Momentarily setting aside the Cavaliers’ improbable comeback in the 2016 NBA Finals, no NBA team has figured out a blueprint for beating the Golden State Warriors when it matters most.
Golden State is on the cusp of finishing with the league’s most efficient offense for a third season in a row even as the league as a whole is more efficient than it’s ever been, effectively putting to rest the question of whether this is the greatest scoring club in NBA history. The Warriors have the two best shooters in the world sharing a backcourt, plus a nearly 7-foot-tall forward who may very well be the purest scorer in the game, and a reigning Defensive Player of the Year who is just as skilled at passing the basketball and logging triple-doubles as he is at protecting the basket most nights.
Aside from the Houston Rockets — who own the NBA’s best record and may eventually rise to this challenge — the only team seemingly capable of beating Golden State is Golden State. For all the Warriors’ feats of dominance, the team is remarkably sloppy, and it seems to be getting worse.
The Warriors throw the ball away more than any other team and have grown progressively more careless with their passes over the course of their four-year run of greatness. Their reckless passes — which are often of the one-handed, behind-the-back or alley-oop variety — have resulted in turnovers on a league-high 8.8 percent of their possessions so far this season, according to data from Second Spectrum and NBA Advanced Stats. This would represent the second straight year that the Warriors led the NBA in bad passes that resulted in turnovers and the fourth consecutive season in which Golden State saw its bad-pass rate increase.
This problem seems to have an easy solution: Cut out the showboating. But the fix is more difficult than you might think. Coach Steve Kerr has said in the past that asking fiery forward Draymond Green to calm down on the court would diminish the passion that makes him special, and the Warriors coach told me he feels similarly about the team as a whole, which makes him reluctant to lay out hard-and-fast rules on how they should distribute the ball.
After all, even with their turnover problem, the Warriors are generally a very good passing club, leading the league in both assists and assist-to-turnover ratio by a country mile. Plus they’ve won two championships with the same swagger they possess now.
“[The passes] are the one thing I do have to stay on them about,” Kerr said. “I talk about hitting singles all the time instead of hitting home runs. I don’t mind turnovers that are the result of us trying to make the extra pass. It’s the ones that are out of motion that don’t stand much of a chance to get through that bother me. So if we just hit singles with this team, we have so many playmakers and shooters that it’s all going to come in the wash pretty positively.”
Translation: Just make the simple play, since most teams would have no chance at beating us on talent alone unless we do them a favor by repeatedly turning the ball over.
There’s a lot of truth to that. Warriors’ opponents are scoring 18.4 points per 100 possessions off Golden State’s miscues, the NBA’s third-highest mark. And the data suggests that Golden State can’t shake off the turnovers like it’s done in the past. The Warriors went 7-1 and 10-4 in games where they had at least 20 turnovers in 2014-15 and 2015-16, respectively. But last season they went 4-2 in those games, and they now own a 3-3 tally when coughing it up that frequently.
Still, it’s fair to wonder what, if anything, prompts the Warriors to play more loosely or conservatively. Golden State, known for putting on a show in front of its fans at the deafening Oracle Arena, seems to play to the home crowd — which may mean taking more gambles. The Dubs are throwing the ball away 9.5 times per 100 possessions at home this season, compared to 8.2 passing turnovers per 100 possessions on the road, according to Second Spectrum data.
The Warriors also appear to suffer from a lack of focus at times. They not only turn the ball over far more often when the game is turning into a laugher in either direction,1 but they also turn the ball over at a slightly higher rate against teams positioned to land in the lottery (15.8 turnovers per game) than against clubs currently on track to reach the playoffs (15.2), according to HoopsStats.com.
But as Kerr said: Not all turnovers are created equal. Some of these flubs come on plays made for the right reasons.
Golden State was an overly stagnant club during Mark Jackson’s final year as coach, ranking dead last in the league with 243.8 passes per game before Kerr came along and changed the team’s offense to prioritize spacing, ball movement and screening away from the action of the play to better distract defenses. By the end of Kerr’s first season, the Warriors were averaging 306.6 passes per night, ranking ninth. And now, the team’s dishing is so contagious that they’re sometimes unselfish to a fault, bypassing wide-open shots that they’d be better off taking.
“We’re just overpassing, to be honest,” Durant said back in 2016. “It’s the stuff we can control — it’s not like [defenses are] getting into us and turning us over themselves. We’re … getting into the lane and trying to make the second or third pass when we have a layup on the first or second one.”
The Warriors are also prone to taking a bit more risk because of the nature of their offense. For example, most teams complete a lot of easy “passes” by simply handing the ball off to their guards as they come around screens. Steph Curry and his teammates, by contrast, employ far fewer pick-and-roll sets per game than any other team in the league. As a result, Curry is throwing longer passes on average than most players.
The team also falls victim to miscommunication at times because of what some Golden State coaches refer to as “backyard basketball” — the team’s unusual, highly improvised offense, which calls for guards to screen for bigs and stars to sometimes set picks for the backups. With that system, and the constant confusion it’s designed to create for defenses, occasional mistakes are bound to happen.
Yet none of that excuses the flair-based miscues — especially in key situations. With just over five minutes left in Game 7 of the 2016 Finals, Curry, the superstar point guard, flipped the ball behind his back toward Klay Thompson. But the pass was errant, bouncing out of bounds and giving the Cavaliers the opening they needed to complete the series comeback and win their first NBA title.
“I still think about that [turnover],” Curry said last year. “[But] in thinking about that game, it’s funny because I know the concept of making the right play, making a simple play, understanding that there are deciding moments in games and the difference between winning a championship or not could be one of those plays. [That said], I came out in preseason this year and threw a behind-the-back pass because I have confidence that I can do it and it won’t change that.”
That attitude, perhaps more than any other, explains why these Warriors may always roll the dice, even when they don’t necessarily have to.
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