In Stephen Curry’s return to the lineup, the Golden State Warriors looked, well, generally pretty bad in falling to the better-than-you-think Detroit Pistons 111-102 on Saturday. The more concerning number, however, was the 35-26 finally tally — in the Pistons’ favor — in 3-point attempts. Now two months into the season, this is officially a legitimate concern.
At first glance, this would appear to be almost impossible to believe. The team that largely ushered in the 3-point revolution and rode it straight into a dynasty, the team that sports the two greatest 3-point shooters in NBA history and Kevin Durant, is getting severely out-gunned from deep. To those who watch the Warriors regularly, this merely confirms a frustrating reality: The Warriors are a mid-range team. Consequently, without a lot of high-flying athletes who can compensate for the lost 3-point excitement with a bunch of lob dunks and such, the Warriors can, at times, become a pretty boring team. Very Spurs-ish, only way better.
But it’s not just that they don’t seem to be as fun to watch anymore. In today’s game, an analytical deficit such as taking 110 fewer 3-pointers than your opponents is very difficult to overcome. Now, the Warriors do have the single-most deadly mid-range player in the league, and perhaps in NBA history, in Durant, who was shooting just under 53 percent from 15-to-19 feet entering Saturday.
The reason mid-range jumpers are considered “bad” shots is because they’re hard to make an efficient enough clip for the math to make sense. Durant is the extreme exception to that rule. He makes them enough to justify their consistent place in the offense. His presence, and comfort zones, have fundamentally changed the Warriors. That said, they had Durant in 2016-17, when they shot over 31 threes a game, the sixth-highest mark in the league, and that year they raised that number to almost 33 per game in the playoffs.
Last season the Warriors really started to dip relative to everyone else, shooting just 28.9 threes a game, which ranked 17th league-wide. This season they are up a tick, shooting 29.6 threes a game, but in terms of keeping pace with everyone else, they’re actually down further — 20th in the league, to be exact. But who cares about attempts, right? How many are they actually making? Put it this way: Two years ago, the Warriors ranked 4th league-wide in made 3-pointers per game. Last year they ranked 8th. This year they rank 12th. This is a clear trend, and it would appear to be going in the wrong direction.
The most obvious rebuttal to this would be that Stephen Curry, prior to Saturday, had missed 11 straight games. Stands to reason that when you’re without the best 3-point shooter ever, your 3-point numbers are going to dip. It’s true. With Curry in the lineup, the Warriors were making almost 13 threes a game and were 10-2. In the 11 games he missed, they made just 9.7 per game, which ranked 24th in the league over that stretch, and won just five of 11 games.
Curry’s absence highlighted a bigger problem: The Warriors actually don’t have a lot of good, high-volume 3-point shooters. Steve Kerr said it after the loss in Detroit. Golden State is “top heavy” as a 3-point shooting team. Curry and Thompson are all-time greats, Durant is good, but it falls off considerably after that. Without Curry on the floor, the Warriors have a very hard time creating the kind of spacing you need to get consistent, quality looks from three.
Quality is the key word there. The Warriors have a different definition of what constitutes a “good” shot than most of the league. Yes, they believe in analytics. But Kerr has a lot of old-fashioned bones in his body. If a shot is in rhythm, if it’s open, and certainly if it’s created by a combination ball and player movement, Kerr considers it a good shot no matter where it comes from on the floor. The Durant pull-up from 15 feet and in is borderline automatic. A lot of their screening actions spring shooters inside the arc. When they don’t, Kerr advocates the pump-fake, step-in long 2-pointer, which new-age data suggests is a terrible shot, because it’s in rhythm. Math is math. Basketball is basketball. The Warriors, to some degree, still keep these institutions separate.
That said, Kerr realizes there’s a potentially growing problem here, and that it’s starting to become an actual concern, or at least a point of frustration — even if the Warriors have won two straight championships largely playing this way, and even if Curry coming back will eventually alleviate much of, if not all of, these ills.
“I did not like our offense tonight, and I’ve got to do a better job,” Kerr told reporters after the loss in Detroit. “Every time I looked up we had three guys in the paint. I’ve got to do a better job than I’ve done here in the first couple months of the season. It’s got to get better. We’ve got to get better shots. We’ve got to get better spacing and more flow.”
The point about the clogged-up paint is a good one. The Milwaukee Bucks have revolutionized their entire offense around this one idea: Open up the paint by putting shooters all around the arc, pulling the big defenders outside the lane, which in turn creates an impossible situation where the defense has to decide between staying attached to shooters, which lets the driver go one-on-one to the rim, or helping down on the driver, which leaves 3-point shooters open for the kick-out. The Bucks exploit, this no-win situation with Giannis Antetokounmpo as the driver. The Warriors could do it a lot more than they do with Durant.
But Kerr doesn’t like one-on-one play. He wants everyone moving, everyone touching the ball. This surely frustrates a lot of Warriors fans, the same way Kerr’s lacking affinity for the seemingly unstoppable Durant-Curry pick-and-roll drives them nuts. For better or worse, it’s not his style to sacrifice all-inclusive principles for more stagnant, pared-down efficiency in the half court.
Plus, again, the Warriors don’t have all the shooters that the Bucks do. A lot of their lineups include Andre Iguodala (30 percent from three), Shaun Livingston (who has attempted one 3-pointer all year), Draymond Green (22 percent from three), Damian Jones and Kevon Looney (two traditional, non-shooting bigs), and even Jonas Jerekbo, who at times can feel like a straight-up sniper next to some of these guys but is actually only shooting a relatively low-volume 35.9 percent from three.
“We’ve got, obviously, some of the great 3-point shooters ever in our starting lineup, but we’ve got a lot of guys who are coming off the bench, or even who are in the lineup, who are not 3-point shooters, so I’ve got to do a better job of finding combinations that work, and find spacing that works,” Kerr said. “Because right now what we’re seeing is not working.”
This is the good news: Kerr is not Mark Jackson. He’s not going to die on his hill of basketball beliefs just to prove a point. He sees a problem, he owns it, and you can bet he’ll fix it. Twitter can be a terribly deceiving place to gauge any kind of real temperature on an issue, but I will say, even if it’s only a few people saying it, to hear any talk whatsoever that Kerr is not good for the Warriors, that his system is hurting them, is beyond foolish. Should you need a reminder, this is the guy that took a team that barely made the playoffs and got bounced in the first round to the championship the very next season, with basically the same exact roster.
Some people don’t like what the Warriors have become because they’re no longer the “Steph Curry bombing away from all corners of the earth” team that they fell in love with. From an entertainment standpoint, that’s fair. Rarely are the Warriors as exciting as they used to be every night. But here’s the thing: They’re better. What Kerr does works. And if it doesn’t, he has the humility and the wherewithal to recognize it and change it. The Warriors are not in the hands of a good coach. They are in the hands of a great coach. He will figure this out with the resources he has, and when Curry gets back into rhythm, this will all be a distant memory.