The Warriors Could Yet Have an Elite Offense Again

Getty Nemanja Bjelica #8 of the Golden State Warriors is congratulated by Draymond Green #23 after scoring against Los Angeles Lakers during the second half at Staples Center on October 19, 2021 in Los Angeles, California.

While there was of course more to it than just this, one statistic goes quite some way to illustrating what made the championship Golden State Warriors into the offensive powerhouse that they were.

Compare simply the final season of the Mark Jackson era, when the Warriors were good, to the first year of Steve Kerr’s tenure, when they were great. In the 2013/14 season under Jackson, the Warriors were last in the NBA in passes per game, and last by quite some way, almost 100 behind the league-leading San Antonio Spurs. Yet just one season later, under Kerr, they moved all the way up to ninth, a trend which continued the following season, the 73-9 season, when they finished fifth.

Passing for passing’s sake is not a virtue, and the link between the amount of them a team throws and the amount a team wins is not necessarily a causative one. But a way of trying to measure the quality of passes can be found in the adjacent stat, assist points created, a category in which the Warriors ranked first for in every season of their 2014 to 2019 championship run, sometimes by a mile. Given the threats of Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and (at the time) Kevin Durant, it made sense to keep the ball moving, and assist points created speaks to the effect of that.

This philosophical offensive shift has been explored frequently in the years hence, yet it is worth circling back to, given the similar trend seen in this year’s incarnation of the Warriors. Once again, the Warriors are atop the NBA in both of these categories, and the eyes match the numbers.

On offense, the ball is moving around more often and more incisively, despite having much the same team as last season. And although it has not been without its blips – a hot start over the first two months has tapered over the last two, in large part due to a sub-par Curry – the offensive improvement (from 20th in offensive rating last season up to 11th in this one thus far) is apparent.

So if the major pieces of the rotation did not change, what did?

Bjelica, Porter and Iguodala know their roles

A substantial part of the answer lies in the lesser lights of the rotation. Through both addition and subtraction, the Warriors found complimentary pieces more congenial to that pass-heavy style.

The return of the unselfish Andre Iguodala this past offseason has been a big factor. Iggy is an increasingly limited scorer himself, but that does make him both a willing passer and cutter, and his 4.0 assists per game average, his highest in eight years, speaks to how well he fits the system still.

Two other frontcourt additions last summer also took no time to integrate. Nemanja Bjelica has always been a smooth offensive face-up power forward with shooting and dribble-drives, and he too both cuts and hits cutters, averaging 1.7 assists per game on minimal touches. And while Porter’s play all over the court has been good (and truly tremendous value), his 1.6 assists per game speak to his shrewd decision-making and ability to see the court, a good number in limited minutes for a man who barely dribbles, and an asset that forms a nice tandem with his 40% three-point shooting.

And somehow, all three only cost the minimum salary.

The Pieces Fit Better This Year

If those basic assist per game numbers do not wow, look at how often the ball moves during Golden State games – if anything, sometimes they overpass – and then compare it to last year. Notable by their absence this season are Kent Bazemore and Kelly Oubre, neither of whom consistently contributed on a Warriors team that lacked for depth all season.

In particular, both of those players, in addition to being inconsistent as scorers and shooters, had a knack for play-breaking and making questionable decisions that would disrupt the flow of the offence. While both are decent players, then, perhaps they were not the right choices in an offensive unit that seems to function much better without them, as is backed up by the stats.

In a season in which Klay has only just returned, James Wiseman has not played at all and Steph Curry has seen his production go backwards, the Warriors have nevertheless improved offensively. And the cohesion and IQ offered by this trio goes as far towards that as does the improvements of Jordan Poole.

The rookie does his bit, too. Passing, they say, is infectious, and if everyone else is doing it, you would be a fool not to. Currently growing up in that environment, impressive rookie Jonathan Kuminga is showing some passing chops, too.

The Warriors have notably been more impressive defensively this season, where they rank first in the league, than offensively. But the scoring end has improved because the personnel have improved, and the team are re-engaging with the principle that turned them into such a great team at their peak. Even before Klay returned to action, they had made themselves the bookie’s favourites in the West, and now with him as well, they could soon become an elite offensive unit again, at just the right time.