A Golden Revival

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On March 19, 2012, the Golden State Warriors retired Hall-of-Famer Chris Mullin’s jersey during halftime in a game against the Minnesota Timberwolves. Heading into the game the Dubs were 18-24, and on their way to another losing season. But the jersey retirement was supposed to be a moment for new owner, Joe Lacob, to introduce himself to the fans, pay tribute to the Warriors’ past and outline his vision for a positive future.

Instead, the ceremony was anything but positive:

The immediate cause of the fans’ ire was the trade of popular gunner, Monta Ellis, to the Milwaukee Bucks, in exchange for the oft-injured center, Andrew Bogut, just a week prior. But, as Bill Simmons pointed out, a couple days later, the collective anger of one of the most passionate fan-bases in the Association ran much deeper than that. Lacob provided an easy target for a fan-base that had suffered through years of ineptitude, both on and off the court. The trade of Ellis was simply the straw that broke the camel’s back.

But on that spring night almost 20 months ago, while those Warriors fan were well within their rights to release their frustrations out on Lacob—who was (wrongly) seen as a continuation of the team’s ineptitude—there aren’t many fans, at this moment in time, who are still peeved about the loss of Ellis. In fact, the new Golden State Warriors regime—from ownership, to their young coach, Mark Jackson, down to the current crop of players—are helping Dubs fans forget about the troubles of the past, and dream of a future in the which the Larry O’Brien trophy could be on the horizon.

 
Photo: Keith Allison/Creative Commons
 

The turnaround
Mark Jackson’s first season as the head coach of the Warriors was a tumultuous one. As mentioned, they traded their franchise player—the underachieving Monta Ellis—and the player they hoped would be the new face of the team, Steph Curry, was dealing with major ankle problems. Jackson was forced to implement his system during the 66-game, lockout-tarnished season—a season in which team practices were kept at a minimum, and games came thick and fast.

The Dubs finished the year 23-43, and while they ranked a respectable 11th in offensive efficiency (offense has rarely been a problem in Golden State), they were an appalling 26th in defensive efficiency.

However, the 2012-13 season—thankfully, an 82-game season—marked the start of a new era for the Dubs. Mark Jackson was able to implement his system, Curry emerged as a genuine superstar (more on him later), playing 78 games during the regular season after only playing 23 the year prior, and the team made the playoffs for the first time since 2007, which was the season in which they upset the Dallas Mavericks. The current incarnation of the Warriors had their official coming-out party during last year’s playoffs, beating the third seed Denver Nuggets in six games before falling to the San Antonio Spurs in a wildly entertaining, wildly competitive series.

Last season’s success propelled the Warriors from a team that most casual NBA fans cared little about, to a team that were suddenly must-see television for anyone who followed the league. Steph Curry ‘going off’, as he did during a memorable mid-season game against the Knicks at MSG, became an event that you absolutely had to drop everything and run to see. Curry, and his backcourt partner Klay Thompson, were dubbed the Splash Brothers. Watching them sprinting down the court in transition, and either spotting up for 3-pointers or shooting one off the bounce, was—and still is—both exhilarating for fans, and terrifying for the opposition.

Last season, as a team, the Warriors average 40 per cent from 3, with eight makes a game from the land beyond. Steph Curry averaged a quite astonishing 45 per cent from 3-point range, giving him an effective field goal percentage (a shooting percentage that takes into account the fact that 3s are worth 50 per cent more than 2s) of 55 per cent.

For any other player in the league, shooting a pull-up 3 in transition would be a low-percentage shot and might result in that player getting benched. Steph Curry, on the other hand, might be the only player in the NBA who’s actually been encouraged to do this:

We’re still early in the season, but so far the Warriors have built on the success of last year’s breakout campaign. At the time of writing, the Warriors are 8-3 and sit on top of the Pacific Division. Curry and Thompson are doing their thing (Thompson is averaging 50 per cent from 3!) while David Lee remains a 20-10 threat every night.

Now granted, some of those wins have come against weak opposition (two wins were against the dreadful Utah Jazz) but the Dubs did post a signature victory against the Oklahoma City Thunder last week, after a dramatic Andre Iguodala buzzer-beater.

And on the subject of Iggy; the former All-Star, defensive savant, is one of the biggest upgrades the Warriors have made to their roster this season, and a big reason why they’re legitimate contenders to come out of the Western Conference. Iguodala has slotted into the Warriors starting line-up seamlessly thus far, and has really helped the team’s perimeter defense. Both Curry and Thompson struggled at times on defense last season—particularly Curry, who struggles against more physical guards—and Iguodala is able to take the other team’s best offensive weapon (he guarded Kevin Durant extremely well in the Thunder game) leaving the Splash Brothers to concentrate on the offensive side of the ball.

Iguodala is also a major asset at the offensive end, too—he’s a big reason while they probably won’t miss the departed Jarrett Jack. On this team he’s probably only the fourth option on offense, but he’s able to knock down the open jump-shot—a shot he’s getting plenty of, playing with players that attract a lot of double-teams—and his above average ball-handling skills means that he can bring the ball up court at times, and take the pressure of Curry. That allows Curry the luxury of playing away from the ball where he can shoot coming off screens. And Iggy’s playmaking abilities are VERY underrated. Check out this insane pass—one of many, this season—to David Lee:

While Iguadola has undoubtedly helped improve the Warriors’ perimeter defense so far this season, a healthy—and slim and trim, I might add—Andrew Bogut is making a big difference as a rim protector and overall defensive coordinator down low. Prior to his horrific elbow injury, sustained during his Milwaukee days, Bogut was one of the best low-post defenders in the NBA. He’s starting to return to that form this season, after showing flashes of it during last year’s playoffs.

Ultimately what will please Mark Jackson the most so far this season is that the Warriors—led by Iguodala and Bogut, at that end—are currently a top-5 defensive team in the league. While they rank fourth overall in offensive efficiency, scoring 105.5 points per 100 possessions, offense hasn’t been an issue for this team for a number of seasons. Defense has been the issue, and teams with defensive issues don’t win championships. This season the Warriors rank fourht in defensive efficiency, only allowing 94.6 points per 100 possessions. Last season they finished the year 13th in defensive efficiency, and while it’s still early, the signs are very encouraging.

 
 Photo: Bryce Edwards/WikiMedia
 

Are the Warriors contenders?
The Dubs won their only championship back in 1975, during the heyday of Warriors legend, Rick Barry. 38 years on from the franchise’s zenith, this current crop of Warriors players have a better shot of adding to that sole triumph than any Dubs team in the last 20 years.

But, as talented as the Warriors are, a couple of things make me uneasy about declaring them to be legitimate title contenders this season.

The first issue is the team’s depth at center. Andrew Bogut recently signed a $36-million contract extension. The big Australian is well worth the money, but the team might be in trouble if he were to go down with an injury—and given his history, and the history of big-men over 25 in general, that’s not a highly improbable scenario. Jermaine O’ Neal is the team’s backup center, and he recently went down with an injury himself. Again, Bogut is a big part of the Dubs’ defensive revival and if something were to happen to him things could unravel quickly—especially with minus defender David Lee, and O’Neal or Festus Ezeli manning the front court.

The second issue has less to do with the Warriors and more to do with the current state of the Western Conference in general. Put simply, it’s loaded. While the Eastern Conference is atrocious at present—the 76ers are fourth with a 5-7 record—the West is stacked with teams who have winning records. The Spurs, Grizzlies, Clippers, and Thunder will be extremely tough outs this season—as they’ve been for the last few years. But other teams—the likes of the Rockets, Timberwolves, and somewhat surprisingly, the Blazers—have emerged as seriously good teams, and will make getting out of the West a complete and utter dogfight.

For the Warriors, with their raucous home support, and the advantage it gives them, getting home-court advantage for the first-round of the playoffs and beyond, could be the key in getting out of a brutally tough conference.

But regardless of whether the Warriors makes the Conference Finals this season (which is probably their goal) this team has come a long way from the mess it was in just a few seasons ago. A few seasons ago the Warriors were somewhat of a forgotten franchise—that team your Dad grew up loving during the Rick Barry-era, and the one that your older brother raved about during the RUN TMC days. But they were a team that no casual fan cared about in 2012.

And now? Now they’re League Pass favourites, and a team getting national attention. They’ve gone from a guaranteed laughingstock to a guaranteed playoff team. March 19, 2012 feels like a really long time ago.

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