- Ethan Sherwood Strauss, ESPN Staff Writer
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“What's our record, Jordan, with our full squad? What's our record? Full squad. When we have everybody? Does anybody know what our record is? When we've got Andre and Steph and everybody in the lineup? We're pretty darn good." -- David Lee, to WarriorsWorld’s Jordan Ramirez
With that, Mark Jackson’s “no excuse basketball team” gave way to a new slogan for the new year. “Full Squad” was a grand vision of what the Golden State Warriors would be with their vaunted starting lineup, and the phrase doubled as a bulwark against criticism. If you’re judging this team right now, just wait -- we’ll be truly great with our starters back.
On the day “Full Squad” was born, Golden State was a lukewarm 17-13, struggling to find their footing after losing Andre Iguodala to a hamstring strain. The phrase looked prophetic when the Warriors ripped off 10 straight wins with Iguodala in tow. “Hashtag Full Squad” became an Internet sensation and an invincible starting lineup. As with so many Bay Area startups, it seemed the good times would last forever.
But cold reality has set in. With all their starters back, the Warriors have dropped five of their last seven home games. Their supposedly flashy offense has plummeted to 16th in the league, right behind the 19-30 New York Knicks. The low point happened Tuesday at Oracle Arena, when the Charlotte Bobcats crushed a team once dubbed “The New Showtime” 91-75. As if getting killed at home by Charlotte wasn’t bad enough, owner Joe Lacob was in the announcing booth for much of the second quarter, forcing banter before the spectacle of a shockingly feeble offense.
How is the famed Splash Brothers offense collapsing around Stephen Curry’s best season?
The short answer: Nearly everything else is going wrong. The longer answer begins with the man who started “Full Squad” (Lee, not Ramirez), who happens to actually be having a fine season, on balance. Lee was rolling offensively until he crashed into Roy Hibbert on Jan. 20 and suffered a shoulder injury. Since then, Lee is shooting 44.9 percent and nabbing only 7.6 boards a game. He’s taken injections for the injury, but their palliative effects haven’t prevented a drop-off in quality of play.
The other injury-compromised starter is Iguodala, who’s averaging 7.8 points per game since coming back from that hamstring injury. He’s never been defined by scoring in his decade in the league, but 7.8 is illustrative of just how adrift the post-injury Iguodala has been. Somehow, he’s still able to haunt passing lanes and chase guys around screens on defense, but a lack of acceleration is killing his offense.
It might be because Lee and Iguodala have shrunk Klay Thompson's spacing, but Thompson is in the kind of malaise that Russian novels are written about. Over the past five games, he’s shooting a miserable 27.4 percent from the field. The attached problem is that the Warriors can’t shrug off a Thompson slump the way Memphis might if Mike Miller starts missing. Like John Starks in the 1994 NBA Finals, Klay will fire away as though encouraged by the last shank. He’s averaging 17 shots and 13.8 points in this nasty five-game run. Over the same span, Curry is averaging more than twice as many points on three more shots. Also, unlike Klay, Curry does other things on offense besides shoot, sans conscience. Lately the Splash Brothers' family dynamic reminds of Michael Bluth working overtime to compensate for Gob Bluth's loud setbacks.
Harrison Barnes’ struggles have been enumerated, but they’re felt no less acutely since last week. In Friday’s game against Utah, he missed three layups in a single possession. Video-replay reviews move the game along faster than Barnes’ ball-stopping post-ups, but his number keeps getting called.
Strangely, Barnes continues to see heavy minutes in the role of wing creator that he has yet to succeed at, even though another combo forward, Draymond Green, is outplaying him. This brings us to Jackson, the focus of much fan criticism. Jackson deserves credit for leading a franchise from the doldrums to national relevance in less than three seasons. If that seems like the kind of compliment that presages harsh assessment, that’s because it’s exactly that.
Despite the aforementioned injuries, a team this talented shouldn’t be this mediocre on offense. The Warriors appear to atrophy their strengths and accentuate their weaknesses. While their “Full Squad” starting lineup dominates, most other combinations betray a lack of sensible structure. Golden State tends to lean on isolation post-ups as though Jackson is their point guard and not the coach. Even when post-ups aren’t the goal, the offense often stalls out after the defense disrupts Curry or Thompson from getting open.
Jackson rarely uses the free-flowing “Andrew Bogut plus four shooters” strategy that sent Denver packing in last year's playoffs. There’s nothing resembling “Bogut plus four” in Golden State’s 10 most preferred lineups. A unit that included Marreese Speights, Kent Bazemore and Toney Douglas actually has seen more floor time than any Bogut small-ball combination, and Douglas has been off the team for three weeks.
Golden State’s small-ball aversion perhaps wouldn’t be an issue if they could space the floor with two bigs. Teams have adjusted to the fact that Bogut can’t shoot, and they’re increasingly content to sag off Lee (36.8 percent from midrange this season). Throw in how the Warriors arguably lack an above-average 3-point shooter outside the Splash Brothers duo, and it’s a wonder Curry can run a set without an oxygen mask.
Basically, conditions have to be perfect for the Warriors to get offense. To be reductive about it, they have to either play Lee at center (untenable if they wish to maintain a defense) or have the full complement of all their starters. So far, they’ve shown neither the structure nor the bench talent to deal with anything less than ideal circumstances.
That’s the unfortunate, tacit admission of the “Full Squad” slogan. It’s another way of saying, “Conditions must be perfect for us to win.”
The good news? The Warriors are fourth in defensive efficiency, and four of their banged-up starters can rest over the All-Star break. Also, it’s only February, and a 29-20 record is far from a sinkhole they can’t emerge from
The danger is relying on perfect conditions in a sport that’s sure to bring about complications. Full squad or not, a “no excuse” team should find a way to persevere through the trials and tribulations of a season. That’s what a title contender does, at least.