In January, the Warriors released a genius piece of marketing. Set to the bouncy rhythms of Pharrell Williams' "Happy," the stunt showed the Oracle experience at its most idyllically fun-loving. The dance-along video was funny, harmonious, and above all, happy.
The Warriors are just a cheerful bunch, you might conclude from their tweets and Instagrams. Steph Curry loses to Mark Jackson in a 3-point contest, to much good-natured laughter. Then Draymond Green beats the coach in another round of the contest, and teases him relentlessly. On Jackson’s April 1 birthday, the equipment manager surprises every player with a shirt that has Jackson’s cartoon face emblazoned upon it.
That’s the image the team likes to present. That’s the image Jackson likes to present when he boasts that there will never be a problem in his locker room.
Behind the scenes, it’s not so happy. Warriors owner Joe Lacob publicly put the heat on Jackson by broadcasting his as-yet unmet expectations. Assistant coach Brian Scalabrine was demoted to the D-League after a disagreement with Jackson. Shortly after, widely respected assistant coach Darren Erman was fired for reasons that remain undisclosed.
With the Erman axing, the Warriors gave the Bay a bizarre brain teaser by providing clues instead of an explanation. According to the organization, he’s gone for reasons unrelated to basketball, unrelated to Jackson, and firable at any level of the company. They’re also rooting for him to continue his basketball coaching career. Confused? So is Curry, who was kept in the dark about why one of his favorite coaches was canned. Curry also found out about the Scalabrine ousting after Scalabrine was absent at a practice -- not before. It’d be hard to blame a franchise player (on a team-friendly contract) for not being so happy in these turbulent, secretive times.
Let’s not sugarcoat it: The Warriors are a mess behind the scenes right now. After the recent purgings of Scalabrine and Erman, Golden State retains three of the original five assistant coaches it started the season with. When stacked against other teams and their crowded benches, the Warriors look like a ghost ship.
Here’s a rundown of what the remaining three are best known for on the coaching circuit. Pete Myers, a friend from Jackson’s playing days, has the most extensive NBA track record among Jackson’s remaining assistants. He’s 0-3 as a head coach and was forced off Chicago’s coaching staff by an arriving Tom Thibodeau. Lindsey Hunter (another Jackson friend) ran a "give the ball to Michael Beasley" offense in Phoenix, where he accrued a .293 head-coaching record. Now that Hunter is out, Phoenix is winning again. Jerry DeGregorio boasts an unimpressive .200 head-coaching record on the college circuit, but he did serve as best man at a Kardashian wedding. Even Scalabrine couldn’t offer a résumé fact so novel.
Maybe the remaining guys are wizards behind the scenes, but it’s difficult to have confidence in this staff at this juncture. Erman worked extensively at improving Golden State’s defensive standing, and it’s a tricky pose for Jackson to lavish praise on his former assistant while maintaining that it all doesn’t matter, and that his team will be fine.
Meanwhile, as the Warriors are falling apart behind the scenes, they just might be coming together on the court. With David Lee suffering nerve damage in his knee, the team has stumbled upon a potentially potent lineup of Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, Green and Andrew Bogut. The lineup, which Bogut calls their "killer lineup," had played a grand total of 35 minutes before Sunday’s victory over Utah. It’s a lineup that includes the top two defensive wings in basketball according to defensive real plus-minus, a top defensive center and a pair of elite 3-point threats -- one of whom is arguably the best shooter in NBA history.
It might be a happy accident that Golden State found this combination, but it’s no coincidence that they ignored it for so long. They were fighting the sunk-cost fallacy along the way, hoping against hope that they could stick with personnel they’d invested more resources in. Harrison Barnes is a lottery pick and Green is a second-rounder. So it makes sense that the Warriors tried to get Barnes going all season at the expense of Green’s minutes. Barnes' miserable March (6.0 points, 1.6 assists, .296 FG percentage, .184 on 3-pointers) finally forced Green ahead of him in the rotation. While the Warriors would prefer that Barnes succeed over Green, Barnes was loudly failing, losing them games in a tight playoff race.
With Lee, Golden State will contort themselves into funnel cakes to avoid admitting he's a role player with star minutes. The investment in his contract is too vast, his relationship with management too chummy.
Last season, the Warriors wildly exceeded 2013 playoff expectations after Lee got hurt. Rather than learn from the stretchy lineups (Bogut and Curry plus shooters) that won them playoff games, Warriors GM Bob Myers didn’t trade Lee, and Jackson soldiered on with Lee in his old role. Myers even stuck up for Lee in a January Grantland interview with Zach Lowe: "And to assume you can replace someone who is a part of that -- well, you don’t just replace someone like that. A lot of his detractors have been proven patently wrong, and they should admit they jumped the gun." The Warriors are 8-3 without Lee this season, with all three losses coming in games Bogut missed.
Of course, Lee provides some utility. He's especially potent when used as a screen-slipping center in certain bench units, and he's much better than his backup, Marreese Speights. The issue is that the Warriors won't face up to how a big who struggles defensively and now struggles with his shot (38 percent from midrange this season) has the wrong role on perhaps the wrong team. Lee has played the Clippers well, and could be quite helpful in that potential series. But he won't be helpful if the denialist Warriors play him to the detriment of lineups that defend and space the floor better.
Spacing the floor is key for any team, but it’s especially true of Golden State, the team with the point who shoots better off the dribble than anyone in league history. When Curry gets a high screen in a lineup with three other shooters, it creates situations in which the opposing center must rush out to the 3-point line while the paint is totally empty. This defense-breaking approach could have been Golden State's future, had they accepted it. Instead, they trundled along with Lee taking up space in the paint and on their books.
What's funny is that it could be Golden State’s future, after they willfully rejected it. Green isn’t a good 3-point shooter, but he’ll hit them if wide-open and thus demands a closeout. As added bonuses, Green sets crushing screens, moves the ball wisely and, as a defender, can switch onto almost any matchup. The "killer lineup" might not save Golden State from the ashes of #fullsquad, but it gives them a chance.
The Warriors publicly refuse to admit anything’s deeply wrong as their coaching staff gets shaken up like a Boggle board. Denial carries the day in the Bay, a land where fortunes can be made off abstract technologies that lack any kind of business plan. Times are great. Don’t worry. They’re happy. And, through a lineup that such denial caused them to avoid, the Warriors just might save their season.