NBA Regular Season 2012-2013, Game 30:
Golden State Warriors (18-10) at Utah Jazz (15-14)
"[Thompson] is either smoking it, or a drug dealer . . . an automatic red flag for any team investing millions on a draftee." Never Forget. (This link presented for the sake of laughing at ourselves, not as a serious commentary)
Jazz Jam Session:
Today we're jamming with Nate P. from Golden State Of Mind. And he asked me a few questions which was up on their site earlier today (if you missed 'em you can catch them here.) We've tuned up our instruments and are ready to get down. Enjoy the show.
Amar: Many Jazz fans don't like Mark Jackson. There's some history there as his single season as a member of the Jazz (and the ensuing attempted coup d'etat) is seen as a primary factor for John Stockton's retirement at the end of the season. He didn't gain much support in our circles for an apparent tank job last season either. That said, no matter what the motives were (or the methods), the results speak for themselves. Jackson is a young coach seen on the rise. Your Warriors are now 5th best in the Western Conference, and sporing winning percentages at home *and* on the road both upwards of 60%. Moreover, the Warriors (long since the Run TMC days) were seen as a non-defending club. Today Golden State IS a strong defensive club (above average by most metrics that count). Jazz fans are left wondering how your team absolutely leap frogged us in the span of one off-season. HOW?
Nate: There were a good number of Warriors fans who were skeptical about Jackson, not as much for his playing days as their feelings about him as a commentator. Even now, there are still fans who doubt whether he is the man to take this team to the next level. But I think the defensive turnaround you point out is not only a statement about him as a head coach but the entire situation the Warriors have built around him, especially given how often this team goes small.
I do think that the most important thing is that he believes in his players and his players have faith in him as a result, whether every fan believes that is a valuable trait as a coach or not. If nothing else, the players respect him for his experience as a player and that helps him relate to what they're going through which is invaluable in terms of getting players to play hard, obviously a key ingredient of playing good defense. Second, most people knew that hiring Mike Malone as his assistant was a good move when it happened and I think having an assistant who is good at the X's and O's helps a whole lot.
That's a long way of saying that the key to this defensive turnaround is getting players to play as a unit on the defensive end for the first time since 19-forever (certainly the best I can remember in my 20+ years of being a fan). There were some signs of that at the beginning of last season, but with limited training camp there just wasn't really time to stop the inertia of a poor defensive culture in the organization. The difference this season is certainly not that they've got a bunch of defensive stoppers on the roster - it just looks like the entire team is helping and rotating better, which means people are rarely left alone to get burned on an island. That especially helps players like David Lee, who has been frequently criticized for lacking defensive ability, but it also makes it easier on everyone to communicate and be in the right spot to prevent opponents from scoring 5 on 5. Stephen Curry has developed into at least an average - and possibly an above average - defender at his position for not only what he does on his man but his awareness in making plays in help. Klay Thompson was always a better defender than anyone gave him credit for - nobody plays for Ken Bone as much as he did without having some defensive awareness.
Of course, Festus Ezeli and Draymond Green have already proven to be solid defenders - Ezeli's fouls notwithstanding - and Jarrett Jack is about as solid a defensive at backup point guard as the team has ever had. Harrison Barnes is long and athletic and has potential defensively. So new additions have helped. But what we've witnessed here is not as much about personnel as it is a culture change.
Amar: Even though the defense is super effective, I'm still more interested in your scoring. The Warriors have three guys who, on any given night, score more points than our primary option (Stephen Curry 20.2 ppg, David Lee 20.0 ppg, Klay Thompson 15.9 ppg vs. Al Jefferson at 16.3 ppg). This is a star driven league and it's the teams with the impressive talents that win games in the playoffs over the replacement level talent teams that band together. In a way that's what happened back in 2006 when the Jazz (lead by Deron Williams, Carlos Boozer, and Mehmet Okur) defeated a very scrappy and cohesive Dubs squad where everyone was good, but very few were great. I think that these Warriors can be a great team because their offense is star powered. Yes, you have 7 guys scoring 7 ppg or more, but I still contest it's your high level guys who can really take control of a game. Do you think your team has a few "take control" players, like I do?
Nate: Curry had a stretch over that 7-game road trip that should have been enough to convince just about anyone that he is not only worthy of his new contract but also a "take control" type of guy - anybody who can shoot like that consistently on the road is a valuable asset. But this is not just a star-driven league but a *super*star driven league - even the Detroit Pistons that beat the Lakers in the Finals had a defensive superstar who could take over games on that end. A lot of that is personality and what remains unclear is whether the Warriors have a guy with the type of "killer instinct" personality to will a team to victory that every NBA titlist has. When Curry adopts that swagger, the Warriors are extremely good; when Curry has an off-shooting night and is struggling a bit, the Warriors seem to lack some of that moxie as a team.
The strength of this team right now is that the pieces obviously fit together, they're unselfish, and play well as a unit on both ends. But they've lost a few games they could've won simply because nobody stepped up to take over when they needed it. So while they have a few guys who can go off for big games, I'm not sure they have many of those elite talents that consistently take control of games though Curry is definitely closest.
Amar: It may be surprising to know, but Al Jefferson and Andris Biedrins are friends and off-season work out buddies. I'm sure you guys know that, but I'm repeating it here for the rest of the world to know. Biedrins, despite having his limitations on offense (particularly at the free throw line), was always a defensive presence against the Jazz. He took care of business on the glass and made our best post players miss shots. That's huge to me, and it's confusing as to why the 8 year veteran has played only 188 minutes this season (9.0 mpg). His offense is just awful, but he's a better player than he's showing. Does Festus Ezeli just eat his lunch in practice or is something else happening?
Nate: The easiest answer is that Ezeli takes up a ton of space defensively and is really a good post defender for a rookie selected 30th. He has great instincts as a help defender, but just tends to get into foul trouble far too often. The SI article that highlighted Biedrins working out with Jefferson also went to great lengths to illustrate Biedrins' struggles with confidence and I think that's typically what has frustrated Warriors fans over the years - I agree he has the ability to be a starter-caliber defensive presence in this league and as you note we've all seen it. But right now, Ezeli is the player who does a better job of setting the tone defensively.
Amar: Andrew Bogut is going to make your team better. There is no doubt in my mind. He's one of the few real defensive anchors in the league. When do you think he'll come back, and how long did you think it will take for him to get into the groove with the rest of the team? What are reasonable expectations for him this season, in terms of minutes per game and other vital stats. (You know, not that I play fantasy basketball or anything...)
Nate: For my own sanity, I've just stopped worrying about when Bogut will come back because doing so is a fool's errand given everything that has happened so far. And really, the fact that the Warriors are playing as well without him as most people thought they'd play with him makes it easier to just consider anything the team gets from him as a bonus rather than a necessity.
Honestly, I was surprised when he came back opening night - I had convinced myself the Warriors would have him back in early- to mid-December. Given that I was resigned to the fact that he'd be missing games the fact that we saw him play a few games in limited minutes and then go back to being out is not all that bad at this point. So my hope is that he's back by March - seriously - so he has enough time to play his way back into shape and be available to the team in the playoffs. Assuming that when he comes back it's with no cap on his minutes, I'd be happy with numbers equivalent to his 2010-11 season - a double-double plus all of that unquantifiable defensive impact that you mentioned. With no hope for a lottery pick, the days of worrying about getting caught on the treadmill of mediocrity due to a low playoff seed are over - this team might as well take the next step now and get a taste of the playoffs so they know what it takes to move forward. Having Bogut healthy will be key to helping them compete once in the playoffs.
Amar: Harrison Barnes, aside from being my favorite new actor on TV (his eyes during that commercial! So Expressive!) looks to have a bright future. Out of all of your youth (excluding Curry who is super duper old at age 24), who is going to project to be the best NBA player? From what I've seen Barnes looks like a better two way player than Thompson at this stage. But Thompson is totally killing it on offense right now. You see the team more, what's your take?
Nate: I think Barnes has to be the favorite - his athleticism and basketball IQ make him a player with tremendous upside. What has already impressed me about him is how much he's improved from UNC to summer league to preseason to now; he obviously wants to be great and works hard to get there, which is a combination not every basketball player has. A lot of people projected his upside to be something along the lines of Rudy Gay or Luol Deng and that's All-Star caliber. But all three of this year's rookies - Barnes, Ezeli, and Draymond Green - have stepped right in and produced, which has been vital to this year's success regardless of who they become.
Thanks a lot Nate, those were some great answers! Jazz fans be sure to visit Golden State Of Mind and say hello to the nice people out there!