Crunching Numbers With NBA Math, Episode 3

Looking for the best NBA minds weighing in on the trials and tribulations of players throughout the Association? Want insights into the statistical side of the sport? Trying to identify sleepers and overrated players?

Just hoping to increase your basketball knowledge?

We’ve got you covered at Crunching Numbers—NBA Math’s weekly roundtable that will feature a handful of writers and/or analysts weighing in on five different topics. This is the third edition, focused solely on the exploits of the Golden State Warriors, and we have another quartet of special voices featured.

Follow them on Twitter with the links provided below, then see what they have to say:

Jacob Bourne

Bleacher Report

Matt Connolly

Forbes

Grant Hughes

Bleacher Report

Shane Young

BBALLBREAKDOWN

 

1. The Golden State Warriors are producing plenty of ridiculous statistics while pacing both the Western Conference and the entire NBA. What number stands out to you as the most telling of all? 

  The best indicator of the beautiful brand of basketball Golden State is playing is its assist percentage. The Warriors lead the league at 71.1 percent, 6.7 percent ahead of the second-place Boston Celtics, per NBA.com. That’s nearly the same amount that separates the C’s from thenNo. 14 Memphis Grizzlies.

If you’re looking for any microcosm of just how much better Golden State is than the rest of the NBA, this is it.

And it’s perfect because it encapsulates the exemplary execution of its core philosophy—passing up good shots for great shots via ball movement—and highlights the supreme fluidity of this historically great offense. No other team has eclipsed the 70-percent mark since the 2003-04 New Jersey Nets, per NBA.com. Coincidentally, that team was also fresh off two straight NBA Finals appearances.

No, the Warriors will not match nor beat their record-setting 73-win mark from last year. But make no mistake: This team is better than the 2015-16 iteration. And its improved assist percentage (up 3.1 percent) is just one of many stats that support that claim.

  This is a tough one. On offense, I’m probably equally impressed by the Warriors’ league-leading assist percentage (71.1) and assist-to-turnover ratio (2.08)—the former because it shows just unselfish the team has remained despite making room for 17 Kevin Durant shots per game, and the latter because taking care of the ball was something that has dogged Golden State long before Durant (3.2 career turnovers per game) came aboard.

Overall, though, I have to give the nod to the Dubs’ defensive efficiency—points allowed per 100 possessions. Right now, they’re second in the NBA at 101.4, sandwiched right between the San Antonio Spurs (101.2) and Utah Jazz (101.9).

Coming into the season, it seemed like the Dubs were losing a lot on defense with Andrew Bogut, Harrison Barnes and Festus Ezeli all departed. Instead, Durant (top 10 in blocks per game) and Stephen Curry (leader in loose balls recovered) have turned in their best defensive seasons to date, while Draymond Green has further strengthened his case for his first Defensive Player of the Year award.

Whatever they lack in rim protection has been more than made up for by their length, energy and defensive help.

  It’s tough to pick from among so many league-leading and potentially historic stats, but I think we need to acknowledge the NBA’s second-best defensive rating (101.4 through Feb. 12). Because while the absurd raw assist totals and across-the-board scoring dominance are impressive, those are things we expected from a team adding Kevin Durant to an offensive core that was already elite. Losing Andrew Bogut and, to a lesser extent, Festus Ezeli was supposed to compromise rim defense dramatically. Swapping out seven players from last year’s roster should have damaged the five-guys-on-a-string chemistry.Nope. And also nope.

Golden State has gotten solid positional defense from Zaza Pachulia, while Draymond Green and Kevin Durant have ably anchored their undersized units. As a result, the Warriors lead the NBA in block, steals and deflections while also ranking second in loose balls recovered per game.

We’ll always think of offense first with this team, but the sustained defensive dominance is the bigger story.

  Hmmm, it would be too easy to point out the Warriors’ 73.9 points generated by assists per game—a mark that will shatter the league record and is somehow 10.6 points more than the next highest team this season (Houston)—but I will choose something different. The number that appears freakish and unstoppable through 54 games is Golden State’s two-point field-goal percentage.

They’re shooting 56.3 percent from two, and not many folks are making a huge deal about it. Putting this into perspective, only four other teams in NBA history have managed to shoot over 54 percent from two during a season—two Showtime Laker units, the 2013-14 Miami Heat and the current Houston Rockets. The Warriors’ efficiency from inside the arc would be No. 1 all-time if it sticks.

It’s a bit ironic, wouldn’t you say? The Splash Trio (or whatever we’re calling them now) makes for the greatest three-point shooting team assembled…yet Kevin Durant is making everyone pay with his rim-attacking nature.

You don’t get this type of success from the field without constant cuts, motion and screening from every player—including your sharpshooting point guard. Watch Stephen Curry set off-ball screens for an entire game, and take your eyes off the ball. Try it. You’ll see why he’s important for more than just shooting.

 

2. A down season for Stephen Curry has seen him shoot 41..9 percent on his three-point attempts while taking 9.8 per game—numbers most players would dream of producing. Is he the greatest shooter of all time? Why or why not?

  Last season, this would have been an immediate yes. Today, I offer you maybe half a breath of hesitation before reaching the same conclusion.

In the rare moments I escaped the joyful haze of Curry’s unparalleled performance in 2015-16, I was sure to remind myself that his display was not repeatable. History and common sense told me there was nowhere for him to go this year but down. And that’s exactly what we’ve seen. Just last month, he was only named an honorable mention in Bleacher Report’s 10 Best Shooters rankings of the current season. And that was fair.

But in the nine games since then, he has averaged 28 points per contest, registered a 52/49/90 shooting line and put up games of 11, nine, eight and six three-point makes. The man is fine. To be fair, his pull-up three-point percentage is still down 6.5 percent from last year (42.8 to 36.3), per NBA.com. But in this current nine-game span, it’s been up at 48.7 percent, a number that easily leads the league among players shooting at least three triples per game, and a clip that Curry himself has never even come close to over a full season since NBA.com began tracking that stat in 2013-14.

Sure, he hasn’t looked quite as flawless launching the ball this year as he did last season. But he’s still rocketing up the makes chart at an unprecedented rate. When I even try to play devil’s advocate with this question, there’s no one I can realistically say is above him in the all-time ranks. A few do match his percentage from deep, but no one can even sniff Curry’s range, creativity and quick release.

Curry is clearly the best shooter of all time. And really, it’s not even close.

  For a guy who’s always looked more in his element firing off-the-dribble and/or contested threes, it’s not all that surprising to me that Curry is in the running to finish with the lowest three-point percentage of his career. With that said, there’s no debate that he has already established himself as the most prolific three-point marksman ever to play the game.

Of course, the question is whether or not Steph is the greatest shooter of all time overall.

In my opinion, that debate comes down to the Warriors star and two other multi-time MVPs—Steve Nash and Larry Bird. In league history, Curry and Steve Nash are the lone members of 45-50-90 club, while Nash and Bird have hit 40-50-90 four times and three times, respectively, if we’re rounding up.

Though Curry might not hit those thresholds every year, I’m confident he’ll be within striking range every season for the next decade or so, ultimately cementing his place ahead of both by rivaling the accuracy of Nash with the volume of Bird. If we’re going off just aesthetics, though, it’s already a wrap.

  I know this is running on an NBA site with the word “Math” right in the URL, but you really don’t need to do much calculating to make the case that Curry is clearly the greatest shooter there’s ever been. We watched him shatter the record for three-pointers made in a single season last year, and he set a new mark for makes in a game earlier this season. Quite obviously, volume is not an issue for him.

And considering he currently ranks second all time in three-point percentage, he’s not so bad from an efficiency standpoint either. It will take an act of God to prevent him from finishing as the most prolific long-distance shooter in league history, and catching Steve Kerr’s all-time efficiency mark (45.4 percent) isn’t at all out of the question.

I guess you could dig around and find superior mid-range shooters, or guys who convert those little flips and floaters more frequently. Though, to be fair, Curry’s career conversion rates from inside three feet and from the “long two” range are 64.4 and 45.9 percent, respectively.

When you factor in his ability to create so many of his own shots, along with his deadeye accuracy on the catch, I really don’t think there’s a viable case for anyone else.

  I don’t really know how there could be an argument at this juncture. From a statistical standpoint, this is what I always go back to: Aside from Curry, there are no players in history to shoot 44 percent or better from three-point range on more than three attempts per game. Curry is a 44 percent long-range shooter on a laughable 7.5 attempts per game. He’s more than doubled the volume that already sets a record and has still maintained the effectiveness.Ray Allen was a career 40 percent three-point shooter on 5.7 attempts—lower in both areas. Reggie Miller, while still one of the three clutchest shooters ever, was only a 39.5 percent distance shooter at 4.7 attempts. It’s not even an argument if numbers are what you live by.

From an aesthetic and situational point of view, I could understand why some would point towards Allen, Steve Nash, Mark Price or Klay Thompson. Allen had defenses petrified through his Milwaukee Bucks and Seattle SuperSonics days as the go-to guy—like Curry has experienced the last few years—and then transformed into one of the two deadliest spot-up shooters I’ve ever seen. The other being Thompson, Curry’s teammate.

Due to the level of difficulty Curry has to endure with his pull-up style of shooting, along with the stamina you have to possess in order to hit those shots in crunch-time, he’s undeniably the greatest shooter ever.

 

3. Are the Cleveland Cavaliers still the biggest threat to the Warriors, or has someone wrested that crown away from the defending champions?

  It’s been hard to give the Cleveland Cavaliers much credit since their Christmas win over Golden State. They’ve gone 14-10 over the last seven weeks with a 1.1 net rating, per NBA.com.

But the last two weeks have been far kinder to Cleveland. They’ve won seven of nine with a 9.2 net rating, riding incredible offense and mostly crappy defense. And they’ve done so while cutting LeBron James’ court time by two minutes per game (shoutout Tyronn Lue) compared to the previous nine contests, in which he had a span of three straight 44-plus minute games (all losses).

And this is happening without J.R. Smith, who is still nursing an injury. Props to Kyle Korver for finally getting comfortable in Cleveland.

That’s the long way of saying things actually aren’t so bad for the Cavs, who have mostly suffered murmurs of “what the hell is wrong in Cleveland” since 2017 rolled around. And amid those murmurs, they never even lost their footing as the East’s top seed, thanks to struggles in Toronto.

While the Warriors will have to get through Cleveland to pick up another Larry O’Brien Trophy, San Antonio gets the honorable mention in this conversation. The Spurs kicked all the gold out of Golden State on opening night and also beat Cleveland in their only meeting so far this year. March will give us a clearer answer to this question, as the Warriors and Spurs meet twice in a 19-day period.

Should the Spurs mince more Golden meat, the NBA world at large will have to stop taking a third consecutive Warriors Finals appearance for granted.

  The Cavs (37-16, No. 1 in East) have turned a corner since a 2-6 stretch in January that had LeBron James seeing red, but they’ve still looked vulnerable in their string of mostly wins leading up to the All-Star break. But even with their head-to-head loss to San Antonio in overtime last month, I still don’t have enough reason to put them behind the Spurs (41-13, No. 2 in West).Per usual, Gregg Popovich’s squad is running like a well-oiled machine, getting the most out of all every player up and down the roster (including a resurgent David Lee, who has to get a shout-out here, because Warriors). Kawhi Leonard’s offensive game is finally catching up to his all-league defense, keeping the Spurs afloat with Pau Gasol sidelined through the All-Star break.

But come playoff time, the Cavs still boast the single greatest matchup problem for the Warriors in LeBron. Until King James shows clear signs that he is exiting his prime, his ability to take over a game combined with a strong supporting cast—which he still has in Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love and friends—is still a scarier prospect than Leonard and the Spurs’ twin towers of Gasol and LaMarcus Aldridge.

  I think we can all agree that the Oklahoma City Thunder would have warranted a mention here if the Warriors hadn’t signed their best player. Remember, there was more than one 3-1 lead blown in last year’s playoffs. And if not for some unconscious Klay Thompson heroism (the vast majority of his heroism and day-to-day activity is conducted in a state most scientists would label “zoned out”) in Game 6 of that Western Conference Finals series, we’d be living in an alternate NBA universe.But it’s the Cavs, and only the Cavs. It just has to be.

LeBron James is still a singular force, and all of the same issues that arose in the 2016 Finals will still be there this time around—assuming Cleveland’s role players get healthy.

  Northeast Ohio is going to have a bounty out on me after this, but I’m truthfully going to say no. Although it will be the NBA Finals matchup, barring a terrible injury in or near the playoffs, it’s not exactly the best matchup in my eyes. For 80 percent of the Christmas Day game and 100 percent of the MLK Day rematch, Cleveland proved its defense has too many holes against a fully-loaded Warriors lineup, especially when they go with Durant at the 4 and Draymond Green at center.  Yes, J.R. Smith wasn’t available for either game and he’s a large part of their defense now, but it doesn’t close the gap as much as Tyronn Lue likely believes.

There’s always the “LeBron factor,” which simply states that a top-five all-time player could turn into Terminator and terrorize everything in sight. But it not only took Terminator LeBron to erase a 3-1 Finals lead last year…it also took a miraculous Game 5 from Kyrie Irving and his historic Game 7 shot over Curry. Oh, and that was with Harrison Barnes missing shot after shot when the Warriors found him open. He’s been replaced by the best offensive talent in the world, and Cleveland would have to hope for Golden State’s injury luck to turn bad.

It’s the Spurs who stand as the top threat right now. They are only marginally lower than Cleveland in offensive rating (110.0), but currently 18 ranks higher in defensive rating (101.2).  When the Cavaliers won the title last year, they were the 10th-ranked defense. Now, they’re 10 spots worse. I just don’t see how that’s stopping a juggernaut.

 

4. Adding Kevin Durant to last year’s core obviously changed a lot. Did the addition make the team better? More entertaining? Both? Neither?

  The team is certainly better. You could look at the Warriors’ record compared to last year (46-8 vs 49-5) and easily think otherwise.But their offensive rating is up nearly two points (112.5 to 114.3), their defense is effectively unchanged (100.9 vs 101.4), despite the loss of Andrew Bogut, and their net rating is up over a point (11.6 vs 12.9), per NBA.com.

The offense has really caught fire of late, putting up nearly 120 points per 100 possessions over the last nine games. That’s six points better than during the Warriors’ 24-0 start last season, with a higher assist percentage, lower turnover percentage and higher true shooting percentage.

The fear to begin the season was that the Dubs’ had depleted their supporting cast to land Durant. But that hasn’t been the case at all. Last year, when Curry sat, the Warriors struggled to a minus-3.7 net rating. This year, when he’s off the court, the Warriors still beat opponents by 2.9 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com. That’s largely because they have the luxury of leaving one MVP on the floor when the other sits. But that 6.6-point swing is also a testament to the contributions of newcomers like David West, JaVale McGee, Zaza Pachulia and Patrick McCaw.

The team is not, however, more entertaining. Curry’s usage is down 3.7 percent, per Basketball-Reference.com, because he’s sharing alpha duties with Durant. That means 3.7 percent less ridiculous wizardry, 3.7 percent less improvisation and an eye-test-confirmed 3.7 percent less excitement. But my god, does this team produce some beautiful basketball.

  Question No. 2 is a lot easier to answer, as the Durant-less Warriors of 2015-16 was hands-down the most exciting NBA team of the modern era. Curry seemed to be revolutionizing the game before our very eyes, smashing individual records while the Dubs chased a mark of team excellence long thought to be unbeatable.

With the addition of Durant, the narrative has shifted from: “How do the Warriors keep beating everyone?” to “of course they’re almost never going to lose.” Having four of the top 15 players in the league will do that.

As for if the team is actually better or not, I’m inclined to say yes, and not just because the offense has jived with Durant pouring in points at the most efficient clip of his career (25.9 points per game on 53.5 shooting from the field). I mostly say that due to how much better the bench—the primary concern when Durant was brought in—has looked after an initial feeling-out period. Ian Clark and JaVale McGee (yes, the same JaVale McGee of Shaqtin’ a Fool lore) have filled the void left by Ezeli and Leandro Barbosa, while rookies Patrick McCaw, Kevon Looney and Damian Jones have all flashed the tools to be viable contributors down the stretch.

  The Warriors were decidedly less entertaining until after Christmas, when they quit bending over backwards to integrate Durant. That early-season stretch moved Curry off the ball and put several players in positions that didn’t maximize their values. Equal-opportunity offense is almost always a good idea…but this was one of the rare exceptions.Since giving Curry the ball and initiating the offense out of basic pick-and-roll sets more often, the Warriors have been every bit as entertaining as they were last year on offense. If I had a criticism, it would be that they’re still underutilizing the Curry-Green pick-and-roll. Durant probably signed up for more than standing in the corner like Harrison Barnes, but I’m still convinced spacing the floor with him and Thompson around a PNR is an unstoppable set.

On defense, the Death Lineup is far more exciting than it was a year ago—if only recently as effective. Durant is so much more dynamic than Barnes was, and his added length and shot-blocking makes an already fearsome unit even more dangerous.

The Warriors are still a work in progress, which is a dumb thing to say about the best team in the league. But they’ve been at least as exciting and statistically more impressive already.

  It made them both more entertaining and better as an overall unit. Regardless of whether they’re going to finish with 12 or so losses this year versus the nine losses from 2015-16, it’s all about how teams are able to defend them in the playoffs. Fortunately for them, there’s only a couple that can do a decent enough job and minimize the defensive mistakes. Right now, it seems like those teams are the San Antonio Spurs, Utah Jazz and Memphis Grizzlies.

The higher level of entertainment comes from the various storylines Durant’s addition has presented us. Obviously, there’s the Oklahoma City drama that we’ve witnessed three times already. There’s the two famous Draymond-Durant timeout blowups, where Durant had to be lectured about the “Golden State way” of doing things. Then, we have the trash talk that will seem inevitable during the playoffs.

The league is actually better after this move.

 

5. Who’s the most indispensable piece on the Warriors roster, and why is it Zaza Pachulia?

  With all due respect to Draymond Green and his infinite tools, Klay Thompson and his 60-point, 11-dribble game and Kevin Durant and his outside shot at winning the MVP award this season, the answer is Stephen Curry. But I’ve praised him enough today, so this space is dedicated to JaVale McGee.Hear me out.

In his 9.3 minutes per game, McGee is averaging 6.1 points, 2.8 rebounds and 0.7 blocks on 67.5 percent shooting. That’s just about 24, 11, 3 and approximately 1,000 fouls per 36 minutes. You know who else is matching that in the entire NBA? Only Joel Embiid.

Not only that, his net rating with the four Warriors starters is plus-29.4 in 119 minutes so far this year, per NBA.com. Compare that to the plus-23 (508 minutes) the Warriors starters log with Zaza Pachulia in the lineup and you start to wonder who gets the job when the Georgian is healthy again.

For what its worth, that’s also higher than the net rating of the Megadeath Lineup (24.8 in 211 minutes).

He can Shaqt a fool all day if he keeps this up. #JaVale4President.

  In case you missed it, the deadliest weapon in Steve Kerr’s starting five wants to stick with the Warriors in the years to come. Consider yourself warned, rest of the NBA. Jokes aside, Zaza Pachulia was really looking good with the first unit before a shoulder injury took him out last month.

The real answer is a close call between Curry and Green, but I’m giving the edge to the Dubs’ defensive juggernaut. Though Golden State’s offense obviously takes a big step back without Steph’s wizardry, it’s still one of the league’s best with Durant and Thompson to pick up the slack. Take away Draymond in the middle, and the Dubs’ defensive cohesiveness crumbles, particularly against teams with an elite big. On offense, the team’s ball movement and playmaking also suffer greatly without the pick-and-roll maestro.

Green’s historic 10-steal triple-double against the Memphis Grizzlies—and Steve Kerr’s assessment of the “dominant” four-point performance—should tell you everything you need to know about what the do-everything forward means to this squad.

  You can still talk yourself into Green as the answer here, as the defensive versatility and offensive facilitation he provides can’t be replaced by any other single player on the roster—or in the league. But that’s an exercise in overthinking.Curry’s the one who elevates this team from very good to historically great. It was true last year, and it’s no different now.

The way he forces defenses to sell out and compromise their basic principles is unique. His off-the-dribble shooting breaks basic defensive schemes and opens everything up for the other four Warriors on the floor. Game-planning never used to require figuring out how to stop a guy from shooting 30-footers in semi-transition. Now it does, and the trickled-down chaos his threatening skill set creates has an impact on every other element of the game.

And when those deep bombs fall, you can sense the demoralization in the opponent. Like a “well what’s the point of trying if he’s going to do that?”

No other Warrior brings that to the table.

  This is going to sound nuts, because it doesn’t include the guy that’s second on my MVP ballot (Durant), but I would have to go with Curry or Thompson. For them to win a championship series against Cleveland, I think Thompson is the most important. If he’s clicking and giving the opponent nightmares in transition with his spot-ups from the wing and corner, there’s no way anyone can outscore them. If he’s having a hard time getting separation from defenders, then it puts more pressure on Golden State’s two alpha-dogs in Durant and Curry.

This is a hard question to answer, mainly because Curry’s gravity as a perimeter threat is why they’re the Warriors. It’s how they clear the lanes for all those fancy sets and cuts, and how they’re able to assist on nearly every basket some nights. Guys stick to him like he’s Elmer’s glue. Nevertheless, Thompson is their best defender against shot-creators such as Kyrie Irving, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and anyone Steve Kerr doesn’t feel comfortable leaving Curry on. He doesn’t care that it drains his energy, and he doesn’t care if a tough shot gets made over him.

Thompson saved their Finals berth last May in OKC, and there could be more moments that mirror it during this year’s run.

Jesus, that also leaves out the likely Defensive Player of the Year.  Yep, the hardest question to answer.

If the question is, “Who could they least afford to lose this year in free agency, Durant or Curry?”…I would say Curry.

 

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One thought on “Crunching Numbers With NBA Math, Episode 3”

  1. J.B. says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed this edifying read. Each answer was well presented and highly elaborate.

    I’m an editor for a rival GSW site; however, I concur that the Dubs are now superior to last season’s iteration. Obviously the Warriors’ slight record decline is a mere function of K.D.’s acclimation period.

    That stated, I feel GSW’s greatest potential adversary isn’t found in another team –though I’d pick the Spurs as fodder for closest– but rather in how they themselves embrace the post-season grind.

    Compared to 2016, GSW will enjoy an elevated leverage over thier nearest playoff competitor. Henceforth, the battle against their own inner-workings will be amplified. Although, this strife should be offset by a redemptive desire.

    After all, Cleveland’s defensive downturn is telling, as is LBJ’s taxing mpg. Meanwhile, San Antonio simply cannot keep pace with GSW.

    As for some of the other questions: I select Draymond Green (defensive/offensive-glue purposes) as “Mr. Indespensible.”

    I also feel as though GSW’s assist pct. represents the team’s most impressive statistical marker due to heavy roster turnover.

    Golden State is the ultimate example of the rich getting richer. Sure, we need “what if” narratives to explore each angle and create drama; but to a man GSW is waltzing to this year’s title.

    Again, excellent panel. I’ll be on the lookout for further discussions.

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