In picking the Warriors to win it all, I have stupidly opened myself up to the obvious criticisms. I’m enough of a pessimist to believe sudden optimism will be received as favoritism. When you’re the only person on the prediction board to opt for Golden State, a franchise that just so happens to play in your city, you’re the homer, case closed. You’re the idiot who thinks your mom really does make the best potato salad, your town really does have the best bar, your dog really is the best dog, and that Don Nelson really was a great coach.
The assumption is that proximity skews perspective favorably, that to like something local is to exaggerate its place in the universe. That’s at least the assumption I jump to when I see Scott Brooks claiming Russell Westbrook as the best point guard, based solely on Brooks watching his player up close.
There are advantages to watching something up close, though. You’re more inclined to notice things that aren’t on the “PTI” scroll just yet. The beginning of a trend is like an alarm: You’re more likely to hear it the closer you are to it. In Stephen Curry’s first NBA playoffs, announcers would refer to him as a “kid” in part because he hadn’t been exposed to the general sporting public since Davidson. In the national consciousness, he had simply disappeared for three years, like a sitcom character written off a show. His rise to stardom was appreciated locally long before it broke nationally.
This lag between trend and national acclaim brings me to Golden State’s defense, which should be an absolute monster this season. Yes, there’s some general appreciation for a defense that ranked first in the Western Conference last season. But did you know that the defense got even better? This offseason, the wing stinginess of Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala and Draymond Green was supplemented with Shaun Livingston, Brandon Rush and Justin Holiday. The average wingspan of the last five perimeter players mentioned exceeds center Chris Kaman’s 6-foot-11¾ measure. You’ll recognize the passing windows by where slivers of light poke through the thickets of arms.
Backup center Festus Ezeli will also join the mix after knee surgery sidelined him for a season. Ezeli, at 265 pounds and with a 7-5¾ wingspan, cuts a similar physical profile to DeAndre Jordan and Andre Drummond, albeit without their important ability to catch a basketball in traffic. Offense remains a learning process, but the third-year big man protects the rim viciously. His presence should make for less of a defensive drop-off when Andrew Bogut sits and (likely) misses games.
Injuries are the obvious caveat when it comes to the Warriors, as a few Golden State players are prone to them. It’s an undeniable flaw, but one finally mitigated by the team’s depth. It’s the kind of depth that doesn’t exactly grab headlines, because how often does bench defense grab headlines? You won’t find many fans gushing over, say, Holiday’s ability to stunt and recover while shielding off passing lanes. The sixth-man microwave scorer is much loved, but the bench stopper gets short shrift. Defense matters, though, and the Warriors boast a lot of lineup versatility because they have players who can guard. The team featuring the two top wing defenders, according to real plus-minus, and a Defensive Player of the Year candidate in Bogut has somehow added yet more stopping.
When picking a title team, I tend to be a bit reductive. I want a squad that at least finishes top 10 in defense and offense, as almost any title team does. Last season’s Warriors fell just short of meeting this criteria, ending the season as the No. 12 offensive team.
We almost certainly won’t see the Warriors underwhelm that much on offense this season. One reason is that Golden State is expected to ditch last season’s policy of hockey substitutions, wherein anemic bench units suddenly were subbed in for all five starters. The refusal to stagger minutes was bizarre, destructive and especially disastrous when combined with the offense’s tendency toward isolation plays. The Warriors figure to excise a lot of their pointless isolations and post-ups this season. A typical play from last season’s team was a creaky Jermaine O’Neal post-up that on-court teammates passively observed as though hypnotized. Now O’Neal is gone and so, too, is the policy of just chucking it to someone down low like it’s 1994.
Instead, the Warriors are using constant dribble handoffs, motion offense and the triangle to probe defenses. Thompson, who was an oft-deployed post-up battering ram last season, has responded well to the changes, notching a 29.48 PER in the preseason. Bogut and David Lee finally have substantial roles in the offense, passing out of sets to teammates in constant motion.
All of this figures to take pressure off Curry, whose offensive brilliance often had to be conjured in stagnant plays. It should be noted that we’re 800 words in before so much as mentioning the superstar’s role this season. That’s how deep and talented the current iteration of the Warriors is.
Will they win it all, though? Of course, taking the field is the smartest play in a brutal Western Conference. Among the teams available, though, the Warriors are a good bet. Their main flaw (injury risk) is held up as an excluding factor because Golden State hasn’t yet finished as an upper playoff seed. Many of the consensus picks to win it all have substantial flaws, though. The Clippers have an utter lack of wing defense and aren’t exactly devoid of injury risk. The Thunder already have an injured superstar, an Etch A Sketch offensive system, and a roster thinness that’s beginning to mirror the pinched pennies that pay for it. The Bulls also have injuries. The Cavaliers have no rim protection.
The Spurs? I really can’t blame you for picking them. It just so happens that choosing the defending champion feels like cleaning your home or doing your taxes. The Spurs should be great this season, but a third straight NBA Finals trip out of the West is a tall order for a team so reliant on a 32-year-old point guard, 37-year-old wing and 38-year-old center.
I’m opting for trying to pick the next trend over leaning on the last one. The Warriors look good this season. I believe their proximity to greatness is more relevant than my proximity to them.