If you’re looking for reasons the Golden State Warriors can repeat as NBA champions, you can start by recognizing that their coming-out party last season — that 20-2 start with which they announced themselves as serious contenders with a next-level offense — was just a mirage.
That’s not the latest crack from a skeptic or snub by a survey, it’s the opinion of Andre Iguodala, the Warriors’ NBA Finals Most Valuable Player.
“We found a way to get it done, but starting off, [it] was really tough for us,” Iguodala said. “We were trying to find ourselves in the offense. We really struggled getting out of the gate.”
The Warriors scored 108 points per game, averaged 26 assists and shot 49 percent from the field and 39.6 percent on 3-pointers in November, which turned out to be pretty close to their season averages of 110 points, 27.4 assists, 47.8 percent shooting and 39.8 percent 3-point shooting.
But Iguodala said that didn’t reflect the difficulties the team had adapting to first-year head coach Steve Kerr’s system, which was an attempt to blend the triangle offense utilized by Phil Jackson, the San Antonio Spurs‘ spacing concepts and the tempo of Mike D’Antoni’s Phoenix Suns.
“We were trying to find it, what flow really meant, a certain amount of passes per possession and what percentage of passes per possession were key for us,” Iguodala said.
One misstep occurred when Kerr tried installing “center opposite,” a play culled from the triangle offense. They worked on it for 20 minutes, and it went so badly that after practice he decided to take it out of the Warriors’ playbook altogether.
The Warriors weren’t even that happy with the way they ran the plays that stayed in.
“Too many turnovers,” said Klay Thompson. “We were just going for the home-run play too much. Now we just know: make the simple pass.”
The offense peaked in January, when the Warriors scored 116 points a game off 29.3 assists and shot 48.5 percent. That could be closer to the norm than the exception this season.
Iguodala points to the Atlanta Hawks, who went from the NBA’s 18th-rated offense in Mike Budenholzer‘s first year to the sixth-rated offense and the top team in the Eastern Conference in Budenholzer’s second year. Strange as it sounds, the Warriors aren’t pinning their title-defense hopes on duplicating their own success, they’re trying to emulate the Hawks.
They’re also trying to succeed by reduction.
“Our theme has been more along the lines of, we want to call less plays,” said Luke Walton, Golden State’s interim head coach while Kerr recovers from back surgery.
“It’s a gift and a curse. Because you don’t want to wait until you’re behind the 8-ball to start playing right. You want to do that from the beginning and that can happen. There is a laziness to winning, or getting too comfortable or too complacent. That’s something we have to be careful of.”
“We want our guys to be able to read what defenses are doing, whether they’re going to trap Steph [Curry] or whether they’re going to try to deny our swing passes. If we’re in a set, get out of it, try to dribble-handoff back to somebody else. Just constantly keeping the ball moving and bodies moving.
“When we can start recognizing that and readying that, we feel like we’ll be that much better.”
With Kerr out for most of the preseason (and looking increasingly unlikely to be ready for the regular-season opener) and former “offensive coordinator” Alvin Gentry moving on to the head-coaching job with the New Orleans Pelicans, improvement will depend on the players’ self-sufficiency.
“We know what we need to do,” Iguodala said. “Whereas last year at this moment we didn’t.”
The other big difference? Last year the Warriors didn’t know how to win a championship. People — especially in the Golden State organization — have been so caught up in what Clippers coach Doc Rivers had to say about how the Warriors won their championship that they haven’t paid attention to what he thinks their championship means for them going forward.
“I think they’re a better team,” Rivers said, echoing a statement he made on Clippers media day. “First of all, when you win the title you’re better, no matter who you come back with, because you’ve been through it and you have that unshakeable confidence. Championship swagger is real. It’s not fake, it’s real. When you go through it, you know it. You know you can win. Everyone else hopes and thinks. [The Warriors] know they can win. And that confidence gives you something.”
“It’s a gift and a curse,” Iguodala cautioned. “Because you don’t want to wait until you’re behind the 8-ball to start playing right. You want to do that from the beginning and that can happen. There is a laziness to winning, or getting too comfortable or too complacent. That’s something we have to be careful of.”
But Harrison Barnes breaks into a big smile when asked what winning has done to the team’s confidence.
“It’s got it through the roof,” Barnes said. “To do it on that stage, you always kind of wonder. And you train to say, ‘Oh, if I can get to the NBA Finals,’ ‘Oh, if I get to those moments, this is what it’s going to be like.’ And then once you get there and you have success, you’re like, ‘Anything that you can do on the court is possible.’ It just gives you that much more confidence.”
After an up-and-down preseason in which the Warriors lost more than they won, in which they lost to the Lakers and were blown out by the Clippers, Golden State decided to take the final game seriously. The result looked like NBA Armageddon: They put 136 points on the Lakers on a night that seemingly every basket came off an assist or a screen. It was the fast-paced, efficient offense they had described.
It was an example of how, when they want to be, the Warriors could be even better this season.