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There’s A Team That Can Beat The Warriors — It Just Doesn’t Exist Yet

After the Warriors accomplished the inevitable — winning a championship with relative ease after adding superstar Kevin Durant to a 73-win core — there were two natural questions looming for the rest of the NBA: What will it take to dethrone this budding dynasty, and when will that realistically happen?

The answer, as far as oddsmakers are concerned, is seemingly no time soon. Even Cavs star LeBron James, the greatest player of his generation, sounded unsure of how to beat the Golden State going forward after the club extinguished Cleveland in five games.

“Teams and franchises are going to be trying to figure out ways that they can put personnel together, the right group of guys together, to be able to hopefully compete against this team,” said James, whose team needed a historic shooting night to stave off a sweep. “They’re assembled as good as you can assemble, and I played against some really, really good teams that was assembled perfectly, and they’re right up there.”

By examining the Dubs’ handful of losses in recent seasons, a formula does appear to emerge, albeit in a regular-season setting. And while that doesn’t answer the larger question about dethroning them, it helps illustrate what teams have consistently done to knock Golden State off stride.

The league’s other 29 teams were less likely to beat the Warriors by playing an inferior version of Warriors basketball. Cleveland needed to practically burn down the nets with its 3-point shooting to win a Game 4 shootout. But opponents have been more successful by taking Golden State out of its element: having enough defense and length to disrupt the Warriors’ shooting, while having enough offense to keep up with the inevitable points allowed.

Opponents with top-12 defenses1 fared best against the Dubs this past season, accounting for eight of Golden State’s 15 regular-season losses. More broadly than that, beating the Warriors will likely require slowing them down2, not only in transition, where they’re far and away the best in the league, but also in half-court scenarios.

The clubs that have the most success against them have smart, versatile defenders who possess the length to contest Golden State’s sharpshooters3 — the team shot 41 percent from 3-point range in its regular-season wins, but just 27 percent in its losses — and the height and size to switch defensive assignments and neutralize the Warriors’ highly unusual methods for setting screens.

TOTAL MINUTES SPENT …
TEAM BEHIND TIED AHEAD PERCENTAGE OF TIME AHEAD
1 Spurs 184 29 267 55.6%
2 Nets 143 13 137 46.7
3 Bucks 155 15 117 40.6
4 Heat 158 25 105 36.5
5 Celtics 171 23 103 34.6
6 Thunder 346 24 163 30.5
7 Rockets 338 36 163 30.3
8 Pistons 189 14 85 29.5
9 Hawks 189 20 84 28.5
10 Nuggets 324 23 138 28.4
11 Lakers 392 28 157 27.2
12 Clippers 395 25 156 27.0
13 Jazz 370 26 137 25.6
14 Kings 407 28 145 25.0
15 Grizzlies 374 27 133 24.9
16 Wizards 212 12 64 22.3
17 Timberwolves 388 33 112 21.0
18 Trail Blazers 391 26 110 20.9
19 76ers 210 19 59 20.4
20 Pelicans 387 38 108 20.1
21 Mavericks 407 19 101 19.1
22 Suns 439 29 109 18.9
23 Magic 213 22 53 18.4
24 Cavaliers 216 20 51 17.7
25 Bulls 226 19 48 16.3
26 Hornets 232 11 45 15.5
27 Pacers 232 11 44 15.4
28 Knicks 242 13 33 11.5
29 Raptors 249 10 28 9.8
How teams have fared against the Warriors, from 2014-15 to 2016-17

Includes regular season games since 2014-15.

Source: ESPN Stats and Info

That partially explains how long, rangy teams such as the San Antonio Spurs and Milwaukee Bucks have done better against the Warriors during the past three regular seasons than just about anyone else. They have respectable defenders they can throw onto the Warriors’ best scorers, and the ability to force Golden State far later into the shot clock — where efficiency plummets — than most other teams can.

It’s abundantly clear that shutting down this offense altogether is a pipe dream. Aside from tying for the most efficient regular-season offense of all-time, the Warriors scored at least 113 points in all five games of the NBA Finals. You also need to be able to score on them to have a chance. This past season, it often took a team that moved the ball4 and shot well (opponents who walked away with victories hit 38 percent of their 3s against the Warriors, up from 31 percent in defeats) to win. Because of how the Warriors’ defense can smother an opponent, it also helps to push the ball in transition without turning it over too much (think Wizards or Clippers).

Or, if you play a more deliberate style, you may be able to find points in half-court situations if you’re willing to set multiple screens that shed seconds off the shot clock (like Utah, which played at a snail’s pace but was among the NBA’s most efficient teams in late-clock scenarios). Then, of course, there are the Cavs, who, with James and Kyrie Irving, can create scoring opportunities for themselves regardless of how well the Warriors defend.

But as we saw in Game 3: Even a duo going off for a combined 77 points might not be enough to win a single game against Golden State, let alone four in seven tries.

It’s easy to look at Milwaukee’s and Utah’s rosters and see considerable upside5. The same is true of Boston, which has the No. 1 pick in this loaded draft. But most contending clubs look at least one star away from truly competing with the Warriors in the next year or two, if not longer. The Spurs — who had a promising start to Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals before Kawhi Leonard was knocked out for the series — will become a greater challenger if they manage to pry Chris Paul away from the Clippers. And Cleveland, if it manages to find solid, attentive wing defenders somehow, may be capable of doing better next season.

In the meantime, don’t be surprised if more teams than usual decide to take the long view in the years to come. The Warriors can be beaten, but doing that requires near-perfection — something almost no other team can produce anywhere near often enough to unseat them.

Footnotes

  1. The top-12 defenses that knocked off the Warriors this past year included the Spurs (twice), the Grizzlies (twice), the Jazz, the Heat, the Bulls and the Celtics.

  2. The Warriors averaged 23.7 points on fast breaks in wins, and 17.7 in losses this season.

  3. During ABC’s broadcast of Game 5 on Monday, announcers discussed a graphic showing that Kevin Durant’s release point on his jump shot was 10 feet, 3 inches high, making it a nearly impossible task to defend him without considerable height, length and athleticism.

  4. Eight of the Warriors’ 15 losses came to teams that ranked in the top 12 in the league in passes thrown per game.

  5. The Jazz, of course, need Gordon Hayward to re-sign with the club in order to continue their upward trajectory.

Chris Herring is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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