For the first time in two years we'll have an orthodox, full-length NBA season to look forward to. No lockout nonsense, and precious little obsession as to whether or not LeBron James will ever win the big one. He's won it, already, and our sanity as NBA followers is probably better off as a result. However big that shred of sanity is remains to be seen, following yet another offseason that once again proved that the NBA is full of Crazy McCrazytons that appear to take great delight in messing with us continually.
As a result of that offseason, and the impending regular season, why not mess with Ball Don't Lie's triptych of Kelly Dwyer, Dan Devine and Eric Freeman as they preview the 2012-13 season with alacrity, good cheer, and bad jokes.
We continue with the recovering Golden State Warriors.
Kelly Dwyer's Kilt-Straightener
It's a frustration nearly as old as the league itself — or, a frustration that has lasted as long as the NBA has had more than one or two great big men patrolling the paint league-wide. Once again a team's fortunes will likely be directly related to the relative health of their starting center, something we've seen for years from Willis Reed post-Finals to Walton to Bowie to Big Z and Bigger Yao to Greg Oden. This year's glass half full practitioners will work out of the Bay Area, where the Golden State Warriors are leaning on Andrew Bogut's creaky ankles to solve all of their help defense and rebounding problem.
Though the team gave up a fan favorite and effortless shooter scorer in Monta Ellis to acquire Bogut — acquire Bogut while he was wearing a cast around ankle, mind you — this seems like a calculated and much needed risk. Andris Biedrins' confidence was never going to come around, and David Lee wasn't going to help even if did learn to step into someone's way as they drove into a warm and comfortable space. Even with all the young talent on the Warrior roster, Bogut was always going to be this team's last chance.
And, if he's healthy, an opportunity for coach Mark Jackson to live up to all the defense-first chit-chat he brought to Golden State upon his 2011 hire. Jackson clearly didn't have the horses in 2011-12, with Bogut sitting out every post-trade contest and a series of young guards and forwards flitting about, but he also didn't seem to have the schemes either as Golden State finished 27th in points allowed per possession. Bogut's presence doesn't have to vault the Warriors to the top of the charts on that end, but both he and Jackson have to find a way to turn this squad into an average outfit on that end.
Presumably, provided a relatively little man's ankles hold, the offense could take care of the rest, and have Golden State fighting for a playoff berth for the first time since they fell just short of the postseason in 2008.
[More NBA: Michael Beasley hopes to find home in Phoenix]
Stephen Curry is the man, now, coming off a season that saw him play just 23 out of 66 games and an exhibition season that saw the hybrid guard continually reaching for his pained joints down above his high-tops. Curry is surely surrounded by capable young talent, but it's his ability to keep defenses honest with his driving, dishing and shooting abilities that will be banked on to make this whole inside/out pairing with Bogut work. It's a lot of pressure to place on the 24-year old, a guy that has always had Ellis to lean on as a co-conspirator, but he's capable if the ankles are willing.
We're not sure they are, though. Curry can — and probably should — take some time off to steel himself for a grind that Warrior fans hope lasts until May, but pained expressions and ankle grabs in the fall don't tend to go away over the course of an 82-game season. With ankles, you're either right as rain to start the year, or it's going to rain into that ice bucket all year long.
Even with those mitigating factors, though, the Warriors could still make a run. The team has impressively dialed in to its shooting guard and small forward of the future in consecutive drafts — and not just because they used lottery picks on positions that needed filling. Klay Thompson, clearly, is that good; and Harrison Barnes looks like one of those players that outclassed the NCAA, even if his numbers weren't Naismith Award-worthy.
Paying for Richard Jefferson's final two eight-figure contract seasons just for the rights to rookie Festus Ezeli was a regrettable move, but this won't stop Jefferson from keeping plays in order and working as a mentor to Barnes. Lee remains the most overlooked 20 and 10 guy in the NBA, Carl Landry was a fine pickup, and while Jarrett Jack isn't the most natural of passers, he will work hard to ensure that what gets sent to the bench comes close to fruition by his hand.
Those four ankles worry me enough to keep GSW out of the playoff bracket, though, which is a shame. Biedrins and Jefferson's contracts will continue to clog up GSW's cap situation, and by the time they come off the books in the summer of 2014 the team will have Bogut and Curry's extensions to think about. This is the lineup that has to make things work. If not this year, with those injury concerns, then the next.
Good luck, and cold ice, to all involved.
Projected record: 37-45
Fear Itself with Dan Devine
It is tonally appropriate that the NBA season tips off just before Halloween -- because on any given night, each and every one of the league's 30 teams can look downright frightening. Sometimes, that means your favorite team will act as their opposition's personal Freddy Krueger; sometimes, you will be the one suffering through the living nightmare. In preparation for Opening Night, BDL's Dan Devine considers what makes your team scary and what should make you scared.
What Makes You Scary: An offense that could rank among the league's elite. The key here is sharpshooting point guard Stephen Curry, who hit 43.7 percent of his triples as a rookie and improved in each of the next two seasons, knocking down a crisp 45.5 percent from distance in an injury-shortened 2011-12 season. He's become one of the league's most efficient backcourt scorers, improving his True Shooting and Effective Field Goal percentages in each of his three NBA seasons, and has grown more comfortable as a distributor at the point, increasing his assist percentage and dropping more dimes per 36 minutes each year, too.
Thanks to his gifts as a floor-spacer and developing talents as a distributor, the Warriors have been a dynamic offensive unit with Curry on the floor throughout his NBA career -- according to lineup data available in NBA.com's stat tool, Golden State scored an average of 106.4 points per 100 possessions he played as a rookie (which would have been the league's 11th-best mark over the full 2009-10 season), 107.3-per-100 in '10-'11 (would've been ninth) and 107.6-per-100 last season (would've been second). Last season's trade of former backcourt partner Monta Ellis officially gave Curry the keys to the Golden State offense; now entrenched as the team's clear top option and the orchestrator responsible for running the whole show, the 24-year-old seems poised to turn in a breakout year.
That is, of course, if he can stay healthy. As Bay Area fans know all too well, Curry has dealt with recurring ankle problems throughout the past two seasons, suffering multiple sprains, undergoing two surgical procedures and missing 40 games last season. Golden State's been significantly less explosive when Curry's sat, averaging 102.8 points per 100 possessions he missed as a rookie (would've been 20th in the league over the full '09-'10 season), 102.3-per-100 in '10-'11 (would've been 21st) and 101.7-per-100 last year (would've tied for 17th). After yet another recent ankle roll led the team to sideline Curry for the remainder of the preseason, you could understand Warriors fans being nervous about the state of their offense should Curry miss chunks of time, even if he does promise he'll be in the lineup for the season opener.
This year, though, Jackson looks to have a deeper store of offensive talent with which to weather prospective Curry absences. Bargain offseason acquisition Carl Landry will pair with reliable 20-a-night contributor David Lee to give the Warriors one of the NBA's most talented low-post scoring tandems at the power forward position. Their (and especially Lee's) ability to step out to midrange figures to compliment new starting center Andrew Bogut, who's been an able low-block finisher in the past, is now two years removed from the elbow, wrist and hand injuries that derailed his career in Milwaukee and, at age 27, still has time to regain his touch. The floor spacing provided by corner-3-and-D-types Brandon Rush and Richard Jefferson will be augmented by the open-court athleticism and midrange game of lottery pick Harrison Barnes, giving Golden State what should be a steady and varied diet of offensive contributions from the wing.
When Curry hits the bench, he'll be spelled by steady veteran backup Jarrett Jack, who'll keep the offense moving along (if less spectacularly), and second-year pro Charles Jenkins, who opened eyes with some strong performances in place of the injured Curry late last season. And if the late-season leap taken by shooting guard Klay Thompson (17 points in just under 31 minutes per after the All-Star break, led by 18.6 points on 45.9/38.4/85.3 shooting splits in nearly 34 minutes per contest during the month of April) is a sign of things to come -- quite a few NBA GMs seem to believe that it is -- then Golden State look to have a legitimate scoring option who'll fit in the flow of the offense whether Curry suits up or not.
If Curry stays healthy for the bulk of the 82-game schedule, the Warriors could boast one of the six or seven best offenses in the NBA. Even if he doesn't, though, they should be able to score enough to keep them competitive most nights and in the thick of the Western Conference playoff chase ... provided their much-ballyhooed commitment to defense holds up.
Speaking of which ...
What Should Make You Scared: A lack of defensive depth preventing you from being different than you've been these past six years. With the rehiring of Don Nelson before the 2006-07 season, the Warriors began to inhabit a very specific NBA niche -- they became an exciting, near-elite offensive team with a troubling, nowhere-near-elite defense. But even after an eventually burned-out Nellie was sent off to Maui (which sounds like a pretty chill exile) following the '09-'10 campaign, replaced first by Keith Smart and then by Mark Jackson, Golden State has continued apace. Here's how they've finished each of the last six seasons in terms of offensive and defensive efficiency, according to NBA.com's stat tool:
2006-07: 10th-ranked offense, tied for 17th on defense
'07-'08: 4th O, T-20th D
'08-'09: T-10th O, 28th D
'09-'10: T-13th O, 29th D
'10-'11: 13th O, 26th D
'11-'12: 11th O, T-26th D
Jackson's hopes for a grand defensive overhaul in his second season rest mostly on Bogut. The former No. 1 overall pick can body up opposing post threats, clear the glass (he's grabbed better than 26 percent of available defensive rebounds in his last three mostly healthy seasons) and protect the rim (he blocked the league's second- and fourth-highest percentage of opponents' field goals in '09-'10 and '10-'11, respectively). More than that, though, Bogut acts as a legitimate back-line anchor, the kind of organizing principle whose presence can have an impact on team defense far beyond his individual play.
According to on/off-court lineup data available in NBA.com's stat tool, in each of Bogut's last four seasons in Milwaukee, the Bucks performed like an elite D unit while he was on the court, turning in a defensive efficiency that would've been top-three in the league over the course of a full season. While some of that credit belongs to Milwaukee coach Scott Skiles' defensive system, the Bucks were significantly worse when Bogut was off the floor -- they gave up 10 more points-per-100 with him off the floor in '08-'09, 6.2 more in '09-'10, 3.1 more in '10-'11 and 12.1 more in (an admittedly small sample size in) '11-'12.
Bogut's not an athletic marvel like Dwight Howard, Tyson Chandler or Serge Ibaka, and he's not a tactical genius on the order of Kevin Garnett, but he's smart and quick enough to cover up mistakes made by not-so-stout partners (hey there, Lee and Landry) and get inexperienced teammates with the athletic tools to be sound defenders (hey there, Thompson and Barnes) in position to maximize their gifts. Both Bogut and Jackson have clearly stated their intention to turn a new page after those half-dozen (really, more like 30) years of all-O/no-D squads. What's worrying Warriors fans, though, is the lack of clarity surrounding Bogut's return.
Bogut fractured his left ankle in January and had arthroscopic surgery to clean out debris in April, and while he's back to practicing, he's not going full 5-on-5 yet and neither he nor the team will put a timetable on his return date. In the meantime, Jackson's running with rookie Festus Ezeli, a talented but foul-prone first-rounder unlikely to stay on the floor long against tough Western pivots, and a small lineup pairing Lee and Landry up front, which will be a bloodbath. (Other options, including haunted Latvian Andris Biedrins and developmental sophomore Jeremy Tyler, will likely be equally messy in large doses.)
If Bogut can't get on the court quickly and stay there, the Warriors don't appear to have any prayer of fielding even a league-average defense. That'll make ekeing out a seventh or eighth seed extremely difficult, even if they score in bunches. The hope is that this year's different; the fear is that the future's just the past with a new coat of paint.
Eric Freeman's Identity Crisis
There is no more important asset for a basketball team than talent, and yet the more loaded squad does not always win. What we've seen in recent seasons isn't only that the best team wins, but that the group with the clearest sense of self, from management down through the players, prevails. A team must not only be talented, but sure of its goals, present and future, and the best methods of obtaining them. Most NBA teams have trouble with their identity. Eric Freeman's Identity Crisis is a window into those struggles, the accomplishment of realizing a coherent identity, and the pitfalls of believing these issues to be solved.
According to new-ish owner Joe Lacob and the franchise's marketing and publicity arms, the Warriors have cast aside decades of lottery purgatory for bona fide NBA respectability. With a newfound commitment to defense and a reasonable approach to roster construction, the playoffs are now likely, not just a potential outcome to outlandish hopes. Once the franchise moves to San Francisco in 2017, we could have a real long-term power player on our hands. Look out, league!
That's the perfect picture put forth by the franchise, at least. In reality, the future is very hazy. Offensive sparkplug Stephen Curry, a restricted free agent next summer, sprains his ankle so often that even best-case scenarios might see him play only 65 games this season. Center Andrew Bogut, last season's major trade acquisition and one of the best defensive big men in basketball, still hasn't recovered from a season-ending ankle injury and might not be ready for their first regular season game. Klay Thompson, a very good young player with a growing arsenal of scoring moves, has arguably been saddled with unrealistic expectations by a franchise desperate for a marketable star. The Warriors have potential, but they also have a lot of questions left to answer.
Still, they should be much improved. New general manager Bob Myers has made several moves to shore up what was once a very thin bench, and Thompson really is an exciting young player who should have a long and successful NBA career. A playoff appearance is not a pipe dream — it's a genuine possibility.
The problem, though, is that the Lacob administration doesn't seem to know how to let the team develop organically without acting as if the success they desire has already taken place. Thompson, while promising, is a long way off from becoming a star. Bogut proved himself to be a defensive linchpin with Milwaukee, but that team had other stellar defenders and a coach obsessed with keeping the opponent from scoring. Head honcho Mark Jackson, though respected by players, has never proved himself as a basketball coach. The franchise's many goals are all achievable. They're also a long way off and not necessarily going to happen with this particular set of players and leaders.
Lacob is a very different owner from the widely despised Chris Cohan, whose departure two years ago was feted as if he were a deposed dictator. Despite those massive differences, Lacob and Cohan have one thing in common: they seem overly concerned with selling their decisions instead of letting what happens on the court determine reactions. For all we know, Lacob has the right plan to take this franchise to the top. But identities can't just be concocted in a boardroom. They take form through hard work, some positive breaks, and the organic progress of a team that finds itself by playing basketball. Leave the marketing pitches for later.
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