The space between the Golden State Warriors team of last season and the one running through teams this postseason may seem to cover the 1,600 miles of I-40 that separate Oklahoma City from Oakland. But slotting former Thunder star Kevin Durant into a 73-win team suited to his precise talents has done more than simply stack talent on talent, emphasizing the Warriors’ zippy, speedy style. It has also fundamentally altered the best version of the best team in the league.
A season ago, the Warriors’ final form was the Death Lineup, the unstoppable regiment that put Steph Curry and Klay Thompson on the floor with their sixth man Andre Iguodala, a shooter/defender in Harrison Barnes, and a 6-foot-7 Swiss Army knife center in Draymond Green. The Death Lineup played fast, moved the ball and rained fire from 3-point range. During the regular season, it outscored opponents by a colossal 47 points per 100 possessions (in 172 minutes), setting a totally absurd standard of play. The starting lineup, which had Andrew Bogut at center, outscored opponents by “only” 13.2 points per 100. For a variety of reasons, the league caught up to that version of the Warriors in the playoffs, but the thought coming into this season was that the soul of those Warriors would remain about the same — that they’d thrive most while running and gunning in the newly formed Megadeath Lineup, which replaced Barnes with Durant.
Durant has delivered on the hype: The Warriors have trounced the league with him in the lineup (and, when they’ve had to, without him), and Durant’s personal stats are among the best in his career. He posted career bests in rebound rate and true shooting percentage this year, and he has played the sort of defense we only ever saw in flashes when he was with the Thunder. But what often goes unnoticed is the fact that the most successful lineups the Warriors run out are no longer groups of small-ball kneebreakers, but ones that feature traditional centers doing traditional center things.
Golden State’s Megadeath Lineup has played well — if not as effectively as last year’s small-ball configuration — but it hasn’t been the team’s best lineup, in either the regular season or the playoffs. Instead, the Warriors seem to be at their best when their four best players are joined by a big, either starter Zaza Pachulia or backup center JaVale McGee. Despite his smaller role, McGee was part of one of the two five-man lineups that played at least 50 minutes in the regular season and outperformed the Megadeath Lineup.1
The same has more or less held true in the postseason, with the starters playing extremely well (32.6 net rating) and the lineup featuring McGee continuing to outpace the small-ball crew by about a point and a half (22.7 net rating vs. 21.1). This has little to do with the scoring or even defending contributions of Pachulia and McGee; rather, it’s that these two seem to improve the team’s play by bolstering the core element of the Warriors’ offense: 3-point shooting.
|Regular season||With Pachulia or McGee||475||213||44.8%|
|Without Pachulia or McGee||227||79||34.8|
|Playoffs||With Pachulia or McGee||73||38||52.1|
|Without Pachulia or McGee||56||19||33.9|
It’s no secret that the Warriors’ shooting was down this season. After shooting 41.6 percent from 3 as a team last season, they put up 38.3 percent this season. A lot of that is tied to Curry reverting to merely great shooting from the heights of his MVP form, along with a down year from Green and the Warriors simply having fewer above-average shooters this season. But those downturns weren’t just random variance — they seemed to coincide with when Pachulia and McGee weren’t on the floor.
Among all Golden State lineups that played at least 50 minutes, six shot 40 percent or better from 3. Five of them included Pachulia or McGee, and the sixth was a bench unit with David West playing center. The difference in the postseason has been even more stark: Of lineups that have played at least 15 minutes, only two are better than 35 percent: the starters at 51.7 percent, and a McGee lineup at 53.8.
If we look at just the core four players — again, Curry, Durant, Thompson and Green — the effect appears to be even larger. When Pachulia was on the floor with those four during the regular season, they shot 43.7 percent from 3; when they played with any other player, they shot 39.1 percent. In the playoffs, that gap has increased to 51.7 percent when playing with Pachulia and 37.7 when playing with anyone else. For McGee, the regular season saw the core four shoot 49.5 percent from deep with him and 40.4 without him. In the playoffs, those numbers got further apart, at 53.8 percent and 43.1. The postseason sample sizes may not be huge, but the trend is consistent.
So why do two players who don’t shoot 3s have such a profound effect on the Warriors’ outside shooting? Mostly it’s the screening. The Warriors set a massive number of screens away from the ball to free up shooters. Having dedicated screeners like Pachulia or McGee (or, last season, Bogut) helps keep things flowing; it helps doubly when the screeners care more about impeding the defender than they do about obeying the letter of the league’s illegal screen laws (Pachulia ranked third in the league this season in offensive fouls per minute). But that’s not the only way to affect shot quality.
You’ll recognize the first play above, in which Pachulia uses first an extended leg and then his extended hindquarters to slow the defender long enough for Durant to get off a clean look.
The effect is more subtle in the second play, where Pachulia runs a quick screen with Curry as they cross half court. Damian Lillard goes with Pachulia in the open court, because trying to chase Curry over a screen in semi-transition is pointless. Al-Farouq Aminu rotates to help because Pachulia-on-Lillard is too big a size mismatch to ignore, especially if Zaza is plodding toward the block. In turn, this leaves Green wide open for a 3.
True, the Warriors could have created a similar shot with Iguodala on the court, but the thing that’s remarkable about this play is how natural it is. The space created isn’t a result of cutting or screening but simply standing where it makes sense to stand and letting the defense react. Having the true big on the court doesn’t just make getting the shot possible, it makes it simple.
It could be that this is all arguing that drawing a distinction between Golden State’s best and second-best lineups isn’t particularly useful, that the Warriors are so talented that even their less-effective versions can overcome the Cavaliers. But if the series tightens up, and a moment comes when Golden State needs to summon its very best, don’t be surprised if the five guys on the court include the kind of center that past Warriors teams seemed intent on destroying. Because this season, that’s who’s brought out their best.