The beginning of any NBA season has a way of inducing overreaction, even if the conclusions fly in the face of reason. The urge to make definitive proclamations about players, teams and leaguewide trends can be hard to resist, and the Golden State Warriors’ slow start made them the subject of early consternation from media and fans alike.
Some of that concern was well-founded if slightly overstated. A 2-3 start to the year, including three blowout losses, had optimistic forecasters wondering if they’d miscalculated; for skeptics, it was confirmation that a once-dynastic team simply didn’t have enough firepower to keep its head above water in the West. But NBA teams rarely plateau after a week; they evolve, they learn, and, often, they improve.
If any playoff team was bound to stumble early, it was the one that not only had to get a young roster up to speed and compensate for the loss of an All-Star but also didn’t have its second-most important player to start the season. And, coming off a lost season without an All-Star cast around him, there were valid questions about whether a 32-year-old Steph Curry could reestablish himself as the same lethal force that propelled three championship teams.
Curry apparently heard that noise and has looked as incendiary as ever while maintaining the unrivaled playmaking and efficiency that makes him such a unique weapon. But unlike in previous seasons, his individual dominance is now born more of necessity than indulgence — a means of survival rather than a consequence of leaguewide decimation. Even with Curry on the floor, Golden State is only scoring at an average rate, and the offense has fallen into the abyss without him. The two-time MVP is on track to post the highest usage and second-highest assist rates of his career (due largely to a significant increase in pick-and-roll volume), and the Warriors will lean on their point guard more than ever before.
It’s a role in which we haven’t yet seen Curry. Though he has long been the most fearsome pick-and-roll orchestrator in the NBA, he and the Warriors are most dangerous running an unscripted, egalitarian system. Curry makes the game immeasurably easier for his teammates, provided they understand how to take advantage of his offensive style. Arguably the most dangerous off-ball weapon in league history, Curry creates advantages not only out of the pick-and-roll but by breaking defenses open with constant, purposeful movement without the ball. The system that helped produce three titles in five seasons wasn’t built around an isolation scorer or pick-and-roll workhorse, but Curry’s unceasing motion and the ballet of passes, cuts, screens that it spawned. That approach may deprive him of the same direct authorship over every possession that other superstars have, but he’s nonetheless a historically effective offensive engine whose skills perfectly complement and amplify smart, talented players on great teams.
These Warriors are, to put it mildly, not a great team. They want not only for talent but also for the kind of heady players required to make their offense work. Andrew Wiggins had played one NBA game with Curry prior to this season and has never been adept at reading the game, to begin with. Kelly Oubre, another newcomer with a questionable feel for the game, didn’t help matters by starting the season 1-of-25 from beyond the arc. Rookie James Wiseman, while promising, is still figuring out where to be on offense and when to dial back his own thirst for buckets. (Kent Bazemore may be the only newcomer who has taken naturally to playing with Curry.)
That’s quite the step back from the likes of Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala, and Shaun Livingston, who by the height of Golden State’s power seemed to share a basketball mind, instinctively making the kinds of shrewd plays that could spring Curry open for a 3 or draw a defender away from the rim. The early days of this new epoch were marked not by seamless passing sequences or incandescent shooting performances, but by jagged movement and stagnant possessions. Curry still looks his usual self, but the team doesn’t yet have the cohesion to pay off his advantages. He’ll penetrate a defense, give up the ball, and sprint to the opposite corner — only for a teammate to rush ahead with a drive without so much as a look in his direction:
Those plays negate not only Curry’s effort to get open, but the potential defensive breakdown it might create. A help defender won’t worry about leaving his man to deny Curry if another Warrior surrenders the advantage before it even materializes. And what good does it do to sprint the width of the floor if your teammates aren’t even aware of your movement? It takes time and repetition to fully grasp the reads required to play in a complex system, and absent a proper offseason, training camp, or preseason, Steve Kerr had precious little time to integrate so many new pieces around his two main holdovers.
Draymond Green has been key to the resurgence of Steph Curry
Draymond Green’s return, then, has been a godsend for a team in search of some basic institutional knowledge and connectivity. The three-time All-Star has taken all of 23 shots this season, yet he’s been central to Golden State rediscovering its rhythm. One of the smartest and most versatile players in the league, Green simplifies the game for his teammates and augments their strengths by routinely making quick, sound decisions. The other three starters may not fully understand how to read Curry’s routes, but at least they now have the option of swinging the ball to someone who does.
Green’s aggression and vision as a roll man open up the rim for Wiseman and the 3-point arc for Oubre, while his facilitating from the top of the key mercifully relieves Wiggins of some creative burden. Crucially, he frees Curry to play away from the ball and works in perfect symbiosis with Curry’s freewheeling style. His playmaking unlocks that off-ball movement to its fullest extent while Curry’s gravity affords Green the space to attack a tilted floor. Sometimes, a simple action between the two is all it takes to create an advantage:
On defense, Green looks engaged — even predatory. A defensive savant who can guard five positions and protect the rim would bolster any lineup, but Green’s value is especially evident when so many of his teammates are still getting up to speed. Though Wiseman has shown promising flashes, he still makes far too many mistakes to anchor a playoff-caliber defense. Green offers a necessary safety net. The Warriors have been markedly better on defense with him on the floor, and it’s no mystery why the vast majority of his minutes have come alongside Wiseman. He vigilantly stalks the floor on every possession, pouncing with clairvoyant timing, and his ability to both force turnovers and handle the ball allow him to lead counterstrikes in transition:
Of course, one of the challenges of building your offense and defense around two singular talents is replacing their value when they leave the floor — a problem that will haunt Golden State all season. The Warriors aren’t particularly deep, and while it makes sense to tie Curry and Green’s minutes together, that comes with the tradeoff of more time with starless, overmatched second units struggling to score. But Golden State should be fruitful on both ends with Green and Curry on the floor. How quickly the supporting cast catches onto their rhythm could decide whether the Warriors get another playoff run out of Curry’s prime or fall into the unfamiliar fray below.