When last we spoke, the Warriors were 8-10 and flailing. They lost eight of their next nine, but have since gone 17-11, a modest achievement that nevertheless demolishes anything they've done since the Beard disappeared. The Dubs have already matched their '09-'10 win total, something only two other teams (dem Nets and dem Sixers) can claim. Here at the dawn of All-Star weekend, they stand above an honest-to-God NBA team (dem Rockets) in the standings. The 9-18 start and the monstrosity that was 1/28/11 have faded in the thrill of six straight wins over plus-.500 teams. The Warriors are starting to rise, and the fanbase is starting to buzz. Is there reason for all the excitement in Oakland? Let's take a closer look.
When you analyze the season to date, the first impression you get is a sadly familiar one:
1) The Warriors Have Been Bad At Basketball
Any clear-eyed analysis has to start here... while the Warriors haven't been a terrible NBA team, they've been a solidly poor one. They have the 18th-best record in the league but just the 21st-best point differential. And the team's recent competitiveness has come during a part of the schedule that has been heavy on home games and -- something that hasn't gotten enough attention -- very light on back-to-backs. When a team gets a string of rested games in its building, it should win some games.
After a road-heavy start to the season, the Dubs have now played as many home games as any team in basketball. The Dubs have actually been healthier than the average outfit... the Curry/Monta/Wright/Lee/Biedrins lineup has started 33 games, tied for fifth-highest among NBA quintets. And for all that, the team is still decidedly below average. At their pre-Christmas nadir, the Warriors placed 22nd in Basketball Reference's adjusted rankings. The recent flurry has skyrocketed them all the way to, well, 21st. This has not been a good basketball team. And why not? The two-pronged answer is also sadly familiar.
2) The Warriors Have Been Clueless On The Road
The most consistent difference between good teams and bad teams is an ability to compete on the road; the Dubs have lost 18 of 25 outside of Oakland, and have gotten outscored by almost seven points per road contest. If you play sub-Wizards-level basketball in half your games, you're going to have a tough time. But a more relevant question than when the Warriors tend to lose is how they tend to lose. To that point...
3) The Warriors Have Been Horrible Defensively
While there are some legitimate concerns about this team's offense -- Monta's tunnel vision, Curry's turnovers, Biedrins's timidity -- it's worth keeping some perspective. The Golden State offense is the 11th-most efficient in the league. What the Warriors do offensively works more often than it doesn't. If the Warriors played defense as well as they executed on offense, they'd be on pace for the fifth seed in a hyper-competitive Western Conference.
Sadly, the Dubs don't play defense as well as they execute on offense. The Dubs, to paraphrase Bart Scott, can't stop a nosebleed. Their 111.0 defensive effiency rating is the 28th-"best" mark in the NBA. The Warriors' defense has been every bit as bad this season as it was last season. You simply can not compete for a playoff spot if you have one of the three most porous defenses in the league.
"This talking point is out of date, you friggin' turkey," some of you are saying. "Sure, the Warriors' D stunk for awhile, but they're starting to figure things out." Is this true? Is there reason to think that the Warriors' defense is improving?
4) There Is Some Reason To Think That The Warriors' Defense Is Improving
A quick-and-dirty way to gauge how well your team's D-ing up? Compare their opponents' overall offensive efficiency to their offensive efficiencies in their games against your team. For instance, the Jazz have an offensive efficiency of 108.5 so far this season. On Wednesday night, their offensive efficiency was just 107.2, meaning the Dubs held them a bit below par (-1.3, to be exact).
So let's split the Warriors' season into five eleven-game sections and see how their defense has fared by this method. (Negative numbers are good, here.)
Games 1-11: -0.05 differential
Games 12-22: +7.96 differential
Games 23-33: +3.66 differential
Games 34-44: +6.74 differential
Games 45-55: +2.15 differential
So the most recent fifth of the Warriors' season has been its second-best on a defensive level. And if you slice things a bit more finely and only look at the Warriors' last nine games (throwing out the lone Hornets loss and the Captain Jack Attack), you get a defensive efficiency differential of -0.62. In short, the Warriors have been playing some better defense lately. However.
5) There Is Not Much Reason To Think That The Warriors' Defense Is Improving
The Warriors' defensive performance over the past nine games has been downright solid... their defensive performance for the season's first eleven games of the season was rock-solid as well. In between, however, they played 35 games' worth of some of the worst defense you'll ever see. And while it's tempting to think that a light has just come on, when you look at the last nine games closely, it's hard to shake the feeling that this team has actually plugged its leaks.
Game 47 (-18.0): the Dubs beat the Jazz 96-81, holding Utah miles below their season-long offensive efficiency. This game, however, came with a monstrous caveat: no Deron Williams. That doesn't mean you just throw the game out... the Jazz underperformed even against their usual non-Deron standards. But this was more or less a gimme.
Game 48 (+5.2): a 100-94 Warriors win obscured the fact that they actually played some pretty weak defense here. The Bucks were significantly more efficient than usual, this despite a woeful 6-for-23 performance behind the three-point line. The Dubs' offense carried the day, and that's just fine. But this was not a successful defensive showing.
Game 49 (-6.6): the Dubs stunned the Bulls, thanks in large part to one of the worst games of Derrick Rose's career. The Bulls were 8-for-25 from three, below their usual standards... still, this was a strong defensive effort, maybe the Warriors' finest of the season.
Game 50 (+5.1): the Suns were even more efficient than usual in dismantling the Warriors in Oakland. They shot a bit better from three than usual... still, there's no way to spin this one as decent defense.
Game 51 (+4.6): a wild shootout in which nobody really played much D, though both teams' lights-out three-point shooting inflated the numbers a tad. Great win, bad defense.
Game 52 (+8.5): the Warriors get slaughtered in Phoenix, in a game that saw less than 27 minutes from Steve Nash. The Dubs' defensive grade for this one: a big fat F.
Game 53 (-3.3): the Dubs outlast the Thunder in a thriller this Worrier caught live, and defense was very much a factor here... the Warriors played a "We Believe"-style deflection-heavy defense to perfection. A genuinely good defensive performance.
Game 54 (+0.2): you'd think holding the Hornets under 90 would be evidence of stout D, but in fact New Orleans actually slightly outperformed their season-long offensive efficiency, despite sinking only three treys all night and lacking Emeka Okafor. Not really a bad defensive performance from the Dubs, but you'd be hard-pressed to call it good.
Game 55 (-1.3): the Dubs kept the Jazz a bit under their usual standards, in a rare credible defensive performance on the road. Still and all, even beyond the obvious chaos in Utah, the Jazz were just 3-of-14 from downtown. If they'd hit two more threes (still keeping them well south of their usual 3P%), the Dubs would've been easily below par here.
In these nine games, the Dubs played good defense three times, decent defense twice and downright bad defense four times. (Again, we're accounting for the quality of their opponents: it's not that the Suns and Nuggets scored well, it's that they scored even better than usual.) If you had to give the Dubs a letter grade for their defensive work here, it'd come out to maybe a B-minus. That certainly ain't bad, and you could skate by with it if your offense was clicking... but you'd like to see something better than a B-minus with cherry-picking this extreme. Frankly, the Dubs defended better to start the season than they have in the last couple weeks, and that sure didn't last.
It's been a fairly fun season to date (as long as you ignore the actual Western Conference standings), and maybe the Warriors will play winning basketball to close this bad boy out. But seeing as the Dubs play twelve of their next seventeen on the road, and that their opponents aren't likely to underperform from long-distance to the degree they have been of late, we're betting otherwise. The official Worrier prediction: an 11-16 close to the year, a final record of 37-45, and a lot of sheepishness over the optimism this season occasionally engendered. This is a below-average and badly built basketball team, and "hey, we don't outright suck anymore" is a mantra that will lose its charm real damn quick.