So, we might as well just give the Golden State Warriors the Larry O’Brien trophy for next season, right?
With Kevin Durant making his move to the Bay Area, the Warriors stand far above the rest of their NBA competition. Indeed, this might be the greatest collection of offensive talent we’ve ever seen on a basketball court.
Yet that doesn’t mean Golden State is unbeatable. First, the Warriors have to gut their team in order to make room for Durant. Andrew Bogut is gone. Harrison Barnes will be gone. Festus Ezeli will be gone, too.
That leaves Golden State with Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, KD, Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston. In the Finals, those six players are probably enough to win you a title. Unfortunately for the Warriors, getting to the championship round requires an arduous slog through an 82-game season, followed by three rounds of best-of-7 playoff series. Suffice it to say that Steve Kerr’s squad is in need of some depth. And that’s where beating Golden State begins — not in taking the starters on head-first, but in maximizing your advantage against their reserves. For now, it’s unclear if Golden State will commit fully to small-ball, or if there will be a center willing to come to the Warriors for the minimum to flesh out the roster. Either way, where Golden State once had depth beyond any other team in the league, there’s now a glaring dearth of talent behind the starters.
This is going to look good.
The Warriors will be heavily dependent on rookies and fringe players off the bench next season. If those second units are able to battle opponents to a standstill, it’s game over. Golden State’s starters are too good. Even those starters, however, will have their weaknesses. As Durant himself will tell you, beating the Warriors requires punishing them for playing small-ball. You can’t let them outrebound you on either side of the floor, particularly on their offensive glass, because a huge part of your defensive strategy involves keeping Golden State out of the lane.
For all of the emphasis on the Warriors’ 3-point shooting, it’s the high-percentage looks inside the arc that make or break Golden State. On an average night, the Warriors’ affinity for 3-pointers — which is only going to be exaggerated by Durant’s presence — means a lot of missed shots by Golden State. That’s the trade-off for taking a long shot that’s worth an extra point, right? So the Warriors try to balance that risk/reward scenario by getting to the rim, using the threat of their outside shooting to open up driving lanes and places to cut for a quick pass and easy layup.
If you can take away that space, through discipline on the perimeter and top-notch rim protection by a single big man who can patrol the paint and who needs minimal help, you can shut down Golden State’s ability to get those kinds of looks at the basket. Of course, that’s easier said than done. The Warriors can now run pick-and-roll with Curry and literally any other player on the floor. A 1-2 pick-and-roll with Curry and Thompson? That’s going to generate an open 3. Curry/Green? If you trap Steph, he’s going to find Draymond, who will probably in turn find KD for an open look. Curry/Durant? That’s the best two-man game in the entire league. Curry/whichever center is on the floor in traditional lineups? Sure! Why not?
That’s the tallest task for an opposing defense. When the Warriors go into the high pick-and-roll, you must be perfect. A wasted step means destruction. A miscommunication, and the ball is already through the net. But if you can stay in front of Golden State’s myriad looks and sets, the Warriors will get sloppy. They’ll try passes they shouldn’t, and they’ll shift their focus to bombarding you with 3-pointers rather than working for better looks. Now, if they’re hot from deep, that’s not going to matter. But if they’re missing their fair share of 3s, the Warriors will start hunting for offensive rebounds and sacrifice their transition discipline. They’re not used to coming up empty on a possession.
Here’s where your own big men become so crucial. Once they’ve done their due diligence in fending off attacks at the lane and switching onto guards in the pick-and-roll, it’s imperative that they lock down the glass. Any offensive rebound the Warriors get will surely end in an open 3, due to the scrambling for the loose ball. Asking a team to stay disciplined through multiple consecutive Golden State possessions is asking to get beat.
The same is true on the other end of the floor, however — and this is where your own offensive strategy will come into play. When the Warriors are on defense, there are two guiding principles for your offense:
1.) If you can find an open look in transition, take it. That’s Basketball 101, to be sure, but it’s especially true against such an emotional squad. Golden State will often start pointing fingers when teams give the Warriors a dose of their own medicine on the fastbreak. However, if the easy look isn’t there …
2.) Don’t bail out Golden State with mediocre mid-range shots. The Spurs have the right idea with their methodical offense (although they don’t have the athleticism and ball-handling to beat the Warriors, sadly). You have to make Curry — and now, Durant as well — work on defense in order to tire him out and take away his legs on offense. That means consecutive screens off the ball for whichever player he’s guarding. Make him navigate a maze of bodies, and if it comes down to it, make sure he runs into a hard screen or two. Don’t intentionally foul the reigning MVP. That’s cheating. But the more you force him to deal with physicality while he’s defending, the less impact he’ll have on offense.
From there, you’ll have to hope that luck is on your side. Let’s not split hairs, here: The Warriors have the talent to be one of the greatest basketball teams in history next season and for the foreseeable future. There is no tried-and-true recipe for knocking off such a formidable opponent. All you can really do is scheme well, execute better, and hope that they make more mistakes than you do.
OKC brought Presti, Billy Donovan, Clay Bennett and support staff to Sunday meeting in Hamptons. They waited there until Durant decision.
So that raises one question. Which teams stand a chance against Golden State?
The Cleveland Cavaliers are an obvious answer; any team with LeBron James stands a chance in any series. While Tristan Thompson isn’t exactly the defensive mastermind you’d want in the middle to defend the Warriors, he is their worst nightmare on the glass. And the Cavs can concentrate on improving his game in the specific ways necessary to beat Golden State. Outside of the Warriors, there is no real threat to Cleveland, so Thompson’s ability to stop Golden State is all that matters moving forward.
On the flipside, however, the Cavs were barely able to match up with the Warriors in the Finals, and that was before Harrison Barnes morphed into Kevin Durant. Even LeBron might not be enough in a potential re-rematch.
Beyond Cleveland, the biggest threats to Golden State are on the horizon — although a few young teams will test the Warriors during the 2016-17 regular season. The Boston Celtics will continue to make moves and improve a solid core built around newly acquired center Al Horford. There’s a lot of talent in Boston, and Brad Stevens is a wizard of a head coach. Yet rebounding isn’t Horford’s specialty, and the Celtics might not have the scoring punch to go toe-to-toe with the Warriors.
The Milwaukee Bucks have the kind of length and versatility on the perimeter that will bother Golden State’s constant motion on offense. Milwaukee is likely one true modern center away from proving their win over the Warriors last season (which ended Golden State’s historic start) was far from a fluke.
The Utah Jazz don’t have the kind of offensive point guard who will make Curry work on defense, but they’re another team that should intrigue the Warriors moving forward. Rudy Gobert might be the prototypical center for taking on Golden State, and Derrick Favors’ size provides a formidable challenge for Golden State’s smaller lineups. Unfortunately, the Warriors’ defenders are probably capable of shutting down Gordon Hayward if he doesn’t have another primary scoring option helping to carry the load.
Lastly, the Detroit Pistons seem built with an eye on the Warriors and the "future of basketball," as it were. Andre Drummond is the kind of center who could give Golden State real problems — you know, if he could make his free throws. Reggie Jackson can force Curry to chase him around the court for 30-plus minutes, and Jackson will also have some added motivation now that Durant’s with Golden State. But the Pistons are several moves from being true contenders in the Eastern Conference, let alone against the Warriors in a purely hypothetical Finals matchup.
There are undoubtedly ways to beat the NBA’s new superteam by the Bay. But take all that advice with a mighty grain of salt, because one fundamental truth remains. The Warriors are heavy favorites to win the title thanks to Kevin Durant’s world-changing decision. Everyone else is playing catch up.