There are 30 seconds left in the half and the Golden State Warriors trail the San Antonio Spurs by four. Stephen Curry comes off a pick, probes to the free throw line and tries swinging the ball back to Andre Iguodala on the wing – despite three black and white jerseys in the way. Manu Ginobili, ever the pest, picks him off with relative ease.
“That’s kinda been a summary of the season so far for the Warriors,” mused television analyst Jim Barnett. “Despite their record.”
The Warriors’ 5-0 start turned a lot of heads, but in the aftermath of their follow up performances – committing 45 turnovers in two straight losses against the Spurs and Phoenix Suns – the devilish details have already trickled to the surface, burying what should be the lede: Golden State touts one of the league’s best defenses, a top-three record in the West and Klay Thompson, who just signed a new extension, is basically lighting the rest of the NBA on fire.
That doesn’t make the Warriors’ league-leading turnover ratio of 22 per game seem any less troublesome, but the context behind any well-functioning NBA offense is more complex than sheer data would suggest: their new offense meshes a breakneck pace with heavy doses of off-ball screening and movement. It’s understandable that they’re still working out the kinks.
Even at their pinnacle, though, once the early mistakes are smoothed out, the high-octane anatomy of coach Steve Kerr’s envisioned offense looks to couple the Warriors with a relatively improved but irrevocably high-turnover attack.
For the Warriors, that’s not the worst thing in the world. Turning the ball over projects to be an easier quandary for Golden State than it would be for other squads. As of now, the Warriors are giving up 20.3 points off 21.7 turnovers per every 100 possessions. That’s a lot of points, obviously, but here’s the thing: It means the Warriors are giving up less than one point per possession after turnovers. Their transition defense, according to Synergy, allows only an excellent 1.018 points per play. It makes sense when you think about it: The Warriors’ offense is situated so that two, if not three, defenders should always be ready to run back on defense and their relative youth gives them a speed advantage.
Think of the turnover issue this way: No one looks at an elite defensive squad and says, “Hey, they should really stop fouling.” We accept that the spoils of an aggressive defense mitigate an extra foul or two. The same should go for offense. The Warriors are failing a lot more, but that’s just one of the byproducts of trying.
For instance, they’re looking to run on every play; misses, makes, free throws, halftime shooting contests for a new car – everything. When you’ve got players like Harrison Barnes and Draymond Green attempting Kevin Love-esque outlet passes, the turnover count goes up a notch. But that persistence is also the reason the reason the Warriors are one of the top-scoring transition teams in the Association.
When they aren’t running or giving Curry the reigns, the offense usually goes through the heady read-and-react chops of Andrew Bogut in the middle (and David Lee, once he’s back in the lineup). If the off-ball screens or give-and-go action don’t bear fruit, the defense is usually so bent toward the Splash Brothers that if Bogut has the ball, he’s in an optimal position to reward the weak-side cutter. Harrison Barnes, who has seen his efficiency jump from 39.9 percent last year to 55.6 percent, is just one benefactor.
But no one has profited more from the Warriors’ don’t-think-just-go philosophy than Klay Thompson. A year ago, it would have been generous to peg Thompson as an average ball handler or passer. On top of that, he took just 2.3 free throws per game and about 21.6 percent of his points came from the midrange area.
No longer satisfied with simply coming off picks and flinging the ball in the air from 20 feet, Klay has been wading deep into the lane, kicking the ball out to 3-point shooters and drawing fouls early this season. He’s drawn 6.5 free throws per game and transferred 12 percent of last season’s long twos to the painted area. There’s bound to be some regression here, but the early returns have been marvelous: 24.7 points per game and shooting 47.4 percent from deep. Thompson is coughing up an extra turnover per game, too – he’ll occasionally fumble on the dribble or throw a pass out of bounds – but it’s safe to say this version of Klay is markedly better than anything we’ve seen in the past.
Really, it’s safe to say that about the whole team. For a group that has always ran into a chasm between talent and production, the question of whether or not they can fill the gap this season is second to the fact that they’ve finally happened on more than a dim schematic silhouette of the future. What we’re seeing now is the outline of a bridge, one that would have gone unnoticed had the Warriors decided to color inside the lines.