This is the league’s most prolific five-man unit offensively (among the top 30 in minutes played), but the Warriors’ starting lineup doesn't seem like a natural offensive machine when examined on the surface.
Andre Iguodala hasn't historically stretched the floor, though he’s shooting the 3 at a 42.9 percent clip this season. David Lee will launch out to the arc, but is a 36.7 percent shooter from midrange. And Andrew Bogut has taken fewer than two dozen shots outside the restricted area this season. Meanwhile, both Iguodala and his counterpart on the wing, Klay Thompson, sport a player efficiency rating below the league average. Thompson shoots well from beyond the arc and is a decent finisher, but he misses a lot of midrange shots and isn't inclined to move the ball all that often.
Yet, here’s the Warriors’ primary unit racking up 113.5 points for every 100 possessions.
This is a testimony to a few things. First, to Stephen Curry and Lee, both of whom can manufacture a shot out of table scraps. Has there ever been a shooter with a better nose than Curry for finding space along the arc in transition or getting a shot off against a tight close-out?
Curry is also among the league’s master hiders on the pick-and-roll. He doesn't require a whole lot of room to cross over and then step back into an open spot behind Bogut or Lee, and the bigs do a nice job of putting the down payment on that space with crafty picks and drag screens. The Curry-Lee drag screen is a linchpin of Golden State's offense. It’s both the simplest and most reliable way for the Warriors to get an early look.
Curry almost always prefers firing a 3-pointer to putting the ball on the floor. He doesn't take it to the cup all that often, and isn't especially efficient when he does. He’ll hit Lee on the roll if the path is there, but the bomb still takes precedent, and you can’t fault him for it.
Steph Curry's sharp stroke opens up a lot for the Warriors' starters.
Lee is one of the best catch-and-go big men in the league, and in set situations, the Warriors orchestrate a few different ways to get Lee the ball close to the hoop. There’s a fun high-low in which Bogut flashes high and Lee dives low after setting a side pick for Curry. The ball goes from Curry to Bogut at the foul line, where Bogut instantly hits Lee at the rim.
The ball often ultimately lands in Lee’s hands on the left block late in the clock. He can spin into that lefty hook beautifully, or just bully his way into the paint with some space. He’s also a heady decision-maker who can find shooters and cutters.
Then there’s the playmaking. Counting Lee, there are four guys who move the ball exceptionally well. The fifth, Thompson, isn't someone you want making plays off the dribble (though he’s better than he was a year ago). To capitalize, the Warriors run the Spurs’ classic "motion weak" stuff, wherein the ball pings around the court with Curry on the move and can end up in any number of places off the read -- often Curry up top after curling around a couple of baseline screens, or Lee in the Duncan spot or in a two-man game left side as a second-side action.
Iguodala is a calming force on what can be a frenetic offense. He commandeers many of the sets from the left wing or up top. This is a primary portal of entry into Lee on the left block. All the while, Curry will hold down the weak side, which pretty much hamstrings any defensive rotation because the help can’t come from the strong side (Lee can find Bogut with a blindfold on) and it can’t come from the top (Thompson). Sometimes, Curry will shuttle the ball to Iguodala, then curl around a single-single for the catch. If Curry is denied, Iguodala quickly delivers the ball to Lee in the post. This is another place where Iguodala lubricates the offense, and he's also a master of the advance pass in transition -- and almost guides the leakers to the optimal spot.
When five guys on the floor can execute properly, they can run clever stuff. The Warriors’ playbook works because the unit has smarts. The term “high IQ” is always a little problematic because there’s many different kinds of intelligence on the basketball court. Let’s just call it wherewithal. Either way, you can see the long menu in action on a set called “52”:
Curry dribbles from the wing to the top of the floor past a screen from Bogut, who dives off the screen. Meanwhile, Thompson vacates the left side and runs around a stagger screen along the right side of the lane, then curls to the top of the floor on the far side. So Curry has three very nice options:
Shoot from the top of the arc.
Pass off to Thompson, if he gets separation.
Hit a diving Bogut with an alley-oop.
What’s most impressive when the starters run this kind of set is that most of the options are available. Other teams run the famed “elevator doors,” but few as flawlessly as Bogut and Lee for Curry and Thompson. The corner splits -- with Iguodala cutting back door -- are nifty. This group plays well with pace, because it has two big men who can ignite the break and everyone has confidence in what the unit is doing.
Because Curry and Thompson can screen competently for the bigs, this lineup will frequently draw mismatches. Because it has so many effective pick-and-roll combinations, it can scramble a defense with multiple actions. And because Curry can shoot the lights out and draws the Prussian army, the other four guys on the floor -- all with multiple offensive skills -- get the chance to work in advantageous situations.
That’s how you count to 113.5 in more than 600 minutes together.
How it works defensively
Not unlike the offense, the Warriors’ defensive personnel doesn't necessarily look like a standout unit. Iguodala and Bogut are elite defenders at their respective positions, and there’s no doubt a lockdown wing and an interior rim protector who can handle both the pick-and-roll and help responsibilities provide a bedrock foundation for a defense. But Lee, Curry and Thompson have all carried a reputation as sieves at one time or another (in Lee’s case, the past, present and future). Defensive stoppers are indispensable, but it’s challenging for a five-man unit to post a decent defensive rating if there are liabilities all over the floor.
It’s no longer useful to identify a team’s overriding defensive strategy as forcing long 2s because every coach in the league, whether he’s steeped in analytics or an old-timey ball coach, has bought into this as an organizing principle. The Warriors’ starters certainly do. This group gives up shots in the restricted area at well below the league average rate, and opponents are finishing those shots at a below-average clip. This holds true across the board: The starters surrender fewer 3-point attempts and those they do are converted at a lousy rate. Opponents are more likely to take a midrange shot against this group, and fewer than 38 percent of those shots fall.
It starts with Bogut, who is a vigilante, both in temperament and in practice. He commits early to the attacker on the pick-and-roll, but he’s a big defender who seems to devote as much attention on establishing the demarcation line between ball and paint as he is on the guy who’s actually handling the ball.
The schemes usually call for Bogut to fall back into the lane against the pick-and-roll, but he’s not exclusively a drop guy. Bogut will get out on big men, especially those who can shoot, and coach Mark Jackson trusts Bogut with defensive audibles. If he sees an opportunity to disrupt without giving away too much behind him, by all means. Bogut is well aware that he’s the rim protector, but he’s deft at balancing out his responsibilities.
When the action is on the strong side -- and it frequently is because teams don’t want any part of trying to ram the ball inside against a 7-foot Australian underneath -- Bogut is deceptive. He likes to stay in the paint for virtually the entire three seconds allotted, but he’s just as likely to stick close to his man on the weakside baseline then dart into the path of the attacker to meet him vertically. Bogut's the thinking man’s gambler, a center who will account for risk on the weak side and the glass before committing. Yet despite the careful calculation, he rarely seems to be late on help.
The pick-and-roll coverage up top makes things easier for Curry in particular. By playing it “weak” -- influencing the ball handler to his weak hand -- the Warriors turn the task of guarding against the screen into something other than a test of physical strength. It’s no longer about fighting through the pick; it’s about anticipating the action before it happens. Curry may not have raw muscle, but he does have sharp instincts. So with a quick reaction, he can be in a position to reroute the ball handler irrespective of where and how the screen will be set. Credit Curry for catching on quickly and credit the staff for its creative thinking.
Curry has grown into a better defender than he was largely projected to be. He’s not easily tempted to leave his guy up top to lurch at the ball. When guarding a shooter, he’s a disciplined homebody. Bigger guards in the league still love to go at Curry -- posting up at the elbow, power dribbles with the intent of contact, etc. But he knows how Bogut likes to operate and can redirect his attacker, even if he can’t stop him.
Andre Iguodala's tight D helps cover up the mistakes from some of his teammates.
Thompson has improved in this capacity, too, though he’s still prone to distraction off the ball. Still, there’s measurable growth there, the kind of improvement that accompanies big guards who realize that their size can bother, especially if they move their feet.
There isn’t a defensive task Iguodala hasn't mastered as a perimeter stopper. We generally see defenders work when they’re matched up in isolation against the big dog. When eyes aren't on Iguodala and he’s chasing a guy around a couple of screens or playing for the angle, the list of offensive options evaporates with the clock.
Nobody denies like Iguodala, and scorers who have Iguodala’s attention can go possessions without seeing the ball. When Iguodala does relent, it’s only after the timing of the offense has been disrupted and the offense has stopped and can’t figure out its next move. The offensive players are no longer synced to the primary action -- thanks to Iguodala, nobody could get the damn ball to the guy who needed it. Iguodala’s size and reach also allow for a switch on any action (high ball screens, curls, pindowns), a luxury the Warriors exploit.
Any discussion of the Warriors’ defense inevitably leads to Lee, often to the point of ridicule. Whether Lee was tired of hoop junkies cutting his defensive lowlights to a laugh track or if this unit started to understand its collective strengths and weaknesses, his performance this season has been markedly better; there are far fewer cringe moments. For the first time since he arrived in Oakland, Lee’s individual defensive rating is lower than the team’s overall number.
While Lee’s deficiencies are very much present, so is the help from Bogut and Iguodala. As a result, it’s increasingly difficult to assemble a blooper reel with Lee as the foil. In this respect, Lee is the embodiment of the starters’ defensive approach: high-quality workarounds for problems that once seemed unsolvable.