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Paul Flannery | November 20, 2016

Sunday Shootaround: What do we want from the Warriors?

What do we want from the Warriors?

BOSTON -- For several minutes on Friday night, the Golden State Warriors attained basketball nirvana. It wasn’t just the deluge of points, or how they scored them. We’ve become accustomed to the barrage of 3-pointers, dunks, and layups. It certainly wasn’t how they celebrated. The Zaza Pachulia shimmy will live forever in our nightmares.

It was how they defended, jumping passing lanes, and forcing turnovers. All of that turned chaos into an artful ballet of beautiful basketball and casual disrespect.

Those extended minutes, which turned a competitive game into a rout, are what we imagined the Warriors would look like this season. That it hasn’t happened more often is either a sign that they’re saving themselves for the long haul, or an indication that they haven’t fully arrived yet. Perhaps it signals that we haven’t come to terms with how we view them yet.

Forget for a moment the wins and losses, the parochial triumphalism and the distant schadenfreude. What do we, the basketball watching universe, want from this team?

So far this season we know that we can’t have perfection. That was clear on opening night when the Spurs came to town and drilled them. It’s been evident in games they’ve won without the benefit of a consistent, sustained effort. We can also assume that we won’t have a season-long quest for immortality. We already had 73 wins and that pursuit proved to be more draining than necessary. There’s the championship chase, of course, but that’s for the spring. There’s a whole season to account for before we can get there and so we’re left with that question.

It’s lingered in the background since Kevin Durant agreed to join Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green. You can build a playoff team around a great player. You can have a contender with two and win championships with three. But with four, the possibilities are endless and daunting to comprehend. So, I asked Warriors coach Steve Kerr to remove himself from the day-to-day and cast himself as a commentator. What would he want to see?

"Selflessness," Kerr answered. "I’d just want to see the ball move between four guys who are All-Stars. But not in a pass-up-shots kind of way. I’d want to see some flow and aggressiveness. If you’re open fire away, if not, move it on. How many easy shots can this team get. That’s really the same thing I’m looking for as coach."

Selflessness is an interesting word. The phrase we hear over and over again is sacrifice. It’s the hallmark of any great team over the years. Players give it a little to gain a lot. Whether it was Tim Duncan stepping back to allow Tony Parker room to flourish or Chris Bosh extending his game beyond the 3-point line, great teams have always demanded a personal pound of flesh for the benefit of the greater good.

But selflessness is different. If sacrifice is a utilitarian construct, selflessness is utopian. It imagines a space where these players, great as they are individually, commit acts of basketball generosity not through gritted teeth but because they are right there in front of them to be made. It’s a brilliant goal for a long season because it’s an unattainable concept, but it’s a real goal for the Warriors because it’s not out of the realm of the possibility.

It manifests itself in small ways. It’s a give-and-go between Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala that ends with satisfied grins going down the floor. It’s a four-pass whipsaw sequence that brokered good scoring chances into an uncontested layup. It’s impossible to play this way all the time, but the Warriors are beginning to play this way some of the time, and that’s more than enough to pile up regular season wins.

The Warrior coaches have been content to let this develop organically. They critique and correct when needed, but the larger picture is the thing and it might be a good sign that it’s not altogether clear in late November. There is something to play 82 games for, after all, and they are in no rush.

There’s a parallel to be drawn with the Miami Heat, who were not as fully realized as we wanted them to be when they took the court together back in 2010. It took them more than a year to figure out how they could function seamlessly on the court together within a system that blended their individual talents and resulted in a team that will stand for all time.

"I think it was probably a lot harder for Miami," Kerr said. "I think our guys fit better naturally because of the floor spacing and the playmaking. Doesn’t mean it’s going to click all the time or right away, but it just seems like it’s more natural."

That’s an unusually high bar, but the Warriors aren’t going to get much sympathy from anyone as those Heat teams also learned. Like the Warriors, the Heat were derided nationally for their team-building approach. Eventually they were granted respect and admiration for their style of play, even if some of that was given grudgingly in some quarters. That same dynamic will be in play for Golden State if it succeeds on these terms and it’s worth noting that the Warriors have not faced nearly the same vitriol in opposing arenas as the Heat did during their infancy.

The Warriors also have the advantage of a head start. The core of the team has been together for years and already achieved great success. They do not need to revamp everything they do because the blueprint is still viable. Continuity is a key ingredient, but the Warriors are not fools. They know that it’s not as easy as plugging in KD for Harrison Barnes and going about their business as if nothing has changed.

"It’s dramatically different when you add a superstar than when you add a role player," Kerr said. "We’re still building. We’re still figuring some stuff out. We’re not relying on everything we’ve been able to rely on the last two years. It’s obviously a welcome addition because Kevin is that good."

With Durant on board, Kerr can play him and Thompson together with the reserves when Curry sits. That creates a dynamic second unit that often thrived in past years even without a designated scorer. When Durant and Thompson sit, Kerr can deploy Curry and Green together. When all four are active there should never be a weakened offensive lineup on the floor. Kerr has also used his small ball lineup of doom a tick more regularly so far this season. Not surprisingly, that lineup with Durant in place of Barnes is even more devastating than it was last season.

It’s been a slow burn, but after losing to the Lakers early in November, the Warriors put up 611 points over their next five games. After rolling through the Raptors on Wednesday, Golden State became the first team in 26 years to generate 30 or more assists and shoot over 50 percent in five straight games. Against Boston, that percentage dipped just below 50 percent, but they still racked up 33 assists on 44 made shots. It’s staggering what this team can do, and they know it.

"We go over our offensive stuff a lot, but to be honest, I could roll the ball out and we’re going to score a lot of points because our guys are skilled and talented," Kerr said. "Our focus is taking care of the ball. The best thing for your defense is good offense. If you score and don’t turn the ball over it’s an immense help to your defense."

Defense has been the glaring weakness, as much as a team that is 11-2 can have one. Their issues are not difficult to pin down. Opponents are taking it to them inside, shooting over 64 percent inside the restricted area and letting fly from the outside when not doing damage on the interior. One of the key defensive scriptures is making your opponent take bad shots. In this era, bad shots are inefficient shots and the Warriors aren’t making teams take enough of them. When they do force misses, they’re not getting enough rebounds.

Their problems protecting the paint and sweeping the boards are primarily a function of swapping out Andrew Bogut for Pachulia. We knew all that coming into the season, so none of this has been terribly surprising. Everyone in the league would have done exactly the same thing if it meant getting Durant in his prime. Obviously.

They have an obvious need for a rip-protecting big man, but barring a trade one isn’t likely to materialize. Do they actually need one to reach their full potential? If the answer is no, then there is little hope for the rest of the league.

What’s also slipped are the recovery mechanisms that made Golden State so damn good in recent years: perimeter defense, help defense, hustle defense. It’s there sometimes and other times it’s not. Both traits are emblematic of a highly successful basketball team in November, especially one that knows it can outscore anyone at any time.

"I think the biggest challenge for our guys is to keep the intensity for 48 minutes," Kerr said. "They tend to feel like they can outscore people, which they can, but it’s not a very good recipe for success against good teams and in the playoffs. We’ve got to get better defensively. We know that."

What we do not know yet is how good they are, and whether they can possibly measure up to anyone’s expectations. This is unchartered territory and the answer isn’t likely to reveal itself in the mundane matter of winning regular season basketball games. All we have at this point are the moments of brilliance and the tantalizing possibility that something more is there to be discovered.

The ListConsumable NBA thoughts

One of the fascinating phenomenons in a player’s career arc is The Leap. For some, it means coming into their own as a rotation player. For others, it’s establishing themselves as a starter or even a star. For these five players, it means elevating their games into a different stratosphere.

Giannis Antetokounmpo: Everyone’s favorite Freak is averaging better than 21 points, 8 rebounds, 5 assists and 2 blocks per game. The list of players who have hit those marks over the course of a season is one: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Throw in two steals per game and the company Giannis keeps is his alone (hat tip to Shootaround friend Jared Dubin). In other words, no one has ever done what Antetokounmpo is doing and here’s where we remind you that he’s still just 22 years old. Giannis has long been an internet sensation. Now he’s becoming a legit franchise player for a team that desperately needs one.

Jimmy Butler: What more does Butler need to do to establish himself among the elite? He’s already a two-time All-Star and an Olympian with a gold medal. Like all the players on this list, his shooting percentages have surged to seemingly unsustainable levels and his Usage Rate is off the charts. That accounts for his uptick in scoring and Butler is also rebounding at a higher rate. The story so far is that he is taking on an even bigger role in their offense and thriving even with Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo as running mates. He is clearly the Bulls’ best player, but he might be the second-best player in the Eastern Conference and that’s new territory.

DeMar DeRozan: No player has caused more of a sensation this season than the mid-range maestro who is scorching teams with his quaintly orthodox game. There isn’t anyone, with the exception of DeRozan himself, who believes he can continue to produce at this level without a reliable 3-point shot. But he keeps doing it anyway. His latest masterpiece was a 34-point effort against Golden State that included 17 free throws in 17 attempts. The more DeRozan produces, the more his critics suggest that it won’t mean a thing until he does it in the playoffs, which, fair. But it’s November and we can only go with what we’ve seen to this point

Kemba Walker: The Charlotte point guard has long resided among the ranks of players who also received consideration during All-Star selection periods. Throughout his career he’s been good, maybe even underrated or underappreciated, but not quite a star-level performer. He’s averaging almost 26 points per game on what looks like unsustainable levels of accuracy, but he’s also taking better shots and getting to the free throw line at a higher clip. Walker has always carried himself like a star in the best possible sense of the word: he’s willing to take huge shots and shoulder the offensive load for a team that needs his ability to create offense. The difference is that he’s performing like one consistently.

Andrew Wiggins: The third year is supposedly the time when all the hard work and forced game experience begins to manifest itself, not only in the numbers, but also in terms of wins and losses. Wiggins is averaging over 26 points per game and shooting over 54 percent from beyond the arc. His post-up game is becoming more consistent and less mechanical. That’s indicative of hours spent in the gym working on his craft. However, that hasn’t translated yet into wins for a young Wolves team that is still learning hard lessons. The next step for Wiggins is arguably the toughest. It’s understanding game situations and performing in the moment. The signs of an individual breakout are here. The rest of the season will paint a clearer picture of where he stands among the league’s best.

ICYMIor In Case You Missed It

Say WhatRamblings of NBA players, coaches and GMs

"You can't hold up the whole team because you and your mom and your posse want to spend an extra night in Cleveland. I always thought Pat had this really nice vibe with his guys. But something happened there where it broke down. I do know LeBron likes special treatment. He needs things his way." -- Phil Jackson.

Reaction: Perhaps we take it for granted that the word ‘posse’ coming from an older white man directed at young black men is loaded with dismissiveness. Perhaps it’s a generational thing and it’s not surprising that a baby boomer would be out of touch with this era. Perhaps we could learn something from this moment.

"It just sucks that now at this point having one of the biggest businesses you can have both on and off the floor, having a certified agent in Rich Paul, having a certified business partner in Maverick Carter that's done so many great business [deals], that the title for young African-Americans is the word ‘posse.'" -- LeBron James.

Reaction: It really doesn’t matter if you think Phil’s comments were racist, inappropriate, coded or whatever. Instead of wondering if they were offensive, maybe listen to the people who were offended and learn something about someone else’s world view. That’s called empathy.

"'I’m going to be perfectly honest here, I've used that word before, OK. And when that all came out I had to ask myself, have I ever used that word before with a white player, and the answer is no. So, I think, look, you have to be aware of the language and you have to be aware a little bit of your own biases if you're going to overcome them and so I took that seriously." -- Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy.

Reaction: See? It’s not that hard. Language is not static. It evolves. We should try to do so too.

"A big part of learning is trial and error, so when you go through something and it doesn’t work, you should learn from it. The second time around, it shouldn’t be the same way. That has to change. That has to change, and it has to change fast." -- Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau after another third quarter collapse.

Reaction: On the one hand we want to see tangible growth. On the other, the young Wolves still need seasoning. Where’s the line between the two, and when do results become more important than experience? There is no right answer to this, certainly not in November. Thibs publicly challenged his team and the Wolves responded with a thorough beatdown of a bad Philly team. Then they got drilled by Memphis. The status quo is becoming uncomfortable.

"It's a long year. We're not in panic mode. We'll be all right." -- Damian Lillard after yet another double-digit loss.

Reaction: The Blazers are clearly searching right now. They’re missing a couple of key players including Al Farouq-Aminu and free agent acquisition Evan Turner has struggled to find his way with his new team. They’ve been out of sync offensively and a disaster on the defensive end, ranking dead last in points per 100 possessions. If they can salvage something out of their five-game road trip it would go a long way toward righting the ship.

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About the Author

After covering everything from 8-man football in Idaho to city politics in Boston, Paul came to SB Nation in 2013 to write about the NBA. He developed the Sunday Shootaround column and profiled players such as Damian Lillard, Draymond Green, and Isaiah Thomas. When not in arenas, he can usually be found running somewhere.