For the past three years, no team has been as dominant as the Golden State Warriors. The Warriors have dominated the league and put themselves in the conversation for having the best team over a three year stretch, as well as the single-season best team ever. With two championships and the best regular season record ever, no one except the Cleveland Cavaliers has been able to beat them in a playoff series. Now, with their core of players, including former MVPs Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant, in their primes, it seems like the Warriors should be continuing their stretch of dominance and separating even more from the field.
But that is not happening. The Warriors went into the All-Star Break a half-game behind the Houston Rockets, and they have been struggling lately, going only 6-4 in their last ten games, a good record but not for a team who hasn’t lost 15 games in three years. What is happening to the league’s “best” team? Is it just exhaustion as Steve Kerr recently mentioned or is it something else? And, will they be able to pull it together and win another championship?
Looking at the numbers, it is obvious that something is off for the defending champions. Especially on the defensive side of the ball, the Warriors just have not been the same: They are allowing more shot attempts and also allowing opponents to shoot a higher percentage. They have also had trouble defending from the three point line as it seems like the rest of the league is finally starting to catch up with the Warriors’s offensive output from three. This defensive drop-off can be attributed both to a lack of focus and effort but also to the aging of their bench. For the last three years, the Warriors have been able to sustain a bench which perfectly complimented their star-studded starting lineup, but this year, some of the key bench players are beginning to show weakness. Key player Andre Iguodala is now 34, and he has seen a drop in his play. Iguodala is turning the ball over at a much higher clip, four more turnovers per 100 possessions, and he hasn’t been as sharp defensively, as his defensive win shares have plummeted from 2.9 to 1.2. Some of the other bench pieces, like Zaza Pachulia and Nick Young, just haven’t had the contribution that the team needs from them. On offense, the team is turning the ball over more, leading to less shot attempts. Overall, the team’s problems aren’t just stemming from the bench though: Everyone on the team is struggling right now, and that frustration can be seen by the exceptionally high number of technical fouls the Warriors have had called on them this season. I think all of this shows that their struggles are more a product of their lack of effort and their boredom which is translating into them just coasting through the season, than their actual skill. They aren’t super-dialed in right now, and that is what is causing their slipping.
That is not to say the Warriors will be able to easily turn it around and win come playoff time. There are some reasons to be concerned. While I think that many of the Warriors’s problems will fix themselves in the postseason, there is one main reasons why the Warriors may not even make it back to the Finals, and this reason is completely out of the hands of the defending NBA Champions: They have real competition in both the East and the West. The standings could very well shake out in a way that forces the Warriors to face either the explosive OKC Thunder or the underrated Minnesota Timberwolves, and the outstanding Houston Rockets in subsequent playoff rounds. This is an especially tough road, considering that OKC has dominated the Warriors this season, and the Houston Rockets have been dominant overall. The Rockets currently are on pace to have the best offense in the history of the NBA, and their backcourt duo of Chris Paul and James Harden rival the talent and chemistry of Curry and Klay Thompson. Also, the Rockets are 28-1 when both Harden and Paul play: That is unreal, and it is no small sample size. Houston especially will give the Warriors trouble, and even if the Warriors overcome this all, they will face a much stronger opponent out of the East than last year or maybe even the year before when the Cavs actually won. The retooled Cavs are looking good so far and LeBron looks reenergized with a new, younger supporting cast. In addition, the young Boston Celtics can hold any team under 100 points on a given night with their second ranked defense and great coaching: They have already done so to both the Rockets and the Warriors, holding Golden State to only 88 points. Whichever path they take, it will not be a walk in the park for the Warriors.
When it comes down to it, I think the Warriors will be fine. They will pick it up on defense, and start buckling down, protecting the ball better on offense. Despite that, they will be tested. The Rockets, Timberwolves, and the Thunder could all push the Warriors seven games, and neither LeBron nor the Celtics will go down without a fight. The Warriors will win again because of their great talent and coaching, but I think this season has shown that their reign of dominance is much closer to the end than anyone previously expected, especially if the Rockets and Celtics can keep their teams together.