the key. It could be a benefit for him to play with Curry once Draymond goes to the bench, when there's a little more ball screen offense required. Pair him with Eric Paschall at the 4 on the second unit, play into a little more spread-and-space PNRs with Steph for a couple minutes, and see if Wiseman can get into a rhythm.
In the half-court, pick-and-roll play has been the easiest way to get quality minutes out of the rookie thus far, using Curry's gravity to give Wiseman a runway for easy dunks:
It won't always be that easy.
âIf there is one challenge to make to the rookie, it'd be quickly improve his decision-making as a short roll playmaker. Curry's deep range is like a tractor beam to defenders. His man will stay with him far above the 3-point line, and when solid contact is made (or just expected) on a screen, the hedging defender comes out to blanket Steph and prevent a rise.
That means quick pocket passes to the screener are available -- it's where Draymond has made a killing his entire career. Because of the location of the screen, most guys can't get to the rim in one bounce or less. Wiseman can... if there's a runway.
What we'll end up seeing are a few teams start to rush off the corners. They'll take away that runway and dare Wiseman to beat them as a passer. Too often, he's thinking score and not enough about making the right play when he's in space:
Building this offense will not be easy. Teaching these unique principles and rules that only apply to teams with Steph Curry on them requires patience, persistence and a willingness to first fail before you succeed. What we're witnessing right now isn't failure by any means (the Warriors are 4-3, after all) but a bike with the training wheels still attached.
Teaching these concepts quickly is what's so fascinating and ambitious about the Warriors in 2021. They have enough talent to win games even without mastering them all. Kerr knows, though, that if this team is to reach the height of their powers, they'll have to become smarter at leveraging their greatest asset: Curry.
It will take time. The early-season woes at recognizing opportunities to fully unlock Curry's powers are excusable for the newcomers, who have limited reps and time spent with the two-time MVP. As the season goes on, those instances of poor shot selection, missing relocation passes and short roll blunders will become inexcusable. They may even cost the Warriors some games.
Kudos to Kerr for featuring more pick-and-roll than ever before. He's at least trying to meet the team in some middle ground. He's also faced unusual criticism for not redoing the offense altogether and trying to recreate the intense motion of a few years ago. While I find that criticism undeserved due to the concessions he's already made, there's going to be a point where things either click or they don't.
âAnd if the time comes where they don't, it will be on Kerr to scrap his plans and do what he has to to win games.
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Head Boys Basketball Coach, Boys' Latin School (MD).