Two teams this NBA season have shaken off last year’s struggles, fully embraced the tenets of their now Coach of the Year candidate head coaches and turned a history of dysfunction into a state of basketball bliss.
The New York Knicks are the sexier version of the two — the high-octane scoring machine with an MVP-worthy superstar and a stage bathed in the bright lights of New York City. All of that and their Eastern Conference-best 18-6 record has helped the Knicks drown out almost every other storyline in the NBA outside of the Los Angeles Lakers’ never-ending melodrama.
But it’s the Golden State Warriors — quietly on a quest to carve a dangerous reputation in a brutally difficult Western Conference — who might be the version of the two built to last, weather an 82-game season’s up and downs and grind out the very different reality of playoff basketball.
Sexy? No. They most certainly are not. They play in Oakland, they haven’t boasted an All-Star since 1997 (a league-worst stretch), they have a team that at 23-43 last season wasn’t so much reviled as invisible, and they’re just fifth in the Western Conference behind title-contending teams such as Oklahoma City, San Antonio, Memphis and the Los Angeles Clippers.
But unlike the much-hyped and attention-worthy Knicks, Golden State has built its resurgence on rebounding and a marked defensive improvement.
The Knicks have blossomed post-Mike D’Antoni with remarkable 3-point shooting that almost certainly will come back to earth but, D’Antoni-esqe, it’s come at the cost of defense. And it’s defense rather than 3-point shooting that a team can rely on when the buckets stop falling from 23-plus feet.
The Knicks are shooting 40.5 percent from the 3-point line this season, a pace that, if they kept it up all season, would make them one of fewer than a dozen teams to surpass the 40 percent mark in NBA history.
Golden State, on the other hand, has built its resurgence on defense and rebounding. While the NBA world watches all things Knicks and Lakers — not even the Miami Heat (defending champions), Oklahoma City Thunder (11-game winning streak) or Los Angeles Clippers (10-game winning streak) seem able to force their way to forefront of the primary NBA coverage — Golden State has obscurely marked itself as a serious contender.
The Warriors have won seven of their last eight and 12 of their last 15. They just got back from a grueling road trip during which they won six of seven, including against Miami, Brooklyn and Atlanta. It’s a feat largely obscured by the hyper focus on the Knicks and Lakers and the Thunder and Clippers winning streaks.
At 17-8, these guys are the biggest — and most impressive — surprise in the NBA.
Look at it this way: Carmelo Anthony makes $19.45 million this season. The Warriors’ entire current starting lineup makes less — about $22.7 million this season.
This is no way an attack on the New York Knicks. They are an incredible basketball team, powered by a superstar (Carmelo Anthony) who has become a serious MVP candidate now that he’s surrounded by a team honed to his liking, and led by a head coach (Mike Woodson) who has proved his worth.
They play in a much easier conference, meaning there are fewer stumbling blocks once the playoffs begin, and they have the second-best offense in the league. Their chance of making the Finals are strong. But they’re also defensively suspect, at least for now, and awful on the offensive boards.
The Knicks have seen their defensive rating — the points allowed per 100 possessions — regress from being fifth in the league last season to 18th this season. And while their defensive-rebounding percentage puts them at sixth-best team in the NBA, they’re an abysmal 26th in offensive-rebounding percentage.
Golden State, by contrast, has basically the same offense as last season but they’ve gone from having the 27th-ranked defensive rating last season to 12th this year.
They also have the best defensive-rebounding percentage in the NBA and the 12-best offensive percentage in the league.
They play defense. They have two leaders in Stephen Curry and David Lee who are having All-Star seasons. They are 16-1 when they outrebound the opposing team. They have a coach who has made them a consistent, dangerous threat on both ends of the floor.
Monta Ellis and his need to shoot are gone, and young guys like Harrison Barnes, Klay Thompson and Festus Ezeli are stepping up after a season-ending injury to Brandon Rush and an injury to Andrew Bogut that still has him sidelined.
Ball movement. Defense. Rebounding. Consistency. An ability to win on the road against tough competition. A coming together in the face of two stars being seriously felled by injury. Utter confidence.
This is who Golden State is.
“We have a confidence,” Curry said. “We feel like we can win every game we play no matter who the competition is. And when you win on the road it just enhances the confidence we have. Our job now is to not get complacent, to stay hungry, to stay committed, to outwork other teams and stay that scrappy team that’s gotten us where we are. We have to keep that aggression.”
Wednesday night’s game was the perfect microcosm for this Warriors team. David Lee’s 26 points and nine rebounds came on the heels of a streak of seven straight road games in which he had least 20 points and 10 rebounds — something only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had done previously.
Curry had 13 points on only 5-of-13 shooting but impacted the game in ways that don’t show up on a box score, and Jarrett Jack and Carl Landry each came off the bench in a big way with 16 points each. Jack tacked on 10 assists for his first double-double of the year, and Landry had nine rebounds.
All of which is why, against a tough New Orleans team that plays everyone hard, the Warriors hung in there, played defense and won down the stretch — something they couldn’t do last year.
After the game, Reggie Miller texted head coach Mark Jackson congratulations for not just the win but having a team that could return from such a grueling, successful road trip and play New Orleans with an intensity reserved for teams hungry to be great night in and night out.
Jackson should be one of the celebrated men of the NBA now. He’s taken a hapless organization — using, there is not doubt, a perfectly pieced together roster compliments of general manager Bob Myers — and convinced them that defense, ball movement and a collective approach can win games.
In a place where that hasn’t really happened much in a long time.
With a group of very young guys — four starters 24 or younger — who you might expect not mature enough to learn, let alone embrace, that lesson.
Instead Jackson has them buying in, and winning.
“These guys are naturally unselfish basketball players,” Jackson said. “They care for one another, they look out for one another and they look to make plays for one another.”
The New York Knicks might be the juicier story with the easier road and the best shot at winning it all. But Golden State is built the way an under-the-radar success story tends to be in the NBA: Based on defense, chemistry, rebounding and a surprising tendency to win when no one’s really looking.
You can follow Bill Reiter on Twitter or email him at email@example.com