Tuesday, December 06, 2005

It's Gettin' Hot, but Cool Soon?

Hot Start in Golden State Could Cool Off Quickly: by John Hollinger for the NY Sun
The last time the Golden State Warriors clinched a playoff berth, Bill Clinton was still in his first term as president, Kurt Cobain was still alive, and a Swedish quartet called Ace of Base was taking the nation by storm.
Back in that 1993-94 season, the Warriors won 50 games behind a pair of young kids named Latrell Sprewell and Chris Webber. Since then, amazingly, they've been in the lottery every year - the longest drought in the NBA, and among the longest in all of sports. It's not like they've had close calls, either - their best result in that time was a 38-44 mark three years ago that still left them six games out of the money.


2 Comments:

At 3:39 PM, Blogger Kirkkazas said...

I don't subscribe so I couldn't read the rest of the article. Is Hollinger talking about the upcoming road trip and playing some playoff caliber teams in december?

 
At 5:02 PM, Blogger dubnation said...

Hot Start in Golden State Could Cool Off Quickly

By JOHN HOLLINGER
December 6, 2005

Eleven years is a long time to wait.

The last time the Golden State Warriors clinched a playoff berth, Bill Clinton was still in his first term as president, Kurt Cobain was still alive, and a Swedish quartet called Ace of Base was taking the nation by storm.

Back in that 1993-94 season, the Warriors won 50 games behind a pair of young kids named Latrell Sprewell and Chris Webber. Since then, amazingly, they've been in the lottery every year - the longest drought in the NBA, and among the longest in all of sports. It's not like they've had close calls, either - their best result in that time was a 38-44 mark three years ago that still left them six games out of the money.

Finally, it appears the Warriors' unfortunate streak is about to end. Heading into last night, Golden State was tied for the Pacific Division lead with a 12-6 record, meaning they not only might make the postseason, but could be seeded as high as second and end up with an inside track to the conference finals. Golden State. Second seed. Seriously.

Of course, seeing the Warriors' unfamiliar position in the standings immediately brings two questions to mind. First, how are they doing this? And second, can it continue? Let's delve a little deeper into the numbers and see what the prognosis is for the league's longest suffering team.

The first thing that jumps out is the vast improvement at the defensive end. Through Sunday's games, Golden State ranked fifth in the NBA in Defensive Efficiency, which is my rating of how many points a team gives up per 100 opponent possessions. That's a substantial improvement from a year ago, when the club ranked only 17th.

That's a surprising development when one considers turnover in personnel from a year ago, or rather, the lack of it. Four starters - Jason Richardson, Mike Dunleavy, Troy Murphy, and Adonal Foyle - are unchanged, while a fifth, Baron Davis, joined the team in the second half of the season. The key subs - Derek Fisher, Mickael Pietrus, Zarko Cabarkapa, and Calbert Cheaney - also returned, as did the coach, Mike Montgomery. Golden State lost two tough guys on the interior late last season in Dale Davis and Clifford Robinson, so one would reasonably predict the defense would be worse this season rather than better.

The key to the defensive revival has been an uncanny ability to deny 3-point shots. Warriors opponents are making only 29.5% of their attempts from downtown this season, well off the league average of 35.2%. But this hasn't stopped their opponents from gunning away; Golden State's opponents take an above-average number of shots from downtown. Comparing to the league average for 3-point shooting, the combination of those two factors has saved the Warriors 2.5 points per game.

This is a new phenomenon for Golden State, since it had the opposite problem a year ago. Last season Warrior opponents made 36.3% from downtown, even though they took fewer 3-pointers than the league average. Amazingly, that's the entire difference between this year's Warriors and last year's at the defensive end - if it weren't for the difference in 3s, they'd be right back at no. 17 in the rankings.

That should send up a warning flag. Given the personnel similarity, one has to be worried that Golden State's defensive performance is a fortuitous fluke. Three-point percentages are notoriously fickle, especially over the relatively small sample of 260 attempts that the Warriors have yielded thus far. So it's very possible that the law of averages will catch up to this team in a big way over the season's final 64 games, leaving it back in the middle of the pack defensively.

Nonetheless, there's reason to believe the Warriors have enough mettle to squeeze out a playoff berth even if their opponents' 3-pointers start finding the twine. I mentioned the defensive change, but Golden State's offense has struggled to get untracked. It ranks only 17th in Offensive Efficiency at the moment, even though it seems to have the talent to do much more. Amazingly, the same 3-point malaise afflicting their opponents has also hit the Warriors. Golden State made 35.5% a year ago, but is down to 32.2% this year, with the difference costing them nearly a point per game (0.84 to be exact).

Don't expect it to last, because the struggles are easily repairable. Take Davis, for instance. He's hitting a ghastly 27.5% from downtown thanks in part to a nagging hamstring injury. Yes, it would help if he'd stop attempting seven per game until the leg improves (seriously, this guy's shot selection makes Jamal Crawford look like John Stockton), but since Davis is one of the league's most dominant point guards at full strength, one has to figure the Warriors offense will begin to turn the corner as he recovers.

Additionally, the Warriors have other obvious sources of improvement available. Mike Dunleavy, whom I excoriated in this space two weeks ago, continues to struggle mightily. At some point he'll either improve or be replaced, with my money being on the latter. If that came to pass, the vastly more capable Pietrus - whose rate of 19.0 points per 40 minutes ranks second on the team - would take Dunleavy's spot and immediately boost the attack. Plus, first-round draft pick Ike Diogu has returned from a broken hand and gives the team a post presence off the bench that Cabarkapa couldn't provide.

So it stands to reason that the Warriors can continue winning, just in a different way than they've done thus far. Right now they are winning with defense, largely thanks to some wayward 3-point shooting from their opponents. But in coming weeks, that seems likely to shift to a more offensive-oriented attack that uses increased accuracy from Davis and Pietrus to offset the expected recovery of their opponents' shooting stroke.

And as a result, Bay Area basketball fans - some of basketball's best, by the way - finally will be rewarded for their patience. For the first time in over a decade, the Warriors will take part in a playoff basketball game. Perhaps they can invite Ace of Base to play the national anthem.

Mr. Hollinger is the author of the 2005-06 Pro Basketball Forecast. He can be reached at jhollinger@nysun.com.

 

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