By Satchel Price
The NBA is a league of innovation, and last year, the Golden State Warriors sparked that creativity by riding a fresh brand of basketball to unseen heights. The Warriors went smaller, built their offense around long-distance shooting and overwhelmed opponents en route to their first championship in decades. Nobody could figure out how to keep the Dubs in check. Now teams around the league are trying to emulate that strategy in various ways as hoops enters a new era.
The Warriors, meanwhile, are 24-1 this season and once again leaving the rest of the league scrambling to figure out how to keep up. Stephen Curry is playing at a level unlike anything we’ve ever seen. The offense is performing even better than it did during last season’s historic campaign. Steve Kerr’s coaching staff — currently led by interim coach Luke Walton — has, for the second time, figured out how to innovate and keep Golden State ahead of the curve.
How did the Warriors do it? By doubling down on all the things that made them so dangerous before and polishing an effective plan to an almost unthinkable degree.
While we can all marvel at the astonishing brilliance of Curry, what makes the Warriors’ offense so special is how it takes advantage of the way good shooters affect a defense. Golden State has become a masterclass at using multiple layers of movement to force opposing players into making hard decisions. If you try to double-team Curry, the offense will quickly set up to take advantage with a series of quick passes to find the open shooter. Every team knows this, but the Warriors have figured out how to regularly execute these plays to perfection.
The result is that Golden State is an efficient shooting team from top to bottom. Every single player who gets regular playing time on the roster has an above-average effective field goal percentage, which adjusts based on the value of free throws and three-pointers. The league average this season is 49.3 percent, per Basketball-Reference. The only two players shooting below that level are Jason Thompson and Marreese Speights, a pair of garbage-time forwards.
That is an astonishing feat and a testament to the incredible system that the Warriors have created. While it’s one thing to see the team put up amazing shooting numbers while led by the greatest shooter in the history of the sport, it’s another to see that the team remains an efficient unit even when he’s not playing. Golden State’s effective field goal percentage when Curry is on the floor sits at an insane 58.8 percent, per NBA.com. When he’s not on the court, it’s still an above-average 49.5 percent.
The Warriors unsurprisingly take a huge dip when Curry isn’t playing, but it’s not as stark as it was last season. Being able to keep pushing opponents even with the second unit is a big part of what makes Golden State so tough. There are so few opportunities to really punch back and make big runs because the Warriors have built a team that can shoot and score in pretty much every situation.
The team’s offensive brilliance is never more apparent than seeing the team’s dominance on catch-and-shoot opportunities. Generally speaking, there’s no easier jump shot for a player to hit than one when he’s able to set his feet and receive a pass before firing it up. The best players can create quality looks off the dribble, but it’s always easier to have your system create those looks via movement and passing.
Nobody sets up more catch-and-shoot looks than the Warriors, and nobody hits them with greater efficiency. Golden State leads the league in catch-and-shoot points (33.6) by a wide margin, per NBA.com. The Hawks, with 30.8 catch-and-shoot points per game, are the only other team above 30. That’s part system, part personnel. The Warriors are shooting a league-best 43.1 percent on those attempts, nearly two percent higher than the second-place Spurs.
That’s where the Warriors have always made their money. While many teams focus on driving to the basket to create penetration and force the defense to pinch, Golden State has the second-fewest points off drives in the league this season. The Warriors will happily avoid the bruises and destroy you from deep.
This is where the results almost become cyclical. Because the Warriors are such a dangerous shooting team, defenses have to constantly react to threats on the perimeter, which forces them to compromise elsewhere. Maybe that sets up Golden State for one of its patented double-pass plays with Draymond Green at the pivot to score an easy corner three. Maybe that means leaving Andrew Bogut open in the post, where he can grab an easy offensive rebound and/or get up an uncontested shot from the paint. It’s no coincidence that Golden State is one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the league given that three-pointers often lead to more second chances. And of course, there’s Steph and Klay Thompson, arguably the greatest shooting duo ever, waiting on the wings.
There are so many ways the Dubs can beat you, and you’ll think yourself into a spiral trying to figure out how to stop all of them. The Warriors take advantage of that chaos to create small bits of beauty.
And those brief instances of magic accumulate to form one of the best offenses in the sport’s history. Golden State leads the league in offensive rating (112.9), true shooting percentage (59.3), effective field goal percentage (56.3), assist rate (67.7 percent), field goal percentage (48.0), three-point percentage (42.5) and, of course, points per game (115.3). With most of those stats, the margin between the Warriors and the No. 2 team is massive, too.
This is what happens when you take a brilliant plan and make it even better. The Warriors were already a championship-quality team. Now they’re just shooting opponents into oblivion.
Satchel Price is a fan of the Blackhawks, Bulls, Cubs, and Bears. He’s a freelance writer based in Chicago, Ill., with a background covering sports, culture and technology. Satchel is also managing editor for Second City Hockey and his work has appeared on SB Nation, ESPN.com and Baseball Prospectus. You can follow him on Twitter at @satchelprice.