The Golden State Warriors clearly aren't one of the five worst teams in the Association, as they appeared to be when they started 1-6 without Stephen Jackson. They also aren't one of the five best, as they appeared to be when they ran off a 7-1 run as soon as Jackson returned.
A month and a half into the regular season, with us still reeling from their improbable playoff run last season, we are just starting to understand the true identity of this team from Oaktown. We already knew that they were one of the more intriguing teams in the league (see Money from the Parking Lot's Bill Powell's comment on my old column about the league's most compelling team). What we didn't know was how good they were once they lost the element of surprise and the rest of the league adjusted to their unique style. It is becoming clear.
This is a very good regular season team and a dangerous albeit beatable postseason team.
The Warriors play an enjoyable and productive offensive game. The nation knows their story now: They get up and down the floor with abandon and spread the ball very well as a team. Six players average in double figure scoring. Eight average at least 6.9 points, and all eight have made at least six starts on the season. Baron Davis has reemerged as one of the game's top distributors and can take over as a scorer whenever necessary. Cap'n Jax has breathed added life into this team with his more controlled than ever intensity on both ends of the floor and his 20.8 points per game. Monta Ellis, Matt Barnes, Al Harrington and Mickael Pietrus are all versatile athletes who fit the run-and-gun system well. The Warriors end up taking a lot of open perimeter shots and finishing plenty of uncontested lay-ups and dunks. The offense works, and it allows them to outrun any number of teams on a night-to-night basis over the NBA season.
Further, the team's effort defensively isn't bad. Jax, Baron and the rest of the crew fly around and look to get their hands on as many passes as possible, causing tips, deflections and turnovers wherever they can. If they can force teams to play at their frenetic pace -- which they often can -- they have the decided edge over most teams. They can beat any team on any given night, as demonstrated by recent resounding victories over Phoenix and San Antonio (although Tim Duncan did sit that game). The fans in Oakland are great, and beating this team at Oracle Arena is no easy task.
All that said, the weaknesses for this team are just as evident. While they can succeed for semi-extended stretches of time in the regular season based on the emotional energy generated by their style, it isn't built necessarily to last in the long-term. For all the deflections and turnovers they cause, the numbers don't lie about the Warriors: They remain 24th in defensive efficiency, allowing 109.9 points per game. They don't function particularly well in the halfcourt offense, as demonstrated especially by their troubles at the end of close games, most notably the two they split with the Lakers over the last two weeks. They rush and tend to make poor fundamental decisions in bogged down halfcourt games, which leads to just as much sloppiness on their end as they cause down at the other end for opponents. As such, the Warriors need to establish their tempo against teams, or they will be in trouble. If better organized teams such as San Antonio, Detroit and Boston can moderate the tempo and force the Warriors to play their game, the Dubs are in for a tough time.
Further, the Warriors will always have trouble against teams with athletic bigs. They can beat a team like Houston, not because they can slow Yao Ming down, but because they can speed him up and force him to play a game too fast for his liking. They had trouble with the Jazz last spring because Carlos Boozer and Memo Okur were just as happy to go up and down as the Warriors were. The Warriors have Harrington and Andris Biedrins providing something inside, but they don't have a dominant interior presence. Dwight Howard isn't going to be as perturbed as a player like Yao by the running, because he is a much better athlete who really doesn't mind having to sprint the floor and dominant a game predicated on speed rather than simply size (see his performance in the Magic's overtime victory over the Warriors earlier this season for details). Though the Warriors beat Phoenix earlier in the season, Amare Stoudemire should present that same sort of problem. So add athletic big men and slower-paced, more fundamentally sound teams to the list of possible kryptonites for the Warriors.
Against those types of teams, the playoffs will only be tougher for the Warriors. The prevailing belief about the NBA season is that each individual game is largely devoid of major significance. As such, getting up for any one particular game against a team like the Warriors -- a team that requires real work to beat -- doesn't necessarily seem worth it to many teams. Playing them once in the midst of several other opponents doesn't allow for the thorough planning that a playoff series does. For example, regardless of the fact that Tim Duncan didn't play in the first place in the Spurs' recent trip out to Oakland, San Antonio can live with one loss to the Warriors amidst an 18-6 start. In a playoff series, their coaching staff would be spending the whole of its energy on focusing on the Warriors' known weaknesses and slowing the pace of the game. The players will intrinsically be more willing to run when necessary because the games really mean something. The same holds true for the other prospective playoff opponents. The upper echelon teams (San Antonio and Phoenix) and the other particularly well-coached teams (Utah and the Lakers) also happen to be the ones with the roster makeups to take down the Warriors. And the likelihood is that, in a seven-game set, they would do just that.
That said, this isn't to write off the Warriors. They can outrun anyone on any given night, and the Dallas series last year proved what a lot of momentum, some great fans and a little bit of added confidence can do for a team. They are one of the top five to seven teams in the Western Conference. They should put a legitimate fear into any opponent they meet in the playoffs.
And they won't bore us for a second.