Adapt or die - Golden State's offense needs a new wrinkle
After taking the league in a blitzkrieg, things have gone stale for the Warriors
A disruptive innovation is an innovation that creates a new market and value network and eventually disrupts an existing market and value network. Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and the Golden State Warriors have been the kernel from which the NBA’s love affair with the deep shot has popped. Twenty years ago, 17% of NBA shots were threes. Ten years ago, it was 22%. Five years ago, it climbed to 28%. Now the number is around 40%.
Here’s a chart showing total games where at least one team too more than half of their shots from three-point range. Steve Kerr took over as head coach for the Warriors on May 14, 2014. I’ll honor the caterpillar a bit, but let’s put some respect on the butterfly wings that have transformed the league in a way not seen in decades.
But the Warriors’ success has bred familiarity. The cutting edge offense has been dissected, copied, and improved upon. Every team out there is now at least as familiar with the Warriors’ design concepts as the team itself is.
In a move akin to Kodak intentionally deciding to avoid digital cameras, the Warriors have been intransigent in the face of an evolving league. The offense looks largely the same now, seven years after Kerr first unveiled to the world just how much he loves ball movement. And to be fair, it’s worked to great effect. For a long time.
No longer on the cutting edge, but employing the same principles, the Warriors lead the league in assists per game, they’re 10th in passes per game… and yet somehow, just 22nd in offensive efficiency.
It’s time to evolve.
The unintended consequence of changing the shape of the court
In Kirk Goldsbury’s excellent book, Sprawball: A Visual Tour of the New Era of the NBA, he hammers home the reality behind the quip that “threes are worth more than two.” But the full truth is that like Plato’s shadow on the cave wall, it’s really just a reflection that we are seeing. The real fulcrum that swings this particular current trend is more that the possibility of a made three is worth more than the possibility of a made two (from everywhere but the rim).
This image from that book is a little outdated, but it perfectly captures why the mid-range shot is going away.
Coach Steve Kerr grew up playing a different version of basketball. Hell, even though he helped invent it, it was the Houston Rockets that really leaned into swinging open the portal to the new world that Kerr and the Warriors first cracked.
No, I’m not saying the Warriors need to go full “threes and layups” nor should they spam the pick-and-roll. But what I am saying is that it’s very possible that Kerr has a strategic blind spot.
Perhaps you remember this classic play, where Curry dribbles through and around multiple Clippers defenders before launching a perfect three?
Well, here’s Kerr revisiting that moment.
"That was probably the last time I ever put my hands on my head when Steph took one of those shots," Kerr recalled. "That was probably [a few] months into my first season coaching, and it just took that long to realize, 'OK, these are actually good shots.' Because they were never good shots for anybody else who had ever played the game."
But what was unheard of before is now fairly common. It seems that every team has a guy one their team that makes unlikely shots at a dangerous clip. And the league as a whole continues to get more accurate from deep.
Is Kerr leaning on an outdated worldview by prioritizing ball movement and open shots? Has the Warriors offense become symbolic of what made him throw his hands up at that Curry shot? It would be ironic if Curry, the Warriors strongest weapon, was also blocking Kerr from seeing the structural flaws in the house they built together.
Teams are now accustomed to switching, and the Warriors are less likely to find meaningful openings just off their ball movement. While Kerr was busy emphasizing getting good looks, the rest of the league was learning how to best defend shots right where the Warriors were aiming their offense.
It’s not broken, but I’d argue that the Warriors offense needs a new wrinkle because the vanilla flavor isn’t working like it used to.
The wrinkle: pick-and-rolls
Curry covers up a lot of blemishes, and there’s a lot to be said for a non-ball dominant player like Thompson, who thrives in the Kerr system. But the end goal of the Warriors’ offense is no longer uniquely chasing threes.
To go back to the disruptive innovation idea from earlier, I’m arguing that the Warriors need to shake up their brand to stay relevant. It’s time to embrace the pick-and-roll.
Curry is one of the most lethal threats in the pick-and-roll; and also one of the least utilized.
As we’ve pointed out in this space before, rookie James Wiseman is painfully under-utilized in the pick-and-roll. While the goal isn’t to turn him into Javale McGee, no one’s development was ever slowed down by dunking on people a lot.
To understand Kerr’s reluctance is to understand his coaching philosophy. The rationale behind it is pinned firmly to the bedrock of Kerr’s system of coaching beliefs. This was after the Warriors won a championship with Durant, and Kerr was responding to a question about interim coach Mike Brown running a lot more pick-and-rolls (to great success) in the Finals.
“…But we have playmakers everywhere — Draymond Green, Shaun Livingston, Andre Iguodala. I want those guys making plays. I want them with the ball in their hands.
"I learned this with Phil Jackson and the triangle. When everyone is involved, touching the ball and cutting and screening, there's a magic that happens, there's something special where guys feel empowered, their defense gets better because they're involved. And so I think, what's important for me as a coach is to play the style we do."
A couple of retorts:
1) The Warriors no longer employ Livingston or Iguodala. Wiggins, Bazemore, and Oubre just aren’t seeing the passes.
2) Fallacy of false dichotomy. By framing this as “we aren’t going to spam pick-and—roll,” Kerr erroneously limits what options are available. All I’m asking for here is just throw it in more frequently.
Open yourself to some change. It doesn’t need to overwhelm the personality of the team, but introducing a new element seems to be just what the doctor ordered for an offense that has grown stagnant, even as it continues to run around. The classic elements of the Kerr offense don’t ever need to go away, but it feels like the scheme needs an update for the modern era.