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Wednesday, December 25, 2013
The Warriors are right on course

By Ethan Sherwood Strauss

Stephen Curry
The Warriors are just 16-13 heading into Christmas Day, but is it more bad luck than bad basketball?

Fan backlash often smacks teams that haven’t even been around long enough for people to truly despise them. It’s an accusation of fraudulence: You weren’t what you were sold as. You’re an NBA interloper, not a true contender. You’re getting all this attention through a devious ruse.

There’s a prosecutorial bent to the weekly debate about sports teams, as though these players and coaches are joined in a vast conspiracy to win our approval before intentionally screwing up. A nouveau riche team with a gaudy offense easily attracts such negative sentiments. “Fun” becomes a burden when the novelty wears off. Notice how the Clippers get blasted by TV pundits. Notice how the Rockets are starting to invite similar indictments.

And of course, notice how people are turning on the Warriors after a slow start. Can you blame fans and writers for wondering, “Is this all there is”?

Sports Illustrated heralded them as “The New Showtime.” As in, Magic Johnson’s Showtime. That headline practically begs you to scream, “IMPOSTER!” at the grocery magazine stand as passersby gawk at the crazy man in Aisle 11.

Is this what Showtime looks like? A 13th ranking in offensive efficiency? A 19th ranking in the month of December? Though Curry has played the best basketball of his career, the Warriors have underwhelmed predictions. The New Showtime is 8th among teams out West right now.
Andre Iguodala
The Warriors took a spill without Andre Igudoala, going 5-7 when he was shelved with an injury.

So, are they frauds? Are they nothing close to title contention?

Not exactly. The Warriors are by many indications fine, save for their injuries and early schedule. “If healthy” is always the qualifier, but if healthy, they are as they were sold to us.

The Warriors lived up to the hype in the initial rollout. Eleven games into the season, they were second league-wide in net rating, with one of their three losses coming in a game Curry missed. Bogut and Iguodala comprised a respectable defense by themselves, and the combination of four good passers made for beautiful ball movement on offense. That Bogut-Lee-Iguodala-Thompson-Curry starting lineup demolished all comers, and remains a powerful plus-15.5 points per 100 possessions on the season.

The ugly detour began on Nov. 18. During a blowout of the Utah Jazz, Curry slipped and crumbled beneath the shadow of a belly-flopping Marvin Williams. It looked as though Williams fell on Curry’s head with most of Marvin’s 237 pounds and the weight of every single expectation the former No. 2 pick had ever carried. The sickening thud left Curry with a concussion, and left the Warriors without Curry for two games.

That such a brief injury could unravel the Warriors says something about the construction of this team. Curry and Iguodala are the only two perimeter guys capable of making plays for teammates off the dribble. Lose one of them, and the team teeters. For all the buzz about Klay Thompson’s 3-point shooting or Harrison Barnes’ upside, it’s rarely noted that neither can really handle or create for others. There’s no such player on the bench who does this either. When Curry and Iguodala are out, the other Warriors players stand helplessly, waiting to be fed like a nest of baby birds.

With Curry sidelined, Iguodala played 48 minutes in an overtime loss to Memphis. In his next game, Iguodala strained his hamstring. The Warriors lost and went on to lose the following night against Portland, sans Iguodala. In games where the Warriors lack Curry or Iguodala, they're 5-10.

This particular weakness sounds like a reason to sell Golden State stock, but I’d counter by saying all teams have weaknesses -- the Warriors were just unfortunate enough to have theirs exposed early. The Trail Blazers, for example, are quite reliant on every player in their awesome starting lineup. They just haven’t been tested by injuries yet.

Consider this, too. After Dec. 27, the Warriors will have more games left against East teams than West teams. That’s how West-heavy their early schedule has been in a season when the East is far inferior. Of their first 31 games, 27 came against the mighty West. As of today, they’ve also played three more road games than home games. They should strengthen as the schedule weakens. So much of how we perceive teams is determined by whom they play and when.

It’s difficult to sell Warriors optimism when the team’s lived down to the hype. This particular fanbase has an understandable aversion to the sugarcoating of criticism. This franchise and its employees are notorious for hyping (and later excusing) failures. Any attempt to make excuses for Mark Jackson’s “no excuse basketball team” goes over worse than suggesting they bring back Andris Biedrins. Pollyanna just plays terribly on the local level.

But a squad that maintained a plus-3.4 point differential through trying times warrants an allowance. These Warriors currently grade out at a respectable 8th in a Hollinger Rankings formula that knows nothing about Iguodala missing nearly half the early season.

Until Golden State’s killer starting lineup falters, they should be taken seriously. A starting unit plays more in the postseason, lessening the impact of a weak bench. It’s how last year’s 5-deep 49-win Indiana Pacers surprised people in the playoffs.

This remains an “if healthy” West contender, and the open question is whether they can stay healthy. The early season hasn’t diminished such an opinion -- in many ways, it’s validated it.