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Golden State’s Bounce Back on Offense Is This Season’s Most Important Surprise

“It’s working”: How Stephen Curry & Co. are wearing out defenses once again.

After a two-year sabbatical filled with injury, doubt and seemingly irreversible change, the Warriors offense is back near the top. Once again, it’s gorgeous, a syncopated flurry of flex and flair screens, pin downs, timely passes and backdoor cuts. The Warriors lead the NBA in fewest seconds per touch and assist rate while hardly ever isolating one-on-one. The ball zips through and around the court at a speed that almost makes you nauseous. Every step is made to confuse and overwhelm.

What we’re seeing from Golden State now—particularly in Brooklyn on Tuesday night during a 117-99 win against Kevin Durant’s Nets—is exactly what was on display from 2015 to 2019. Coming off a season in which they finished 20th in offensive rating, it’s an eye-opening reminder of how powerful a system and superstar can be when forged alongside an ideal supporting cast—which was not the case in 2020-21.

A perfect example came early in the third quarter of their blowout win, when the Warriors needed about five seconds to leverage everything that makes them so difficult to defend before it culminated with Steph Curry cutting through the paint to field a bounce pass from Draymond Green, posted up on the left block. Plays like this make these Warriors special. They don’t give you a chance to breathe or think or realize you’re too slow until the ball is in the air.

The same methodology helped yield three championships and five Finals appearances. Then, as now, the Warriors don’t run their stuff so much as unleash it while levitating a few feet off the ground. Some qualities are different, like three-point rate (up nearly 15% from 2015). But despite their increased pace, the length of their offensive possessions is about as fast as it’s always been.

“We play a pretty similar style,” Steve Kerr said right before Golden State wallopped Brooklyn. “But we've evolved.”

Other aesthetics and metrics are similar, too. According to Synergy Sports, in 2017 Golden State generated 18.1 points per game from possessions that ended with a cut. Their field goal percentage here was 69.9%, and cuts accounted for 12.3% of their offense. This season, it’s basically the same deal: 18.1 points, 70.3% from the field and 12.1% of the pie. In terms of volume, the Warriors led the NBA in the percentage of possessions that ended with a cut after the 2017, 2018 and 2019 seasons. They dipped to fourth place the past two years but are back now at the top of the league.

“I think that they just have such a clear identity,” Nets head coach Steve Nash, who used to work as a player development consultant for the Warriors, said before Tuesday’s loss. “Especially even this year, as opposed to last year. There's just a clear … understanding of what their mission is offensively.”

Their deployment of off-ball screens is as effective as ever, too. The Warriors have utilized this form of attack more than any team since 2015, finishing first in off-ball frequency every season since then, according to Synergy Sports. Their points per possession on these plays is currently 1.15, higher than ever before. (It was 1.04 last season.) And the distance between Golden State and every other team in the league is almost as wide as it was when they reigned over the sport: they average 12.2 points per game from off-ball screens, while the next closest team (the Kings, employer of Buddy Hield) is only at 6.4.

What’s different now, though, is that aside from Steph Curry and Draymond Green—a dominant common denominator—the supporting cast is so different from what it used to be. Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant have been replaced by the likes of Andrew Wiggins, Jordan Poole and Damion Lee. (The latter two currently rank 6th and 12th, respectively, in the percentage of their offensive possessions that end with an off-ball screen.)

And since 2015, when the Warriors offense took the league by storm and revolutionized how front offices, coaches and players defined a desirable shot, NBA rosters don’t look or play the same. In a way, they were built to stop what the Warriors did. Versatility prevailed above everything else; no team since has looked in the mirror and said, “You know what? We have too many 6’7” wings who can guard multiple positions. Let’s trade a few.

Yet Golden State’s offense still sings. Curry, an MVP candidate at the center of everything, is a one-word way to best explain why. When he’s on the floor, Golden State’s offensive rating is a league-best 116.1. When he’s not, it falls to a league-worst 97.2. (When Wiggins, Kerr and Green were all recently asked how best to explain why the Warriors’ system was so difficult to guard after all these years, each mentioned Curry right away.)

“We got Steph Curry. And we all kind of fill in and work around and off that. And he's very difficult to defend,” Green said. “So if you can figure out where to be in spots and know when to cut and know when to screen, it can be dynamic. I don't think it's really rocket science. That guy draws a lot of attention and he makes it a lot easier for everyone else.”

One way to illustrate that is all the back and cross screens Curry still throws away from the action. They’re as premonitory for an opponent as anything the sport has ever known.

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Even when Curry’s pick freezes the defense and opens up an easy chance for his teammate, sometimes the Warriors don’t capitalize. Here’s Juan Toscano-Anderson missing Lee underneath the basket. But the improvisational principles instilled by Kerr’s beliefs keep everything rolling from there:

“It's a matter of putting smart people around [Steph], like Draymond, like Andre [Iguodala] and many others, who are going to take that defensive attention that Steph gets and then play-make behind the play when Steph gets the ball out of his hands,” Kerr said. “There's nobody in the league now or, as far as I'm concerned, ever, who had that combination of on-ball skill and pick-and-roll dominance, but the off-ball game of Reggie Miller, Rip Hamilton, you know, somebody flying off screens. That combination has never been seen.”

Then there are moments when you see a defense do everything it can to blow up an action it knows the Warriors are about to run. They sniff out Plan A and forget that they’re up against a team that refuses to settle. Here, Jonas Valanciunas gets away with a foul on Curry, who might otherwise fly up into a dribble handoff with Nemanja Bjelica. Instead, Bjelica looks to the other side of the court, where Poole is springing off Otto Porter Jr.’s flair screen.

When I ask Curry what’s made this system so successful after all these years, he points to high IQ teammates, players willing to make simple reads as quickly as they possibly can, the havoc he kindles on and off the ball and Green’s “unbelievable” playmaking. Curry then highlights the relentlessness of it all, how soul sucking it can be to square off against a team that’s able to inflict a mental and physical toll even when no points are put on the board.

“We obviously have a lot of shooting now, and even on a night where we don't really shoot the ball particularly well as a team, we create great shots,” he says. “And that wears on the [defense], too. You see a guy wide open, it's kind of demoralizing to see it in the air because you probably expect it to go in. Even if it doesn't, that carries momentum into the next position, and the next possession.”

(According to Synergy Sports, Golden State creates 15.5 unguarded catch-and-shoot jumpers per game, which is the most with Kerr as their head coach and trails only the Bucks this season.)

This renaissance is also a perfect time to shine light on one of the most subtle reasons why Golden State’s magic act works so well: Green’s off-ball screens. No one is more devout to one of basketball’s least selfish actions, a physical strain that’s entire purpose is to let someone else glow. Little of it is new for Green, who’s been an excellent screen setter since his days at Michigan State. But the fact that he’s still willing to sacrifice his body so someone else has an extra second or inch to get their shot off is critical to the Warriors getting some of the shots they want.

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This play for Poole begins with a flex screen set by Curry on LaMelo Ball in the near corner. The 2020-21 rookie of the year scampers around that and thinks he’s home free … and then he sees Green, who erases Ball and Mason Plumlee from the equation.

Then there’s this wide pin down for Curry. It might look unremarkable, but realize he’s setting the screen on Lu Dort, one of the more tenacious on-ball defenders in basketball. Completely separating him from Curry is not easy.

Meanwhile, Kerr is still figuring out his rotation, putting Curry in lineups with players who cut, shoot, space, screen and/or keep the ball moving: Iguodala, Bjelica, Porter Jr. and Gary Payton II.

It’s the spots no one pays any attention to that remain a battleground for Golden State. Even after all this time, opponents still look like they’re punching air, one step behind even when they know what’s coming, which often they do not. What separates the Warriors from everybody else is how they combine years of experience and familiarity with exceptional skill and mutual understanding.

While other playbooks are homogenous, Golden State’s offense turns each possession into its own ambitious narrative. “You never know what could happen,” Wiggins said about Kerr’s offense. “It's very free flowing.” Watch it unfold as a step by step assembly line: If this cross screen happens here while we run a pick-and-roll on the opposite side, and then he back cuts off a flare screen over there, that shot in the corner should be wide open. The likely result is them getting what they want, whenever the defense’s fried nervous system allows them to take it.

And right now, at 12-2 and coming off a statement win if such a thing even exists so early in the season, according to Curry: “It’s working.” 

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