Staying on top of the NBA requires near-constant adjustment and innovation. It's a copycat league, as the saying goes, and any opposing coaches worth their salaries will study what worked until they figure out how to solve it or render it so common that it loses its luster. Keeping ahead of that cycle can be the difference between repeating as champions and falling into the ranks of mere contenders.
Less than a month into the 2015-16 season, it should perhaps not come as too much of a surprise that the title-winning Golden State Warriors are still the best team in the league. However, the 14-0 Warriors — 3 1/2 games ahead of the next-best San Antonio Spurs and Cleveland Cavaliers — have reached heights above what they accomplished during their franchise-record 67-win campaign. A victory Sunday at the Denver Nuggets would tie them with the 1948-49 Washington Capitals and 1993-94 Houston Rockets for the best-ever start to a season. They have already broken the 1957-58 Boston Celtics' mark for the best start by a defending champion.
The Warriors are doing it in large part due to the same small lineup that confounded the Cavs over the final three games of the NBA Finals. The rest of the NBA may very well catch up to it, but there is no need for innovation from Golden State just yet.
The stats are staggering. The Warriors' lineup of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, Harrison Barnes, and Draymond Green has played 54 minutes together this season. They haven't all been dominant, but the overall numbers speak for themselves:
That plus-minus does not make this lineup the most effective in the NBA, but they're near the top of the list. Regardless, the raw stats are somewhat misleading, because the Warriors' small lineup is best regarded as a fallback option whenever a game gets close in crunch time.
That plan became particularly evident in the team's last two games. Thursday's comeback win over the Clippers was remarkable for many reasons, including the context of the teams' ongoing feud, but the biggest takeaway was that the hosts simply could not match up with the Warriors at either end as soon as they went to the small lineup. Friday's win against the Chicago Bulls was nearly as impressive and arguably more overwhelming, because the presence of that five-man group seemed to bring a certain inevitability to the result. A title and 14 straight wins have brought immeasurable confidence to a group that had already shown plenty of talent.
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What makes the small lineup so good? It starts with Green, the rare player capable of defending much bigger players on the block and leading a fast break off the subsequent rebound. Listed at 6-7, last season's Defensive Player of the Year runner-up has been even better so far this year and looks set to make his first All-Star team if his form holds. Simply put, this lineup would not work without him, because his defensive versatility allows others to swarm for steals and not worry too much about the difficulties of guarding opposing big men. His growth as a shooter and facilitator is almost unfair given everything else he does for the team.
On the rare occasions that the opponent tries to play two big men against this lineup, Barnes has done a surprisingly competent job defending in the post. More notably, Barnes has become much more consistent as a scorer and helped put away both the Clippers and Bulls with big shots. He turned down a lucrative contract extension in October and now seems likely to garner a max-level offer sheet as a restricted free agent next summer. The Warriors may want to match it just to keep this lineup intact.
It helps that Iguodala remains capable of guarding four positions at 31 years old. The Finals MVP is not the scorer he once was, but he's a fine shooter who regularly makes teams pay when they pick their poison and leave him open on the perimeter. It's a little unfair that a group can be this defensively solid with him as the fifth offensive option.
Curry and Thompson, the best backcourt in the NBA, are the least surprising part of the operation. You probably know about them already, but it's worth a note that Curry is playing better than ever and Thompson has only looked threatening recently.
It's hard to know how opponents should combat this group. Going small risks playing the game on the Warriors' terms, which is a recipe for a blowout. Yet playing even one big man often leads to devastating runs and easy transition buckets. As long as Green proves able to guard centers, it may be that there is no clear answer. It may take another atypical team — like, say, the San Antonio Spurs with Tim Duncan, LaMarcus Aldridge, Kawhi Leonard, and a seasoned point guard in Tony Parker — to figure it out.
Until then, lesser teams will have to hope for the best. There is no guarantee that the Warriors will beat the Nuggets on Sunday, the Los Angeles Lakers at home on Tuesday (OK, that one seems pretty certain), or any team they play after that. But their small lineup looks near-unbeatable for now. It's every other team's job to figure out how to stop it.
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