Slow teams play defense and fast teams leak points. You can’t mix a transition-oriented offense with quality paint protection and small, high-volume shooting backcourts have a tendency to compensate for that effort with half-hearted perimeter defense.
The above represents the common logic of NBA roster construction and, for most teams, it also represents reality.
The Memphis Grizzlies played at one of the slowest paces in the league last year, averaging just 91.5 possessions per 48 minutes through the regular season, according to NBA.com statistics. In a game that rewards speed, the Grizzlies rode a plodding style to a 56-26 record behind a defensive player of the year performance from Marc Gasol and Tony Allen’s ferocious hounding of shooters along the perimeter.
For all its grit-and-grind, however, the Grizzlies lacked the personnel to score at the same rate as, say, the :07 Seconds or Less-era Phoenix Suns or Don Nelson’s mid-2000s Golden State Warriors. Those teams suffered from the opposite problem, pairing run-and-gun style offenses with borderline criminal defensive efforts.
The Grizzlies’ lack of offense proved problematic when they faced the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference Finals. The Spurs were far too experienced and disciplined to fall for Memphis’ defensive traps, and the Grizz had no way of going point-for-point with an offense that features seminal talents like Tim Duncan and Tony Parker. The Spurs swept the Grizzlies in four games.
Point being – terrific regular season teams like the Nash-era Suns, “We Believe” Warriors and 2013 Grizzlies often fail to survive the Western Conference playoffs because they can really only play on one side of the ball.
Finding and assembling personnel that can run the ball, score at will and hold opposing offenses to sub-league average point totals is damn near impossible. When a front office manages to pull off that feat, the squad they put on the floor frequently enters the conversation of potential title contenders.
Remarkably, through the first five games of the season, the Golden State Warriors appear to have achieved that balance.
Now, to call the Warriors title contenders this early pushes the limits of homerism and intelligence to their limits, particularly within the context of the franchise’s mediocre history. That being said, it’s safe to say that this is the best Golden State team we have seen in at least the last 20 years. Better than last year, better than the height of Nellie-ball, better than Run-TMC.
The Warriors current offensive rating – the average number of points they score over 100 possessions – sits comfortably among the league’s elite offenses at 106.8. Their defensive rating – points allowed per 100 possessions – falls at 91.1, second only to the Indiana Pacers’ ridiculous 86.3.
That 15.8 point differential, their net rating, was good for best in the league as of Thursday afternoon. Even more remarkable, the Warriors managed to pull this off while averaging a league leading 105.65 possessions per 48 minutes, which puts them in the company of defensive sieves like the Philadelphia 76ers, Houston Rockets and Los Angeles Lakers.
This defies logic. But it’s become Golden State’s reality.
In fairness, Golden State’s numbers certainly benefit from a relatively easy early season schedule. With the exception of the Los Angeles Clippers – Golden State’s only loss so far – the Warriors have played average to below average NBA teams, some of which will likely end up in the lottery. Despite its 3-0 run to start the season, the Sixers could finish the season in pole position to pick Andrew Wiggins in the upcoming draft. The Sacramento Kings are consistently terrible and, though talented, the Mavericks are a shell of the team that upset the Miami Heat in 2011.
Even so, the quality of the team’s defense through five games is highly encouraging. Some analysts – Bill Simmons, i
n particular – pooh-poohed the Andre Iguodala signing as overrated and possibly damaging to the long term prospects of Harrison Barnes, whose shooting and defense improved dramatically over the course of his rookie season.
In practice, Iguodala’s seamless insertion into the starting lineup, with Barnes coming off the bench, has had an immediate, tangible effect on the quality of Golden State’s perimeter defense. Coupled with the rim protection offered by Andrew Bogut and the length of Klay Thompson, the Warriors are now able to hide Stephen Curry and David Lee on opponents’ least effective players.
As for whether the Golden State offense will suffer with Barnes coming off the bench? Well, this:
The Golden State Warriors play the San Antonio Spurs tonight, their biggest test of the season to date. In the past, a Warriors early season road game in San Antonio could be penciled in as a definite loss. If the above is any indication, we may be witnessing in a reversal in the franchise’s fortunes.