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The Warriors Duped The NBA

Chuck Jones, the classic Warner Bros. animator, used to say that we are all defined by our disciplines: When anything is possible, the things we don’t do are just as important as the things we do. Bugs Bunny does not act unless provoked; the roadrunner does not harm the coyote; the Houston Rockets do not shoot long 2s; and the New York Knicks do not catch the roadrunner. The Golden State Warriors do not have many disciplines to speak of. They’re basketball anarchists, unmoored from any concept of the “right” way to play as defined by crusty traditionalists or, importantly, the current generation of NBA nerds.

For three seasons now, the Warriors have been the de facto champions of analytic basketball, the calculator boys whose success rests on mathematical principles. Other teams have gone to further extremes, but Golden State is unquestionably the flagship — as they’ll be the first to tell you. And in the afterglow of the team’s second title in three seasons, who’s to argue?

But look a little closer and it’s apparent that the Warriors’ game doesn’t reflect the analytics it has come to represent. The Warriors aren’t math — they don’t represent order; they upend logic. They’re Bugs Bunny pulling himself out of the hat. The Warriors are the punchline.

Thearon W. Henderson / Getty Images

Conventional NBA wisdom is based on a set of assumptions about how the game is played, and those, in turn, are based on what has worked best in the past. Don’t shoot 3-pointers off the dribble. Don’t throw 60-foot alley-oops. Don’t play JaVale McGee. Yet each time the Warriors add some new theatricality to their game, like the transition 3-pointer or the pull-up 3 or a propensity for 30-foot alley-oops to JaVale in traffic, they aren’t just stunting on the league; they’re exploiting its assumptions.

There is a simple explanation for how that works: The Warriors have style. For all the systemic differences between the aspirant 2013-14 team led by Mark Jackson and the swashbuckling 2015 champions led by Steve Kerr, the most transformative was that Kerr’s Warriors have style and Jackson’s did not. And style endures. Even after bringing on Kevin Durant, the Warriors never acceded and played like a traditional powerhouse, grinding teams down with sheer force of talent. Instead, the team continued playing its chaotic brand of offense, with Stephen Curry just as likely to be setting off-ball screens to free up Ian Clark as he is to be working in a high pick-and-roll. The unanimous MVP just in your grasp, the undrafted journeyman springs free for a look. Setup and payoff. The coyote roller-skates off the cliff.

The Warriors don’t merely seek out the best practices of the day — they create value where there’s not supposed to be any.

The leading example of the Warriors turning audacity into efficiency is the team’s signature shot: the pull-up 3. When Curry began pulling up from the cheap seats a few short years ago, the reaction was first one of awe, and then one of appreciation: The shots were fearless, and few could make them as often as Curry, but they also worked because most defenses never dreamed that that was a shot anyone wanted. Only recently, as a wave of pull-up 3s has swept across the league, have we begun to appreciate how Curry’s trademark opens up the floor for the Warriors.

But pull-ups are just one of several ways the Warriors have bucked orthodoxy to remake the league’s ideas about smart basketball. Seeking out free throws has been a hallmark of the modern analytic game for as long as Derrick Rose has been harangued for avoiding them. Yet the Warriors don’t shoot very many of them. They ranked just 20th in free throw rate during this regular season, and while they’ve drawn more fouls in the playoffs, their postseason rate was about average among the playoff field.

Meanwhile, the team has moved away from the league’s most popular play, which powers hyper-modern offenses like the Rockets’ and the Raptors’: the pick-and-roll. Golden State was last in the league in percent of plays that finished in the hands of a pick-and-roll ball handler at about 11 percent,1 less than half the rate posted by league leaders Toronto and Charlotte, and last in the league in percent of plays used by a pick-and-roll roll man at 4 percent.2 The NBA is increasingly a pick-and-roll league, but the Warriors have gone in the opposite direction, even if they have their moments of doubt.

“I definitely want to be in more pick-and-roll situations, whether I’m getting shots or whether we’re manufacturing ball movement,” Curry said a few days after the team’s Christmas Day loss to Cleveland. “That’s a strength of ours, regardless of how teams play us.”

In some ways, eschewing the pick-and-roll is a luxury the Warriors enjoy because they have two MVP-level players in Curry and Kevin Durant on the roster. But passing up pick-and-roll opportunities also enables Golden State to be the best long-range 2-point shooting team in the league, thanks to that chaos-engine offense. The Warriors don’t take a ton of the shots — they ranked 20th in the regular season in attempting them3 — but ranked first in percentage, making 47 percent.

It may seem natural that the best 3-point shooting team is also the best long-2 team, but the Warriors are also seeking these shots out. Math is supposed to warn against that.

Golden State ranked in the top 10 of total spot-up 2-point attempts during the season, and the team was again far ahead of the pack in percentage on those shots, hitting more than 50 percent — 2 percentage points higher than the second-place team, and more than five points better than the San Antonio Spurs, who led in attempts. As a late-stage development in a possession, it’s almost cruel. Chase Curry and Durant and all the other Warriors shooters up and down the floor, around screens, and out far beyond the 3-point line — sell out to cover all the most valuable ground on the court as fast as you can — and a guy like David West might just pop out to 17 feet and kill you anyway. The painted tunnel only works for the roadrunner.

That’s what the Warriors do: They don’t merely seek out the best practices of the day — they create value where there’s not supposed to be any. It’s their most endearing trait, the thing that makes them a thrill even as they threaten to dominate the league at a magnitude unseen since Bill Russell’s Celtics. Very often, their “inefficient” ideas are also the most fun.

Marcio Jose Sanchez / AP

If the Warriors are light on Chuck Jones’s disciplines, they’re absolutely bankrupt when it comes to being disciplined. The one thing that’s plagued the team, in past seasons and in this one, has been turnovers. The Warriors have floated around the middle of the pack per possession, but they have a talent for slapstick turnovers at the worst possible times. Early on in his tenure, Kerr took to calling the team’s helter-skelter turnovers — the ones that flew into the second row, endangering the announcers’ table more than the opposing defense — “plays of insanity,” the implication being that Golden State could be even more dominant if it could snuff out these momentary lapses. When the Warriors dominated the Cavs in Game 1, players pointed to the team’s four turnovers as a sign that they took the series seriously. It’s not quite so simple, though.

With the game on the line, we expect a team to resort to less obviously risky plays. Not Steph whipping no-looks on one play and JaVale McGee flying by with an ACME rocket strapped to his ass the next.

Some Warriors turnovers are a function of carelessness. But others are more about the team’s identity since Kerr arrived, what the younger Jim Mora used to refer to as Michael Vick’s “athletic arrogance” — the belief that they are the best team in the world and capable of summoning any necessary magic to the court. Sometimes this backfires, as it did with Curry’s infamous behind-the-back turnover in the closing minutes of Game 7 last season.

“Yeah, I still think about that,” Curry told ESPN’s Chris Haynes just before the Finals began. “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. 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 confidence will lead to more turnovers. But it will also lead to some of the prettiest basketball the league’s ever seen, and you can trace the contagion from that Curry pass to Durant sauntering into a pull-up 3 to win Game 3.

And it doesn’t just affect the stars: The Warriors ethos infused Andrew Bogut and Zaza Pachulia with the spirit of Vlade Divac and Brad Miller over the last three seasons, and even drew out latent passing skills from Marreese Speights and West. On the Warriors, veterans are empowered to throw surprising, stunting passes — passes that contribute to the team’s 2-point offense being so unguardable.4

And that was the promise of this team! That when things tightened up, they were just as likely to throw the full-court alley-oop, or toss a behind-the-back bounce pass through traffic, or plant a shooter in front of Jeff Van Gundy and pull up from 40. It’s different from just about every other team we’ve seen. With the game on the line, we expect a team to resort to less obviously risky plays — brawny hero ball, or a calculating high screen and read that’s got more deltoid than fast twitch to it. Not this. Not Steph whipping no-looks on one play and JaVale McGee flying by with an ACME rocket strapped to his ass the next.

Ben Margot / AP

The Warriors’ success raises questions about the new-school wisdom of the league. Is this a blueprint for future contenders or merely the imprint of a uniquely talented team? The answer might simply be that Golden State’s talent level is exceptional, that they can buck league trends because they aren’t like the rest of the league. And that’s partly true. They do this through individual excellence, yes, but that’s also the point: Golden State already had the talent the rest of the league craves, and now it’s using that talent in ways that other great teams haven’t. The fearlessness that Kerr allowed to flourish had taken root long before Durant came to town.

So why not pull up from 40 feet, or throw 60-foot alley-oops, or play your small forward at center in the Finals just to see what happens? Why let the coyote get his defense set? It could be that there’s a steep minimum talent requirement to make playing like the Warriors effective, but there’s a steep talent requirement for anyone looking to win the NBA title.

The Golden State Warriors are the team of the future — but that future may not be the one we thought it was.


Read more: They Are Kevin Durant’s Warriors Now

Footnotes

  1. According to Synergy Sports Technology.
  2. According to Synergy Sports Technology.
  3. Percentage of all field goal attempts that were 2-point shots from more than 16 feet.
  4. For the last three seasons, the Warriors have led the league in percent of 2-point field goals that are assisted, this past season coming in at about 66 percent, more than 8 points better than the team behind them.

Kyle Wagner is a senior editor at FiveThirtyEight.

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