December 2, 2010

Sins of the Starters

So. Since we last spoke, the Dubs have lost semi-competitive games in Houston and Memphis, snapped their losing streak with a solid performance in Minnesota, and kick-started a new losing streak with a stinker at home against the Spurs. For all the changes in the offseason, these seem a lot like the same old Warriors: an offense that's not as good as it looks, a defense that's every bit as bad as it looks, and team that's going nowhere, and going there rather quickly.

There is still a fairly compelling glass-half-full view. The Dubs have solidly outscored their opponents when David Lee has been on the floor... more to the point, the results of the Curry-Ellis-Wright-Lee-Biedrins quintet have been rather spectacular. In the 138 minutes that the starting lineup has played together, they've outscored their opponents by a mind-boggling 83 points, the equivalent of winning three games by an average score of 121-92. By Basketball Value's adjusted plus-minus (the usual sample-size caveats apply), the Warriors' quintet actually ranks as the fifth-most effective unit in the league, and the second-most effective starting lineup in the league, behind only the Miami variant that features Big Z at the five. That dog'll hunt.

Unfortunately, this half-full glass has a couple cracks in it. For one thing, the starting lineup's stellar results are predicated partly on an offensive excellence that may be sustainable, but partly on a defensive brilliance that isn't. More to the point, however, the Warriors starters create negative externalities that make life even harder for the overmatched backups that succeed them. The starters hurt the team in ways that elude even the most sophisticated plus-minus systems.

As you may have heard, these Warriors have a whistling problem, in that they commit a ton of fouls and draw very few. As a result, opponents shoot 10.3 more free throws a game than they do, and score 9.3 more points at the line per game than they do. These numbers are almost without precedent... only the '92-'93 Mavs, who lost 71 games, faced a bigger nightly free-throw disparity. That team both took and allowed many more free throws than these Dubs, so on a percentage basis, the current Warriors fare worse on this front than any team in the history of the NBA.

Who's to blame for this? A ton of people, really. Keith Smart and the coaching staff deserve a massive amount of blame, as does Nellie for creating this completely apathetic defensive culture in the first place. On the offensive front, Larry Riley's hands aren't entirely clean... while jettisoning Corey Maggette was a fine move, replacing him with a low-contact scorer like Lee has proven costly.

But on a game-by-game basis, the most straightforward culprit is simple: it's the starting lineup. Let's compare each starter to the average NBA regular (25+ minutes per game) at their respective positions.

Stephen Curry: 5.0 free throw attempts per 40 minutes, 4.6 fouls per 40 minutes
Average NBA PG: 4.7 free throw attempts per 40 minutes, 3.0 fouls per 40 minutes

Monta Ellis: 6.1 free throw attempts per 40 minutes, 3.0 fouls per 40 minutes
Average NBA SG: 4.8 free throw attempts per 40 minutes, 2.7 fouls per 40 minutes

Dorell Wright: 2.6 free throw attempts per 40 minutes, 2.5 fouls per 40 minutes
Average NBA SF: 4.4 free throw attempts per 40 minutes, 3.0 fouls per 40 minutes

David Lee: 4.5 free throw attempts per 40 minutes, 2.3 fouls per 40 minutes
Average NBA PF: 4.9 free throw attempts per 40 minutes, 3.5 fouls per 40 minutes

Andris Biedrins: 1.0 free throw attempts per 40 minutes, 5.3 fouls per 40 minutes
Average NBA C: 4.8 free throw attempts per 40 minutes, 3.8 fouls per 40 minutes

The biggest culprits here are Curry and Biedrins. Curry averages 3.9 fouls per game, the third-highest total in the league for any player, big or small. No guard has committed that many nightly fouls in over twenty years. Biedrins, like Curry, fouls more often on a per-minute basis than any other starter at his position; what's worse, he gets to the line less often than any other center. Dorell doesn't help, either, as his trips to the line are also abnormally rare. Monta and Lee are mildly positive contributors here, but you'd like to see your big-scoring stars rate a little better than that.

So the starters are foul-happy and bad at getting to the line. This is a big flaw -- maybe the defining flaw -- of the unit, and it's reflected in their plus-minus numbers. What isn't reflected is that when the starters come out, the backups inherit an unfavorable game environment, in which any foul is very likely to result in free throws. When Curry, Biedrins et al are done, they're not likely to be in the penalty, and their opponents are very likely to be in the penalty. As such, the second unit loses at an even faster clip than they should on the merits.

Every Biedrins stab at a driving guard, every Curry slap at a guy on the perimeter, every Monta gamble at midcourt... enough of these lazy, thoughtless plays can sink a season. The Warriors' bench is bad enough without a consistent uphill battle on the fouls front. The starting lineup is pretty good, but they need to better about this. Whistles may tell the story of this season.


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