The Golden State Warriors needed youth and an infusion of talent but in transforming their roster they have only papered over half of their cracks, writes Sky Sports NBA analyst Mark Deeks.
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The Golden State Warriors have been on one of the all-time best runs the NBA has ever seen. They have made five consecutive NBA finals appearances, winning three titles in that span, an absolutely remarkable run of form for a team that had only won seven playoff series in the previous 40 years, not advancing beyond the Conference Semi-Finals since 1976.
For what in NBA terms has been an eternity, the road to the NBA title has gone through them.
Kawhi Leonard and Stephen Curry embrace after the Raptors seal NBA Finals victory over the Warriors
Like almost all dynasties, their run has been back-boned by a relatively low level of roster turnover. In an era where players change teams more frequently than ever before due to the shorter contracts on offer and the repercussions of a recent salary cap spike that are still being felt, the Warriors have been able to run back the same core team across that entire run.
In the 2015 NBA finals, Golden State’s top seven minute-recipients were Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, Draymond Green, Harrison Barnes, Shaun Livingston and Andrew Bogut. And even though Bogut left and came back, six of those seven were also on their team for the 2019 Finals, too – the only change was changing out Barnes for Kevin Durant, a swap that anybody in their right mind would make.
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Everything ends eventually, though, and this summer, the continuity came to an end. Dovetailing free agencies and the resultant need to reload culminated in 10 of the 17 players on their roster at the end of last season leaving the team, a number which would have been higher if three more of them (Thompson, Kevon Looney and Damion Lee) had not re-signed. Included in that number were five of their top nine minute-getters in last year’s NBA Finals, including some hugely important ones.
Durant, of course, went to the Brooklyn Nets, who will pay him to rehabilitate his torn Achilles for the upcoming season with a view to pairing him with Kyrie Irving and competing in the Eastern Conference in the near future.
Livingston was waived for important salary savings and subsequently retired. Quinn Cook left to join the Los Angeles Lakers, as did DeMarcus Cousins, both following in the footsteps of JaVale McGee the previous summer.
Andre Iguodala in action during Golden State's win over Portland in Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals
And in the only non-free agency departure among the nine, Iguodala was salary-dumped onto the Memphis Grizzlies, along with a first-round pick, in exchange for nothing in return. It was a clean dump of a stalwart of the team, a role player so effective in his unselfish style of play that he won the Finals MVP award, an unprecedented accomplishment for a non-scoring wing.
The dump was done for a reason. Once it was known that Durant was going to leave, the Warriors knew they needed some fresh legs. Indeed, they needed them even before then; running out of weapons is precisely why they were unable to overcome the stifling defense of the Toronto Raptors back in June. But even with Durant’s departure and the salary cap flexibility it opened up, the Warriors still were not able to acquire quality players with Iguodala still on the books.
The sacrifice, then, was of continuity in favour of a reload.
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In our look at Denver, we explored how by returning almost exactly the same team from last year, the Nuggets were bucking the trend in this era of enhanced player movement. Having won 58 games last season, they were close enough to justify giving this team at least a second chance; more importantly, they were young enough to do so.
By contrast, having finished 2018-19 with the second oldest-average team in the league, the Warriors needed youth and an infusion of talent.
Youth has been brought in in the forms of draftees Jordan Poole, Eric Paschall and Alen Smailagic, along with sophomore big man Omari Spellman, acquired from the Atlanta Hawks in exchange for Damian Jones. None of those players however figure to be needle-movers anytime soon, or maybe ever.
Russell pictured during a Warriors preseason game
The one significant talent acquired over the summer to offset all that which departed was guard D’Angelo Russell, acquired in a hastily-convened sign-and-trade from the same Nets team that Durant left to join.
In their previous iteration, the Warriors lacked guards other than Curry who could break down a defense and run the pick-and-roll. Cook was a shooter and scorer, and Livingston was an incredibly unique player who mostly defended, as did Iguodala.
Part of the reason that Golden State could not overcome a relentless Raptors defense was because the Raptors had more defenders who could successfully run traps than the Warriors had ball-handlers who could break them.
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The addition of Russell, a dynamic playmaker in his own right, alleviates that concern and adds an electric game-changing shooter at both guard positions. Likely to be both the starting shooting guard and the backup point, the presence of Russell both alongside and behind Curry means the Warriors will never have to go without having a star playmaker in their backcourt, which should assuage some of the bench-heavy offensive droughts of the past two years.
Russell immediately helps to offset the loss of Kevin Durant on the offensive end. He was, after all, an All-Star himself last season. The Warriors, however, look as though they are going to feel quite a lot more pain on the defensive end than they have done ever during this run.
Across the last five regular seasons, Golden State have finished first, fifth, second, 11th and 13th respectively in defensive rating. But those numbers came with the trio of Livingston, Iguodala and Bogut (particularly in his first stint when he was still near-enough in his prime as a player).
Highlights of the Golden State Warriors’ second preseason visit to the Los Angeles Lakers
Other key defenders in that time included McGee, David West, Festus Ezeli and Zaza Pachulia. All of them are now gone, too, all but one of them retired, and also gone is much of the depth up front that the team offered over the last couple of years.
Jones, limited though he was, offered a shot-blocking presence. So did Jordan Bell. Cousins, injured though he was, gobbled up rebounds at a phenomenal rate. In their place has arrived Willie Cauley-Stein from Sacramento, a player once drafted sixth overall on the basis of his excellent defensive potential but who has not developed that way, instead seeking to become an offensive player, not being a net overall positive defender and being a famously poor rebounder. Smailagic and Spellman are stretch bigs, and Paschall, while more physical, is sorely undersized.
Notwithstanding the fact that Kevon Looney has been out through injury, the Warriors have been badly exposed on the interior defense and the defensive rebounding glass this preseason.
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Every single player acquired this summer has their reasons for being brought in and have either good potential, good value or both, but the balance and depth of the frontcourt is being very much called into question early, and there are no Cousins-shaped reinforcements on the way this year.
The Warriors also do not have many good perimeter defensive players any longer. Just as important as the departures of Iguodala et al has been the injury to Klay Thompson, which will keep him out of the upcoming season at least until the All-Star break.
Stephen Curry watches one of his six three-pointers connect against the Timberwolves
The two guard line-ups of Russell and Curry, offensively potent though they will be, do not offer much defensively – Curry is the superior defender, but it seems inevitable he will need to conserve himself on that end hereafter to sustain his career – and other offseason wing acquisitions Glenn Robinson III and Alec Burks also do not shine in this area.
In terms of the Warriors’ rotation when healthy, the only plus defenders are Green, Thompson, Looney and, up to a point, Curry and Alfonzo McKinnie. At this point, barring some quick internal growth, it will be hard to run out a line-up of five average-to-good defenders.
Highlights of the Golden State Warriors’ first preseason visit to the Los Angeles Lakers
To be able to have captured an All-Star in Russell without cap space, and a quality talent in Cauley-Stein for only the minimum salary, are two excellent bits of business that should help to keep the Warriors afloat in the battle for the higher Western Conference seedings.
But barring some incredible leaps by players such as Looney, Cauley-Stein or second-year swingman Jacob Evans, Golden State simply does not have good defensive personnel anymore.
The Warriors as we have come to know them are no more. The dynasty reached its natural end. The core duo of Curry and Green remains, and Klay will be back; through a couple of key acquisitions, they have been able to paper over the cracks on one end of the court.
But as they are currently constructed, the other will be their undoing.
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