NEW YORK — To enter Barclays Center on Tuesday was to hop into a time machine. In warmups, Stephen Curry swished an assortment of HORSE shots: hiiiiiiigh-arcing jumpers, logo 3s, lefty floaters from the elbow. About 3,000 miles from the Bay Area, Curry earned MVP chants, after a closely contested first half, his Golden State Warriors took control with a third-quarter onslaught. By the time the fourth quarter started, the competitive portion of this nationally televised game was over.
Now 12-2 after a 117-99 win over old friend Kevin Durant, old foe James Harden and the Brooklyn Nets, the Warriors are running circles around opponents the way they did in the dynasty years. Team owner Joe Lacob said last week that it feels like 2014-15, their first championship season, and coach Steve Kerr called it an appropriate comparison. The Bludgeoning in Brooklyn “showed the league that we’re here,” Andrew Wiggins said.
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Golden State has the third-best offense (112 points per 100 possessions), the best defense (98.9 per 100) and far and away the best point differential in the NBA. Klay Thompson is not back yet, and there is a different cast of characters next to Curry, Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala and Kevon Looney, but the ball movement, player movement and quick decisions are all there. So, are we basically watching the pre-Durant version of the team again?
“Well, we shoot way more 3s,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said.
He’s not kidding: Golden State is attempting an average of 41 3-pointers per 100 possessions this season, way up from anything we’ve seen from them before. A whopping 43.8 percent of their shot attempts have been 3s, per Cleaning The Glass. (That number was 29.1 percent in Kerr’s first season, 31.6 percent in the Warriors’ 73-win season, 34.4 percent in Durant’s final season and 40.5 percent last season.
Golden State has tilted the math in its favor without compromising an ounce of commitment to its offensive principles. “We play a similar style, but we’ve evolved,” Kerr said, noting that the chemistry between Curry and Green, who have shared the court for almost 16,000 minutes, playoffs included, is better than ever. “They read each other’s thoughts, basically.” If you don’t spend your free time looking at NBA statistics, you might have missed that the Warriors’ shot profile all of a sudden resembles that of the Harden-era Houston Rockets.
Some of this happened organically, through personnel decisions. They added floor-spacing veterans Nemanja Bjelica and Otto Porter Jr. in the offseason, and they moved Jordan Poole into the starting lineup. Some of it, however, is the result of the coaching staff emphasizing shot selection from the beginning of training camp. Golden State launched 69 3-pointers in its first preseason game, after which Kerr told reporters that they planned to “take a ton of 3s this year.”
Curry, the best shooter in NBA history, isn’t just obsessed with getting even better — he has become more prolific. In Brooklyn, he went 9 for 14 from 3-point range, the 11th time in 14 games that he had attempted 13 or more 3s. (He did this 28 times in 63 games last season.) On the season, a career-high 63 percent of his shots have been 3s, per CTG, and a career-low 17 percent of his shots have been from midrange. As if the analytics crowd didn’t already adore him.
Wiggins has quietly traded some long 2s for rim attacks, and Porter has replaced most of his midrange jumpers with 3s. The Warriors are 29th in midrange shot frequency (21.4 percent) and 24th in long 2s (7.7) percent, per CTG, a drastic decrease from the Durant days. (They ranked near the bottom of the league in those categories in the pre-Durant days, but only because the league as a whole was more midrange-happy — they still took way more than they do now.) The improved spacing has helped Golden State jump from 20th in shot attempts at the rim last season all the way to sixth, per CTG.
Postgame at Barclays, Kerr hit all the familiar notes when describing Curry’s brilliance: “He’s gonna pull defenders with him 35 feet from the hoop,” making him an offense unto himself, unprecedented in his ability to dominate with or without the ball. “And then it’s a matter of putting smart people around him, like Draymond, like Andre, and many others who are going to take that defensive attention that Steph gets and then play make behind the play when Steph gets the ball out of his hands.” This is how the Warriors have played since Kerr unleashed Curry seven years ago, only now they’re exploiting the defensive attention differently. When Thompson returns, he’ll be in a supercharged system, but should feel as comfortable as he does on the open water.
What’s going on with the Knicks‘ backcourt?
New York Knicks guards Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier headed to the bench with 4:46 remaining in the third quarter against the Orlando Magic on Wednesday and did not return, instead watching reserves Derrick Rose and Immanuel Quickley from the sideline. When the game — a 104-98 Magic win — ended, Walker and Fournier, both signed in the summer to boost the Knicks’ offense, had logged just 21 minutes apiece.
You might already know that this was not the first time they were benched for all of the fourth. For Walker, it was not even the first time he was benched for all of the fourth in a loss to the Magic at Madison Square Garden — it happened on Oct. 24, too.
Fournier has sat for the entire fourth quarter in eight of the 15 games he’s played, including seven of the last nine. Walker has sat for the entire fourth quarter in six of his 14 games. (In fairness to both of them, please note that one of these games was a blowout victory in Orlando — yes, these teams have already met three times — on Oct. 22. That one shouldn’t really count.)
New York’s issues with the starting five go beyond the backcourt. Coach Tom Thibodeau is regularly going with Taj Gibson over Mitchell Robinson late in games, just like he used to close with Gibson over Carlos Boozer in Chicago. The lineup of Walker, Fournier, R.J. Barrett, Julius Randle and Mitchell Robinson has logged more minutes (257) than any other unit in the NBA and has been inept on both ends. Its offensive rating (102.9 points per 100 possessions) would rank 26th in the league, and its defense (119.2 per 100) would rank dead last.
As rough as it’s been for the rest of the starters, though, the new guys are the ones who were supposed to make everything easier when the Knicks have the ball. They are the reason that 40 percent of New York’s shots are now 3s, and they are the reason that the spacing looks better than it used to. The team is counting on this translating to a more efficient offense at some point. The question is why in the world it hasn’t happened yet.
Just as there is an argument to be made that the Knicks are getting unlucky defensively (opponents are making 42.3 percent of their 3s against the starting lineup, which can’t all be about poor perimeter defense), you can make the case that their offense will inevitably improve when shots start to fall. This, however, rests on the idea that the starting group should be shooting better than 36.5 percent from 3-point range, its current mark. Randle and Barrett tend to run hot and cold. Fournier is shooting 35.1 percent, which is a bit lower than his 37.8-percent career average, but Walker is at a stellar 42.1 percent — and New York should be particularly happy that he’s taking 3.6 pull-up 3s a game and converting 39.2 percent of them.
The threat of Walker pulling up from deep is something that the Knicks didn’t have last season. They have not, however, consistently used that threat to generate easy looks. Walker isn’t getting to the rim much and hasn’t finished well when he’s gotten there, and Fournier’s secondary playmaking has not exactly been transformative. Randle has more room to operate now, and yet he’s been significantly less efficient, particularly on those long 2s that he hit at a surprisingly decent clip last season. Barrett had a strong start, but has tailed off dramatically and shot 0 for 7 from deep on Wednesday.
It feels like it’s time for a change, but there is one problem with that. Changing the starting lineup means breaking up New York’s dominant bench.
How is Chicago doing this?
Outside of Golden State, there might not be a more impressive team in the NBA than the 10-5 Chicago Bulls. Newcomers DeMar DeRozan, Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso have fit with Zach LaVine like bacon, lettuce, tomato and sliced bread. Some numbers:
- That fearsome foursome has played 146 minutes together, with a plus-11.6 net rating.
- Chicago has the best transition offense in the league, per CTG, and those four are on the court, that number jumps from 5.1 points added per 100 possessions to an impossible 12.3 points added per 100.
- The Bulls are third in opponent turnover percentage, per CTG, and when Ball and Caruso have played together, that number jumps from 16.9 percent to 18.3 percent, which would lead the league.
More remarkable than any of the stats is that this brand-new Chicago team plays like it has been together forever. Everything has coalesced despite Nikola Vucevic‘s shooting struggles, Patrick Williams‘ wrist injury and, now, Vucevic’s absence. (Vucevic tested positive for COVID-19 and has been in the health and safety protocols since last Thursday.) On defense, Ball and Caruso put pressure on opposing ballhandlers and wreak havoc in the gaps, and the Bulls’ size on the perimeter allows them to switch 1 through 4 at all times. Only San Antonio plays faster after defensive rebounds; even LaVine is getting in on the hit-ahead-pass party:
DeRozan always starts strong, but this has been something else. More of a scorer and less of a facilitator than he was in San Antonio, he is a mismatch-hunting machine, averaging 26.6 points on 59.7 percent true shooting. I don’t want to exaggerate how much he has embraced the 3-point line — he’s attempting 3.6 3s per 100 possessions, which is more than double last season’s rate and 1.5 fewer than what he attempted in his last season in Toronto — but he’s shooting 36 percent on catch-and-shoot 3s and has occasionally fired them up early in the clock, including one in the corner over Anthony Davis and a 2-for-1 pull-up in his old stomping grounds:
It is a testament to DeRozan and LaVine’s playmaking that the Bulls have been an above-average halfcourt team, considering Chicago’s shot profile — No. 1 in long 2s, No. 29 in 3s, per CTG — and how little they’ve gotten out of Vucevic so far. That they have jelled so quickly, though, is a testament to roster construction. With Ball and Caruso essentially mirroring DeRozan and LaVine on the other end, Chicago just needs its role players — the regulars being Javonte Green, Tony Bradley, Ayo Dosunmu and Derrick Jones Jr. — to fly around defensively and finish plays.
In this context, it’s worth monitoring how third-year guard Coby White, who came back from shoulder surgery to play a combined 21 scoreless minutes in Monday’s 121-103 win against the Los Angeles Lakers and Wednesday’s 112-107 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers, adjusts to a radically different environment. He’s not going to have the ball in his hands as much as he used to, and he’s going to have to earn every minute he gets.
Have the centerless 2019-20 Rockets been vindicated?
If the Los Angeles Clippers of last year’s playoffs didn’t make it clear that Daryl Morey was onto something, look at some of the small lineups that are getting run now:
- When Pascal Siakam returned from his shoulder surgery, the Toronto Raptors threw him into the starting lineup next to Fred VanVleet, Gary Trent Jr., Scottie Barnes and OG Anunoby. Toronto’s only employee taller than 6-foot-9 is player development consultant Jamaal Magloire. The strongest part of the Raptors’ cursed Tampa Bay season coincided with them not starting a center, and, now that Barnes and Trent are in the spots previously occupied by Kyle Lowry and Norman Powell, they’re bigger, stronger and more versatile than they were last year (on paper, at least — they’ve gone winless in Siakam’s first four games).
- The InterchangeaBulls started listing Caruso and DeRozan as their starting forwards in their consecutive wins at the building soon to be called Crypto.com Arena. With Vucevic out, their second unit features the 210-pound Jones at center, but coach Billy Donovan isn’t afraid to get way weirder than that. Chicago used a lineup composed exclusively of 6-5 and 6-6 players — Ball, LaVine, Caruso, DeRozan and Green — against both the Lakers and the Clippers.
- Back in Golden State, the 6-6 Iguodala sometimes finds himself matched up with opposing centers, just like he did in Miami. My favorite weirdo Warriors unit: Curry, Damion Lee, Gary Payton II, Porter and Iguodala, a chaotic group that on Sunday went up against a centerless Charlotte Hornets lineup: LaMelo Ball, Gordon Hayward, Cody Martin, Jalen McDaniels and Miles Bridges. Charlotte misses P.J. Washington, but it has a plus-7.9 net rating with the 6-7 Bridges at “center” this season, per CTG.
- The Oklahoma City Thunder are regularly starting the 6-foot-8 Jeremiah Robinson-Earl at center, and they very briefly played perhaps the lankiest lineup in NBA history against the Heat on Monday: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Josh Giddey, Aleksej Pokusevski, Darius Bazley and, because they needed one sturdy guy, 6-3 wing Luguentz Dort. In the second quarter of that game, Miami went to a Kyle Lowry-and-the-bench lineup the likes of which I’ve never seen — for a minute, Lowry was next to Max Strus, Gabe Vincent, Caleb Martin and KZ Okpala.
- When Daniel Gafford missed a couple of games, the Washington Wizards‘ second-unit frontcourt was Deni Avdija, Davis Bertans and Kyle Kuzma.
The flip side is that no team is completely devoid of traditional bigs like those Rockets were after trading Clint Capela. Even the Raptors have Khem Birch and Precious Achiuwa, who shoot 3s and switch onto smaller players but can still fairly be described as centers. These days, just about everybody wants to be able to play big or small when the situation calls for it.
The Clippers know they can play Nicolas Batum at center, but instead Isaiah Hartenstein is killing it as Ivica Zubac‘s backup, playing a hybrid role as a high-post passer and roll man offensively. Reigning MVP Nikola Jokic is even better than he was last year, and his defense has gone from not as bad as people think to pretty good, even in drop coverage. Everybody laughed at the Cleveland Cavaliers for starting Lauri Markkanen next to Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen at the beginning of the season, and then Mobley and Allen showed themselves to be something of a dominant (and switchable!) defensive duo.
If there’s a lesson to learn from the Rockets’ experiment, it’s not all that different from the lesson that Draymond and the Warriors taught the rest of the league years earlier: Skill, spacing, speed and switchability can beat size. That never meant that size was irrelevant.