Original Story | ESPN
May 16, 2016
By Sharon Katz and Ben Alamar
After setting the NBA record for regular-season wins, it’s no surprise that the Golden State Warriors have cruised through the playoffs (even without MVP Stephen Curry) and are back in the Western Conference finals. But how much do we really know about how the Warriors are winning, and are they susceptible to an upset against the resurgent Oklahoma City Thunder?
The Warriors’ success begins with one of the most prolific offenses in NBA history. In the regular season they set records for effective field goal percentage (56.3) and 3-pointers made (1,077), crushing the previous marks, while averaging the second-most points per 100 possessions (112.5) in the past 30 years.
The Warriors score through a combination of ball movement, player movement and the most lethal pick-and-roll offense in the league. We all know the Warriors can shoot, but as the NBA’s leader in assist rate, they also set each other up for some of the most efficient shots in the league. In fact, no player has created higher quality looks than Curry, who creates shots for his teammates with a 57.8 average quantified shot quality, which accounts for the location and movement of the shooter and defenders, as well as the type of shot average shooters could be expected to have directly after his passes. The Warriors’ combination of efficient shots (they rank third in quantified shot quality) and unprecedented shot-making ability (first in quantified shooter impact) makes their offense nearly impossible to stop.
Given their record-breaking offensive season, it’s easy to forget the Warriors are also allowing the fourth-fewest points per 100 possessions and second-lowest effective field goal percentage in the NBA. In the playoffs, their defense has only improved, thanks to forcing turnovers at a higher rate and limiting high-value transition opportunities. Defense is one area where the Warriors have a clear edge over the Thunder, who rank 13th in defensive efficiency and have struggled to defend the 3-point line.
If there is one hole in Golden State’s game, however, it is on the defensive glass. Opponents are rebounding nearly a quarter of their missed shots against the Dubs, which has led to the seventh-most second-chance points per game allowed (13.9) in the league. This is particularly worrisome given the Thunder’s proficiency on the offensive glass. Oklahoma City leads the NBA in offensive rebound rate (31 percent) and second-chance points per game (15.8) this season. In three games against the Warriors, the Thunder rebounded 29 percent of their misses.
The problem for Golden State is not necessarily positioning. Based on the NBA’s player tracking data, the Warriors have had average positioning on shot attempts, but they are among the worst in the league at grabbing the rebound when they are closest to the ball. Remove Draymond Green, the team’s leading rebounder, from the court, and no team has a lower rebound rate (71 percent) or rebound conversion rate (1.2 fewer rebounds than expected, given positioning) than the Warriors.
One of the biggest questions heading into the Western Conference finals is whether the Warriors can go small with their “death lineup.” This lineup is lethal on the offensive end (1.38 points per possession), but leaves Golden State susceptible on the defensive glass. With Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, Harrison Barnes and Green on the court, the Warriors are rebounding 69 percent of their opponents’ missed shots, including 63 percent in limited action against the Thunder. If the Warriors posted that rate overall, it would be the worst in the NBA.
In the Western Conference semifinals, Thunder coach Billy Donovan found success with a big lineup that included both Steven Adams and Enes Kanter. That duo spent a total of five minutes on the court together in their three regular-season meetings with the Warriors, but given their success on the glass against the Spurs (offensive rebound rate of 43 percent with both on the court), don’t be surprised if Donovan continues to experiment with a big lineup.
No matter how Donovan matches up with the Warriors, he will have to find a way to stop the most efficient pick-and-roll offense in the league. The Warriors are averaging a league-best 1.05 points per direct pick, including 1.10 with Curry as the ball handler. Against the Thunder, Curry’s most common defender on these plays was Russell Westbrook, whom he torched for 1.16 points per direct pick. Taking it a step further, in the fourth quarter and overtime against OKC, when the Warriors mounted three big comebacks, they averaged 1.6 points per direct pick with Curry running point.
Ultimately Golden State’s ability to win the series will come down to its shooting. Every team is reliant on efficient shooting for its offensive success, but the Warriors have been one of the three most dependent teams in the NBA. Similarly, the Thunder are one of the four most dependent teams on limiting their opponents’ shooting efficiency for their defensive success.
Most of the Warriors’ losses this season can be explained by their missing shots they normally make. The quality of their shots were not significantly different in their wins when compared to their losses, but their shot making ability (or qSM), which is how much shooting performance exceeds shot quality and shooter skill, is highly correlated with their offensive success. Although the Thunder can’t simply hope that the Warriors will go into a series-long slump, they have improved their defense in the playoffs and have the shot makers in Durant and Westbrook to rival the Warriors.
If the Warriors can make shots and control the defensive glass, they should be difficult to beat, but if the regular season is any indication of the type of series we can expect, the defending champs will be tested against the Thunder.