In one play from its 129-128 win against the Chicago Bulls, you can see all that ails the 1-2 Golden State Warriors’ offense: Stephen Curry’s teammates being out of sync with his pursuit of the perfect shot, old and new styles crashing into each other and a sense that if Draymond Green wasn’t injured, things would look different.
Garrett Temple relaxes for just a second when Curry passes, and he is off to the races. Giving up the ball and hightailing to the weakside is how Curry leverages his own gravity to find better shots. He gets open under the rim, but Eric Paschall misses him, so Curry keeps sprinting, searching for a baseline screen and trying to separate himself further from Temple.
This process of accumulating open space is how Curry broke 3-point records, fueled the most potent offense of its time and reconfigured the NBA. But Curry’s new teammate, Mychal Mulder, is busy staring at Paschall, anticipating a drive-and-kick pass.
Most superstars hold the ball, relinquishing control only after setting teammates up. That’s not how Curry operates. He lets the ball go because he trusts it’ll eventually end up in the right place, even if he doesn’t send it there, and the right place is often back in his own hands.
Why the Warriors need to build from scratch
Curry’s style is unique. Most of his teammates haven’t had much time to adjust to it. It’s hard to understate how new this is for everyone.
Curry missed most of last season with a broken hand. With Green out and Marquese Chriss suffering a broken leg, Paschall played minutes at center in his eighth-ever regular-season game alongside Curry. Andrew Wiggins and Juan Toscano-Anderson have shared the court with Curry even less. Kelly Oubre Jr. and Brad Wanamaker are new additions. Rookie James Wiseman missed his first training camp and preseason — which were accelerated — and is playing basketball for the first time in a year.
The Warriors are experiencing a tidal wave of change, adjusting day by day. For this to work, coach Steve Kerr will have to rely on pick-and-rolls and drives more than off-ball movement, while trying to sustain the pillars that define his style: joy, mindfulness, compassion, competition.
Curry and Green have to reconfigure their expectations, to stop letting perfect be the enemy of good — both in the pursuit of a shot and a championship — while the new additions will have to let go a little and believe in the magic of selfless basketball. Can they meet halfway? Is basketball IQ a transitive property?
After the Warriors opened the season 0-2, Kerr restructured the offense.
“I feel like really simplifying how much stuff we’re running and what we’re running,” Kerr said after Sunday’s game. “I’m finding we need to get more guys into high step-ups, getting them downhill, spacing the floor. We’re going to shoot a lot of 3s, for sure. We shot 47 tonight. What we’re trying to get to is more drive and kick. We did a better job of that, getting into the paint, kicking it out, playing simple basketball.”
Maybe these are just growing pains. Maybe this is the utter mess that precedes transformation. Or maybe they’re just a mess. Either way, the Warriors are something else entirely now — something more frustrating, imperfect, something that they don’t quite understand yet, something that needs to be built up from scratch.
Take this play, which illustrates how different the Warriors look without Green.
Curry drives, kicks the ball to Wiggins, sprints weakside and again motions for a screen. But by then, Wiggins has already taken and made an open shot.
How Draymond Green’s absence affects Stephen Curry
After the Warriors lost to the Milwaukee Bucks on Christmas, Curry told reporters, “We gotta really identify what’s a good shot versus a great shot and how you can adjust on the fly if shots aren’t going down early.”
He needs a running mate to make that happen. Usually, that’s Green, who shares Curry’s patience, his understanding that basketball nirvana usually happens in the first five seconds of the shot clock or the last 10. Green gives the world’s greatest shooter a good reason to pass up an open shot. He keeps his eyes fixed on Curry’s movements like a laser pointer. The Dubs will be remembered for running and shooting threes. But patience was the quality that set them apart.
Without Green — and Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston — the Warriors offense suffers from a failure of imagination. The question is how much of it the new guys can capture.
Wiggins isn’t going to pass up wide-open shots, nor should he. But there is a space in-between the gulf between who they were and who they are. Their ability to chart that distance will define how far this iteration of the Warriors can go. Green will be back, but he can’t make up the difference of all they’ve lost.
The Warriors of old were special because they turned interdependence into a virtue. But that also makes you as strong as your weakest link. All the baseline screens in the world can be undone if just one player holds the ball for too long.
Where the Warriors go from here
There are some reasons for optimism. Wiggins makes your heart skip a beat when he jump-passes in the midst of three defenders, but his drive-and-kick game was firing on Sunday. Wiggins also found Curry for a wide-open corner three that he missed in the first quarter, which was set up by an impromptu semi-transition screen by Oubre.
Both Wiggins and Oubre are crashing into the paint hard, which often leaves shooters wide open. Here, Curry was open for five whole seconds, an eternity in his world. He knew he would be, too, after feeding Oubre with an inbounds pass that forced help.
But in the fourth quarter, that same Oubre dribbled the ball up in transition, saw Curry in the corner with two bigs on the wings and directed them to set a double-screen to open him up.
Watching these Warriors is clarifying, a reminder of how hard it is to get the gears turning correctly, even if you’ve done it before. Right now, the gears are cracking against each other, stalling the entire machine.
The synergy they once had cannot be possessed. It must be performed and refined constantly, built and rebuilt. Winning works the same way. The Warriors have seen the view from the mountaintop. The only thing it guarantees them is a chance to climb it again from the start.
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