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Ball Don't Lie

On the Warriors’ new direction and long-term plans

Eric Freeman
Ball Don't Lie

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Andrew Bogut lines up a free throw (Getty Images)

When Joe Lacob became the majority owner of the Golden State Warriors in the fall of 2010, he made no secret of his desire to turn the team into a more defensive-oriented unit. While it took more than a full season to make that move, the Warriors now more closely resemble Lacob's vision. After trading Monta Ellis, Ekpe Udoh, and Kwame Brown to the Milwaukee Bucks for Andrew Bogut and Stephen Jackson, Golden State has added one of the NBA's best centers and a veteran with a reputation as a strong defender (at least when he's engaged). Although they had to lose a promising young big man in Udoh to do it, the franchise now has their desired identity. The dynamic offensive and horrific defensive combo of Ellis and Stephen Curry is finished; the hope is now that the defense will help the team reach greater heights.

The concept is a solid one in theory with great potential to fall apart in practice. Since Lacob took over, the Warriors have been involved in many trade rumors, even when it seemed very unlikely they could swing a deal for a superstar like Dwight Howard. It was not great surprise that the Warriors would trade Ellis to stake out a new direction — the franchise has openly supported Curry and David Lee as the foundation of their future, and Ellis is an expendable player with clear value as a scorer, if not the most efficient one on the market. Clearly, a deal was going to get done at some point.

What's problematic is that they gave up Ellis for the idea of a strong defensive team rather than the reality of one. Mark Jackson has loudly proclaimed his devotion to defensive-first basketball, but the Warriors have yet to display that commitment to defending on the court. That can be explained at least in personnel on the roster — the Curry/Ellis backcourt does not exactly make for a strong defensive team. But Jackson also limited the minutes of Udoh, his best defensive big man, until recently, opting instead to play an increasingly listless Andris Biedrins seemingly for no other reason than that the Latvian was being paid lots of money. If Jackson was emphasizing defense, he didn't necessarily assign minutes based on a player's effort at that end of the floor.

Bogut, whenever he's healthy enough to play, will certainly improve that area of team. Yet, for as good as he is at protecting the rim, he was no doubt made more effective by playing within Scott Skiles's defensive system.

With the Warriors, Bogut will play for a coach with unestablished defensive credentials alongside a roster with no other passable post defenders and a group of awful-to-adequate perimeter defenders. If the Warriors reacquired Stephen Jackson with the hope that he's still a solid wing defender, they obviously haven't watched recent game tape. On the Warriors, Bogut doesn't resemble the foundation of a strong defense so much as the safety net of a bad one. It's also unlikely that help is on the way — as noted by Tom Ziller at SB Nation, the Warriors will have very little cap space over the next two offseasons. Plus, if the Warriors don't win one of the top seven picks in the draft, they forfeit their pick to the Utah Jazz. (Although there are now 10 teams below them in the standings, a Bogut-less squad could lose enough games over the next six weeks to finish that low.)

The Warriors are now a team built around Curry, a clear offensive talent whose ankles are made of balsa wood and string cheese, and Bogut, who's suffered enough serious injuries to cause concern about his future health. If both are healthy, the best they can hope for is the seventh or eighth playoff spot in the West. If both miss their customary number of games, the Warriors should be good enough to finish 10th or 11th in the conference, likely ensuring the sort of lottery pick that rarely changes the face of a franchise. Either way, the Warriors seem to have consigned themselves to mediocrity for a few more years. It's unclear if this trade actually gets them closer to relevance.

Before Lacob took over, the common complaint about the Warriors was that they had no plan beyond selling tickets and possibly challenging for a playoff spot. That's not Lacob's problem — he has the goal of winning a championship and seems to think that a defense-first squad is the way to get there. But if a trade should reflect a franchise's long-term vison, then the Warriors now seem to aspire to little more than challenging for a playoff spot whenever their players are lucky enough to be healthy. They weren't willing to commit to rebuilding by trading assets for cap space and picks, bottoming out for a few seasons, and rebuilding through the draft. No matter that this strategy has proven effective for downtrodden franchises, or that in the modern NBA any team outside of New York and Los Angeles finds its foundational superstar in the lottery.

The serious commitment to winning that Lacob promised is now gone. With little flexibility under the cap, their long-term plan can only be to stick with the current roster and hope they get lucky. There's new logic behind the decisions, but the lack of perspective is all too familiar.

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