One year ago today, the Golden State Warriors woke up with an unfamiliar feeling. The night before, something unimaginable had happened — they missed 21 of their 27 3-pointers in Milwaukee and — gasp! — finished with fewer points than their opponent. The fans who brought “24-1” signs to the Bradley Center were rewarded, witnessing the end of the best start in NBA history. For Luke Walton, presiding over the defending champions while coach Steve Kerr recovered from a spinal fluid leak, it was his first taste of defeat in the head coach’s chair. “Losing sucks,” he said.
Much has changed since then, after the 73 wins and the 3-1 Finals lead. Walton, now a full-time head coach, is in Hollywood. Kevin Durant, after coming close to toppling Golden State in the Western Conference Finals, is in the Bay Area. So is JaVale McGee.
One thing that is the same, though: losses are rare for the Warriors. They’re 21-4 instead of 24-1, but no team has ever been better offensively (aside from, remarkably, this year’s Toronto Raptors). Durant has fit in as well as anybody could have hoped. If you were tasked with grading them — which we were — you’d have to give them an A. If you were tasked with deciding whether or not they are better than they were pre-Durant, the answer would be less clear.
You probably know the basic stats by now. The 2016-17 Warriors are a superior offensive team so far, which makes sense because they added a 6-foot-11 guy who can score from anywhere against anybody. They have also gone from an average defensive rebounding team to an awful one, and their defense has suffered for it — but not that much. (According to Synergy Sports, they are better than last year in points allowed per possession in transition and second in the league in the half-court.)
They still play the same style, with pretty much the same sets, and the returning stars have sort of taken a step back because Durant is not Harrison Barnes.
Klay Thompson was prescient in August when he said he is “not sacrificing s—” — the only change is that he has dribbled slightly less than he used to. Stephen Curry has a lower usage rate and he doesn’t have the ball in his hands quite as much as he did last year, but he’s still shooting as often as he did two years ago. Draymond Green has seen a significant drop in touches, but when he gets the ball, he’s playing the exact same way — same with Shaun Livingston and Andre Iguodala.
The player who has made the biggest adjustment is Durant — he’s not dribbling as much or holding onto the ball as long as he did with the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Right now, Golden State appears to be just as harmonious as it was during last year’s charmed regular season. It has recorded 30 or more assists in 17 of 25 games. Last week, Thompson scored 60 points in 29 minutes despite only dribbling 11 times and having the ball in his hands for 88 seconds. During his eruption, Curry euphorically ran into the tunnel.
The question, as always, is whether or not the playoffs will curb this enthusiasm. Are the Warriors, with Durant on board, better equipped to deal with a seven-game series against a team that bullies them on the boards, stays connected defensively and pushes the ball in transition? The fascinating thing about this is that we don’t know.
What we do know is that the improved offense could be significant. There were times in the playoffs last year when Golden State was out of sorts because the Thunder and Cleveland Cavaliers switched every screen and shut down a lot of Kerr’s off-ball movement. At that point, you need basic quick-hitters to get you a bucket. It helps to have multiple playmakers, and it really helps to have Durant, maybe the most deadly half-court scorer in the game. That’s why Iguodala said the Warriors had lots of holes last year and they “got a monster to fill them all.”
For most of last year, when I watched Golden State, I thought I was watching the greatest team of all-time. Curry seemingly hit some kind of milestone every few games. No team had combined that type of shooting, passing and defensive versatility. All the pieces fit. This year’s group has not been as consistent, but its highs are higher. They scored 149 easy points against the Lakers on Nov. 23, and it feels like they can top that.
Twenty-five games into the Durant era, it’s impossible to fairly declare one iteration of the Warriors better than the other, and the urge to come to a conclusion is silly. How do you judge what they are doing now when compared to what they accomplished last year? What do 73 wins mean without a ring? This superteam’s ceiling is unknowable, and Kerr is still experimenting with the rotation, especially when it comes to the backup big men. Maybe a veteran will take a buyout and join the team midseason like Anderson Varejao did last year. There is room for improvement here, and Iguodala thinks Durant hasn’t even scratched the surface of what he can do in Golden State.
I guess we’ll just have to keep watching.
Too bad for us.