The Golden State Warriors are reigning champions for the first time in 40 years. I never thought I would type those words. Even entering last season I was skeptical of Curry being able to make that final leap from superstar to MVP, for Draymond Green to take the stride from quality second rounder off the bench to potential Defensive Player of the Year, for Andre Iguodala to ever live up to his massive contract, for the rookie coach, Steve Kerr, to reinvigorate the lackluster offense that Mark Jackson left behind. All this and more ended up coming true, with gutsy comebacks in the playoffs, both in game and series’, to Stephen Curry finally grasping the label from Rick Barry as the greatest Warrior of all time. Last season, even after a few productive playoff runs, no one saw the Warriors as serious title contenders until it was far too late, but now with all eyes on them, the Bay Area’s team must be ready to have that target on their back.
Everything seemed to fall in the right place for Curry to capture MVP trophy, I believe it will actually be harder for Steph to regain the MVP than for the Warriors to repeat as champions. While the Western Conference is as lethal as ever, more legit MVP candidates threaten his reign than do that of the Warriors making it back to the Finals. Only the Clippers, Thunder, and Spurs truly stand between Golden State and the Western Conference Championship, but there are a handful of those with MVP aspirations. James Harden felt he was snubbed last season and will have a vendetta to bring the individual trophy home, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are both perennial contenders (depending on which of the two last through more of the season), LeBron James is a contender every time he steps on the court, then there are a handful of dark horse candidates: Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, Damian Lillard, Anthony Davis, and Kawhi Leonard all have legitimate candidacies for their 2015-16 campaign.
There is little doubt the Warriors won’t win the Pacific, with the only team that could possibly challenge them being the Los Angeles Clippers, but there are questions about their newly acquired depth and if Deandre Jordan will ever improve or if he’s already hit his ceiling. Although the Clippers have added veterans such as Paul Pierce, Lance Stephenson, and Josh Smith, Coach/GM Doc Rivers may have forgotten that there is only one ball on the court during the game, and they didn’t bring in the type of players that make those around them better. Expect early turmoil from the big personalities on the Clippers until Chris Paul can reign them in by spring time.
The one major move the Warriors made in the offseason was shipping off David Lee to the Boston Celtics, while it may seem like they need to find a new veteran leader with Lee gone, with the experience the team has from the last few playoff runs, even the young guys like Harrison Barnes and Draymond Green are viewed around the league like seasoned veterans. Losing Lee may have broken a few hearts along the way, but it saved the Warriors front office nearly $50 million in luxury tax fees, so shipping him off was a no brainer.
The only two free agents the Warriors had were Leandro Barbosa and Draymond Green, both re-signed, but Harrison Barnes continues to hold out for a new deal. He is on the books for $5.19 million (the last year of his rookie deal) and the Warriors have a 4 year $64 million dollar deal on the table which Barnes’ party said ‘was a nice starting point’. This is the ultimate selfish move, Klay took less than the max, Green took less than the max, Curry is making pennies on the dollar for what he is worth, so what does Barnes think he’s doing? This team, in 2015, was all about sacrifice and look where it got them, Barnes has immense value to the Warriorss both on the court and in the locker room, so hopefully cooler heads will prevail because $16 mil a year already seems like an overpay for a guy that has underachieved every year of his basketball life since his senior year of high school. He was the number one prospect for his class in HS, and was a pre-season all American at NC as a freshman, something that has never happened in USA Today’s All American polls, yet he fell to the Warriors at #7 in the 2012 draft and has really only lived up to the hype in one playoff series (his rookie years against the Nuggets). While I’m not one to tell a man to take less than he thinks he’s worth, it’s simply a matter of whether Barnes wants to stay on a playoff relevant team. The public has no reason to think wants to leave, and if he wants to stay in the Bay Area, $64 million is the most the Warriors should offer him. If Barnes wants to be the number one or two option on a horrible team with no chance of making noise around the league, the Warriors ought to let him walk come next summer.
Many may find themselves asking, what can Stephen Curry do to further his game? At this point, it all comes on the defensive end. He has already twice set the record for most three’s attempted and made in a season, and we have no reason to doubt he will do it again in 2015-16, and while his turnover ratio is still higher than most would desire, it’s a byproduct of how creative and free flowing Kerr lets him be on the court, and Kerr doesn’t want Curry to feel encumbered by a few silly turnovers to deter him from making that extra special pass. The only real way Curry can continue to improve his game is to keep taking baby steps towards being a good wing defender. Last year, he became a solid team defender, and playing alongside Andre Iguodala and Klay Thompson definitely allowed him to not be forced to defend the best guard on the court at all times. Even the ever so slightest improvement of Curry’s wing defensive would make the Warriors nearly unstoppable on the defensive end as they already finished in the top 2 in DVOA and defensive efficiency the last two seasons.
The biggest question mark going into last season was how valuable an asset Steve Kerr would end up being and he achieved the highest level of success in his debut season. With Kerr sidelined for an unknown amount of time, the Warriors will have newcomer Luke Walton at the helm for the foreseeable future, and the Bay Area better appreciate him while he’s still here because all the rumors are already swirling that Walton will likely be the next Warriors assistant poached for a head coaching job. That would make it 3 years in a row that this happened, with the Kings taking Mike Malone, then the Warriors taking Alvin Gentry last year. From what we’ve seen in the preseason, Walton runs the ship much like Kerr, with a calm and cool demeanor on the sidelines, but knows how to get his guys up for big moments. We shouldn’t expect Kerr to be gone longer than the first month or two of the regular season, but Walton seems to fit in just fine thus far.
One interesting development the Warriors will have to deal with sooner rather than later is Andrew Bogut’s waning health versus the development of Festus Ezeli. While Bogut has proven to be an elite defender and serviceable on the offensive end, he is both near the end of his contract and his days of playing starters minutes. Ezeli is due a new contract come next summer, and many GM’s have their eye on him because of the great potential he possesses. He is a massive body that can protect the paint, and while he hasn’t quite mastered the pick and roll, he is slowly becoming a better weapon on that end of the court. His biggest deficit? He has only played basketball for 6ish years, starting only when he got the Vanderbilt University, and doesn’t have the soft touch around the rim, but his athleticism at times forces Kerr/Waltons hand to keep him on the court instead of Bogut. We saw the Warriors use more unconventional line ups in the playoffs last season, sitting both big men at times and just rolling Draymond Green out there as the ‘Center’, but having a trusted true center in their back pocket is one aspect that sets the Warriors apart from any other team in the league.
Will the Iguodala/Barnes dynamic stay at the status quo? If the Warriors want to play hardball in negotiations with Barnes they may remove him from the starting lineup despite all their success with Iggy coming off the bench last year. In the preseason the Warriors tried many different line ups, both out of necessity and to see what they had near the end of their bench. Brandon Rush started a few games in the preseason and looked almost as serviceable as Barnes. If Barnes takes a step back this season and loses whatever clout he had with the Warriors front office, he may regret not taking that initial offer.
Can Brandon Rush have a bounce back year? He openly admits last year was a massive disappointment for him and he expects much more from himself, he is a true professional and the Warriors had immaculate health last season but may not be so lucky in 2015-16. Rush must stay ready and be prepared at any moment to see a massive increase in minutes.
Klay Thompson has been playing the best basketball of his life over the last 12 months, so what must he do to improve? For Thompson, it’s all about consistency. He always brings it on the defensive end, often having to guard the best opposing wing player every night, but this exhausts him at times, so it is understandable when he doesn’t light it up offensively, but that’s where the distinction between star and superstar is made. If Klay wants to be taken seriously as the best shooting guard in the game, he must stay more consistent on O. He goes silent for long stretches (not as bad as Barnes does), but once you’ve seen a guy go for 37 in a single quarter, it’s difficult to see him ever go any quarter without scoring.
Shaun Livingston is in a contract year, should we expect big things from him off the bench? Already one of the Warriors most reliable threats off the bench, Livingston sacrificed his tarting job with the Nets 2 summers ago when he decided to come back out West and be the solid back up PG the Warriors have desperately needed since Jarrett Jack left (ironically Jack is now the starting PG on the atrocious Nets). Shaun’s mid range post up game may be the best of any guard in the league, and if there’s a mouse in the house, Liv is sure to punish him down low. While I don’t expect his numbers to be vastly different from last year’s 19 minutes per game, 6 points, 3.3 assist and 2.3 rebound, it’s his poise down the stretch of tight games, and his ability to adjust to any line up the Warriors need him in that makes him to valuable to the team. His will continue to be on many GM’s wishlist.
How significant will the loss of Alvin Gentry be? He did much of the heavy lifting behind the scenes and helped Steve Kerr develop an identity offensively as a coach, with Gentry now at the helm in New Orleans, the Warriors promoted Luke Walton to lead assistant (and now temporary head coach) and brought in Steve Nash to assist during practices, it will be interesting to see the new dynamics on the bench. Ron Adams is still on the sidelines though, so Walton should have all the helping hands he needs. We wish Gentry lots of success down in New Orleans!
The Golden State Warriors finished the year with the best defense in the league and the second best offense, just a tick behind the Clippers in efficiency, which is absolutely insane. Most teams who finish with the best defense have a middling offense and get by on their defensive prowess, just look at the Bulls under Thibs or the 2004 championship Pistons, they squeeze by on offense while dominating their opponents on the defensive end. That the Warriors are elite on both ends prove that the personnel they have acquired is by every definition a special group of guys. It’s not often you find an undersized guard who may end up being the greatest shooter in NBA history, or a cast off who fell to the second round because no one thought he had a real position in the NBA who ends up being one of the best defenders in the league. It goes to show that you cannot measure what’s inside, the grittiness and toughness may seem like superficial qualities that get passed over, but this team has it. They have every reason to continue to play with a chip on their shoulder. Don’t think Draymond didn’t see your tweets about them getting an easy road to a championship, just don’t be too heartbroken when the Warriors end your teams season.
PREDICTION: 62-20, 1st in Western Conference
AND check out the latest episode of the podcast where we preview the Central Division and argue over who should be MVP in the NFL: