The Warriors aren't yet a good offense because they lurch from genius to madness. As Steve Kerr described in the practice after their Phoenix loss, “We’re making six to eight plays of insanity per game.”
The insanity, or “lunacy” as David Lee describes the particularly inexplicable Golden State turnovers, is widespread. According to NBA Miner, the Warriors are first in bad passes, first in just flat-out losing the ball, and first in offensive fouls. On the bright side, they’re only fourth in travels per game. Though juiced a bit by the team's fast pace, the numbers serve as a reflection of how all-encompassing the insanity has been. This is how a team that’s No. 1 in shooting efficiency ranks 17th on offense. The question is, “Why?” Why on earth are these turnovers happening on a team flush with unselfish players and savvy vets?
It’s easy to look to the superstar point guard with a turnover-prone track record. Back in the bad, old, Keith Smart days, Curry would be benched after flinging the occasional pass into the stands. High-turnover games meant Acie Law on the court, and Curry with a towel draped over his drooping head. Smart’s tough love strategy didn’t help Curry curb turnovers, but it did help the Warriors lose games and eventually, cost Smart his job. Benchings over turnovers beget turnover on the bench.
Turnovers are funny that way. The control-freak coach tries to put out the fire, only to fan the flames. Turnovers are a testament to the adage that coaches have all the power and none of the control. Yelling at players, punishing players, these attempts at discipline often get swallowed by the chaos of the court. You can’t stop turnovers; you can only hope to contain them.
As for Curry, the turnovers are currently indivisible from what makes him great. As with so many entertaining players, his greatest strength -- creativity -- is his greatest weakness. Curry’s offense is high risk, high reward, something akin to Brett Favre basketball. To get plays like Curry connecting with Harrison Barnes on a pass that zips between three Memphis defenders, you need to sacrifice some giveaways.
While it’s easy to blame the current league leader in turnovers for the team’s turnover problem, it’s not that simple. So far this season, the Warriors actually have turned the ball over at a 44 percent higher clip when Curry sits. Even in the loss against Phoenix, a game where Curry lost possession an absurd 10 times, the team somehow turned it over at a higher clip when he sat. This trend of the Warriors coughing up the ball more when Curry’s out extends to last season, and last year’s playoffs. The offense sputters and dies without his unifying presence, scoring 15.9 points fewer per 100 possessions without him last season and 14.6 fewer this season.
That the league leader in turnovers saves his team from committing turnovers is a counterintuitive phenomenon with a counterintuitive explanation: The Warriors can’t shoot. Yes, those Warriors, boasters of the famed "Splash Brothers," league leaders in true shooting percentage. It turns out that this isn’t a great shooting team so much as a team with two transcendent shooters. While Draymond Green and Barnes have opened the season hitting their 3s, we don't know yet if that trend will hold. Leandro Barbosa and Brandon Rush are the only Warriors outside of the Splash Brothers with career 3-point percentages above last season's average of 36 percent. Rush hasn’t looked the same since his brutal knee injury in 2012 and it’s Barbosa’s job as backup point guard to drive and pass to others. Unless players are willing to eventually shoot, the ball will be passed until it’s passed to the opposition.
The lack of shooting is a concern, but its attached problems should be mitigated some by Golden State's younger players developing more independent offensive games. Thompson looks more comfortable than ever driving to the hoop. Green is firing 3s with a newfound ease. Barnes is scoring efficiently after a disastrous sophomore campaign. As GM Bob Myers indicated, the eventual return of Lee also could settle the team down.
The turnover issue also should be mitigated by this team of excellent passers getting comfortable enough to pass better. Some possessions are beautiful displays of tic-tac-toe passing, while in others the ball gets shoveled back and forth as though it’s a live grenade. The challenge for this new offense is to leverage all that giving into something organized, intentional and deadly.
It’s a process, as coaches are fond of saying. That’s the overarching message from Golden State assistant coach Alvin Gentry, offensive assistant to last year’s No. 1 Clippers offense, and former head coach of a great offensive team in Phoenix. He’s worked with some high-turnover Suns teams that were better than superb offensively. That’s what’s tricky about turnovers. They’re a highly necessary evil up to a point. When I asked Gentry how he knew what that point was, he chuckled, “When you lose.”
Gentry echoed something Kerr has said about why the mistakes are happening: Warriors players are running plays without quite knowing the logic of what they’re doing. It’s early, after all. They’ve had roughly two months to put this together. Kerr described the experience as almost an intellectual pursuit: “We've got to dig deeper into why we're running certain things.”
If you drive a car, think of how you drive it now versus when a driving instructor barked directions on how to make a three-point turn. It’s hard to be fluid with your movements when the focus is on pantomiming words. So too is it hard to consciously manipulate a defense when you’re so focused on remembering the instructions on where you’re supposed to be.
While it’s easy to watch a disciplined offensive team like the Spurs and assume they’re robotic functionaries, thoughtlessly carrying out orders, it’s not this way. San Antonio’s players are masters of their team’s offense, well-educated in why they’re probing a defense in a specific manner. They are, to use Gentry’s analogy, “a bunch of Peyton Mannings out there.” Manning doesn’t simply run plays. He reads and reacts to the opposition based on a wealth of knowledge accumulated over a career.
The Warriors aren’t collectively near that Manning level yet, so for now they’ll rely on Curry’s intuitive Favre streak as a bridge to that envisioned future. Kerr is confident that Golden State’s high-IQ passers can make the journey to enlightened offense. "We've only scratched the surface into what we can do." The hope is that a wizened Warriors offense will be insane, as opposed to crippled by plays of insanity.