The Golden State Warriors matter, finally.
Like a combination Chinese Democracy and the 238 Corridor Improvement Project, Bay Area sports fans have spent the better part of ten years growing accustomed to Golden State’s bottomless need for roster reconstruction. Now, after stringing together some well-executed draft picks and signings, the perennial bottom-dwellers of the Western Conference have finally emerged as legitimate fringe contenders for an NBA title. Last year’s postseason success and the signing of free agent Andre Iguodala launched the franchise into the previously uncharted territory of preseason relevance, and questions about Stephen Curry’s health Mark Jackson’s abilities as a coach have dissipated.
As such, fans should not expect opposing coaches to ignore the Warriors this year, especially given the level of talent and competition that exists within a Kobe-less (read: Laker-less) Western Conference playoff hunt. What follows are a few of the most exciting matchups the Warriors will face as they attempt to make their way to a Western Conference title berth.
Los Angeles Clippers, October 31
Last year’s regular season series between the Warriors and the Los Angeles Clippers was, in a word, exciting. Chris Paul pick-and-rolls, Stephen Curry daggers, Lob City dunks, unreasonably high first quarter field goal percentages — Warriors-Clippers basketball represents the Western Conference at its finest. All speed, efficient transition offenses and little-to-no defense. More importantly, it represented one of the few times in recent history when the unheralded Warrior-Clipper rivalry had legitimate implications in the Western Conference playoff picture.
And as far as rivalries go, this was a close one. Although the Clippers finished the season with a stronger overall record, the Warriors managed to squeak a 4-3 advantage in the seven game series. Golden State’s offense averaged 106 points across seven contests against the Clips, but their leaky defense allowed Chris Paul & Co. to finish within one basket of taking a scoring advantage (104.5 points per game).
Both teams improved during the offseason. The Clippers added some much needed perimeter scoring options in JJ Redick and Jared Dudley while the Warriors picked up Andre Iguodala as a third or fourth offensive option who doubles as a defensive stopper. With longtime Pacific Division leaders like the Los Angeles Lakers and Phoenix Suns expected to compete for slots in the 2014 draft lottery, it will be very interesting to see how the newfound relevance of the Warrior-Clipper rivalry develops.
Memphis Grizzlies, November 20
This matchup should serve as a good barometer of whether or not the Warriors actually improved during the offseason, because no team dominated the Warriors like the Memphis Grizzlies last year.
Although the Miami Heat held them to fewer points per game (86.0) and the Houston Rockets shot them to death (averaged 14.3 treys against GSW on the season), Memphis’ size and proficiency on the defensive end created innumerable challenges for Golden State, especially with Andrew Bogut on restricted minutes.
If the playoffs serve as any indication, Golden State plays its best basketball when it controls game tempo with small ball lineups. This strategy could serve as a good blueprint for Golden State’s game plan for attacking the Grizzlies, whose best players tend to do more plodding than running. That being said, many of those small ball lineups also struggle defensively, and their lack of size could create ample opportunity for Zach Randolph at the block or Marc Gasol at the elbow.
This is where some of the front office’s decision making comes into play. The Warriors’ addition of Iguodala, Toney Douglas, Mareesse Speights and Jermaine O’Neal gives the Golden State bench some much needed oomph on both sides of the floor, where the ongoing development of Kent Bazemore and Draymond Green has been encouraging. Even with the versatility those players offer, however, it remains to be seen whether the Warriors can adapt their style of play to attack the weaknesses of opponents’ large lineups.
San Antonio Spurs, November 8
An obvious pick.
The Warriors played terribly against San Antonio during the regular season. This was not in any way a surprise; the Spurs have had Golden State’s number for as long as Tim Duncan’s been in the league (forever). Although the addition of a healthy Andrew Bogut — who has a history of playing well against The Big Fundamental — could have leveled the playing field, he alone isn’t enough to stop the five headed Beelzebub that is Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Kawhi Leonard and [insert previously unremarkable three point threat here].
Most teams appear unpolished against squads as savvy and experienced as the Spurs, and Golden State’s inconsistent defense (most apparent whenever Bogut sat) and weak road record underlined some of the key issues the team faced as underdogs entering the second round of the playoffs.
Those concerns evaporated quickly. Although the Warriors ultimately lost to the Spurs in six games, they put up a spirited fight that shocked analysts who had expected a San Antonio sweep or near sweep. Instead, Golden State came within a missed rotation of winning Game 1 and won Game 4 in overtime, resulting one of the most entertaining playoff series of the season. Although regular season games rarely possess the intensity of those played in the postseason, the follow-up to last year’s slugfest should pose an important challenge to the Warriors next season.
New York Knicks, February 28
There are only two reasons this matchup will matter.
Stephen Curry, 54 points.