Warriors at Lakers - Let's run the Western Conference gauntlet!

Ready or not, it's time for Golden State to face their toughest competition in a playoff race that's already started

The Golden State Warriors have three games left before the start of the All-Star break. In those three remaining games, they’ll be playing the Los Angeles Lakers (tonight), then two days off, then back-to-back games against the Portland Trail Blazers and Phoenix Suns. The Lakers are currently in third in a top-heavy Western Conference; and the Blazers and Suns hold the sixth and fourth seed, respectively.

This is all part of a brutal six-game stretch where Golden State will play the top five teams in the Western Conference (and the only reason it’s not six for six is because they play the Lakers twice).

Whew.

One game at a time though. The Warriors come in with days off on both ends of tonight’s game against a Lakers team that has struggled a bit without Anthony Davis, but still has more than enough firepower to be a concern. Let’s go!


GAME DETAILS

WHO: Golden State Warriors (19-15) at Los Angeles Lakers (23-11)

WHEN: Sunday February 28, 2021 // 5:00pm PDT

WATCH: ESPN; NBCSBA


With the defense dialed, Warriors can turn attention to offense, bench

Golden State is figuring the defensive end of the court out. With the fourth-best defensive efficiency in the league, it’s a swarming group that makes it hard for opponents to shoot, and forces turnovers frequently (4th and 6th ranked in the NBA, respectively). As James Wiseman and the rest of the newcomers continue to improve and refine their understanding of the team’s defensive principles, the defense will only get more stout.

So that’s pretty much taken care of. It’s like, half the game!

But turning to the Warriors offense, it doesn’t take a ton of digging to find areas in need of improvement.

Since they’ve stumbled on the starting lineup with Kevon Looney instead of James Wiseman, the Warriors have found their elite lineup. With a net rating of +26.2 in 122 minutes, the current starters have the best net impact out of the entire league for high-minutes lineups:

First, let’s all start from the same understanding: the Warriors offense is structured with guys that aren’t consistently able to create offense for themselves. It’s part of the unsteady equilibrium that I’ve written about recently, and it’s a salient feature to understanding how the Warriors’ offense works.

One statistic that Anthony Slater brought up after the Warriors 130-121 win over the Charlotte Hornets is that the Warriors are now 7-0 this season when Draymond Green scores eight points or more. Which bring up a couple of interesting points, such as “wow, he’s only done it seven times in 29 games.”

It’s fine, because there’s reams of evidence supporting Green’s overall positive impacts, and he’s a big reason (8.7 assists per game) that the Warriors lead league in assists.

So if the Warriors lead the league in assists, have the best net impact for a starting group, why is their offense bogged all the way down at 18th?

The problem is the bench, or more generally, what happens without Curry and Green on the court.

For example, Andrew Wiggins, who was moved to the role of bench lead after Kelly Oubre’s early struggles, is shooting just 40% from the field (66 of 163) without Curry or Green next to him, around 29% from deep (on 15 of 52 shooting). Brad Wanamaker, the point guard on these bench lineups, is having an abysmal offensive season, though coach Steve Kerr continues to reiterate his belief in the first-year Warrior.

So what’s the answer to these woeful bench minutes? They were minus 12 to start the second quarter against the Hornets, and minus five to start the fourth. The heaviest culprits were Brad Wanamaker (-14 in 12 minutes) and Eric Paschall (-10 in 15 minutes).

With all the appropriate caveats about small sample sizes, and the weirdness that can happen when you pull selected stats out of a larger data set without context, there appears to be some fairly solid correlations - not causations, per se, but still worth looking into.

Our guy Juanito, Juan Toscan-Anderson would be someone I’d be interested in seeing in a more pronounced bench role. If Paschall isn’t going to be the backup center, and he’s not effective as the backup power forward, the team needs to admit those truths and move forward. Same goes for Wanamaker, who is pitching in just 4.7 points and 1.7 assists in 16 minutes per game. I know Kerr has said he likes his defense, but the bench unit, defense and all, is getting massacred.

It might be time to jiggle the handle. Damion Lee is there. Reduce the Wanamaker and Paschall minutes and see what happens with some of the other options like Bazemore, Mulder, and JTA. Kerr tends to be patient, and it has worked with Oubre already this season, but this is clearly where any next adjustment should be.

LAKERRRRRS

Every time I think of this team, it’s this image

As the downtrodden 12-year old that had to watch my poor Warriors get regularly reminded by the powerhouse Los Angeles Lakers teams over the years that they don’t matter, it’s tough seeing them resurrect their franchise because two all world talents just decided they want to go play in LA.

But here we are. Fresh of their bubble-tastic championship last season, Los Angeles is right back into the thick of it, hoping to repeat - and looking like they could. That is, until Anthony Davis went down.

Since Davis went out with what the team is calling a strained Achilles, the Lakers have gone 2-5. Though compounded by the loss of Dennis Schroder (who just rejoined the team for their last game after missing the previous four), the Lakers shiny armor looks a whole lot less threatening when the cracks start to show.

As always, this game is at least a little bit about LeBron James and Stephen Curry. Ever since the pesky Warriors rose up and smashed James’ new dynasty attempt in Cleveland, there’s been something personal between these two. In a way that Curry doesn’t really see against other top NBA players, LeBron (and maybe Chris Paul) seem to have taken personal exception to Curry’s ascendency.

I went back into that lineup tool from earlier and looked at the team stats without Anthony Davis. In general, expect a whole lot more of Marc Gasol; per 36 minutes without Davis, his stats are the ones that show the largest increases in both points and assists:

Much like the Warriors, the Lakers recipe for success starts with a healthy slathering of elite defense. Their top-ranked defense has taken a bit of a hit without Anthony Davis prowling the paint, but even without him, this is a Lakers team that leads the league in blocked shots. If we are also getting a souped up version of Gasol, the Warriors will need to bring their A game - a request with an unsteady response rate for most of this Warriors’ season.

Kevon Looney will get the start against Marc Gasol, and the Warriors have James “J-Dub” Wiseman in reserve - both will be sorely tested against the adroit veteran center that was among Golden State’s top offseason targets, reportedly.

Predictions

This should be a fun one. Expect a playoff-like atmosphere and a whole lot of struggling offense as the first and fourth ranked defenses go head-to-head.

Draymond will probably need to be the eventual answer for Gasol, but if either Looney or Wiseman can make any headway against him, that’s an extremely good sign for the Warrriors.

Tough win, but a win 112-110.