With the Sixers on their second west coast trip, tonight is the team’s first matchup of the season against the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors. To learn more about the Warriors in what has been a hectic year for them, I chatted with Brady Klopfer of Golden State Of Mind.
In addition to his work for Golden State of Mind, Brady covers the Los Angeles Sparks of the WNBA for The Athletic.
Question #1: DeMarcus Cousins signing a one-year deal with the Warriors has to be one of the most shocking free agency moves ever. And his first few weeks as a Warrior have gone well. He’s been productive in limited minutes as he recovers from his torn Achilles, and the Warriors have performed at a high level with him on the floor. But when it comes time for the postseason, is he someone they can trust?
On the offensive side of the floor, absolutely. By the time April rolls around, Cousins should be mostly up to speed, but even if not, the player we’re seeing now has been a nearly seamless offensive fit. His threat in the pick and roll is something the Warriors have never had during their title runs, and I’m struggling to think of a big not named “Jokic” who can match his passing (though you certainly have a strong candidate in Philly). He’s finding open shooters and slashing cutters, setting behemoth screens, and displaying strong - albeit slightly rusty - touch in the post. His pairing with Klay Thompson is a match made in heaven, and their two-man games have jump-started a previously anemic second unit. His teammates already trust him - not just in the “we like you, we’ll feed you, let’s get you going” way, but genuine trust in his ability to make the right reads and plays - and they’ve cruised to a 5-0 start (all on the road) with him in the lineup. He’s trustworthy.
It’s on defense where the questions arise. As he grows healthier and more comfortable, his post and help defense will likely improve. But he’s always struggled to contain smaller players on the perimeter, and that’s been on full display so far. Teams are running a flurry of pick and rolls to get a switch, which results in one of two outcomes: either they get Boogie stuck on guard island, or they force the Warriors away from the switch-everything defense that has led them to such success. In the postseason you can expect teams to target Cousins even more, and the Warriors will have a choice to make. Their best offensive lineups have Cousins in them, even now. But their best defensive lineups will always come when he’s replaced by either Kevon Looney or Andre Iguodala. So while the newcomer can be trusted, he’s not always going to be the best option.
Question #2: It’s been the same old story for years now in the NBA Finals: a juggernaut Warriors team versus LeBron James’ group of underdogs. But this year will be different, with LeBron in Los Angeles. Assuming the Warriors once again win the West, who do you think their best competition in the East would be?
My answer comes with a big caveat: Ask a few writers or analysts what they think, and you’ll get a wide range of answers. Even with Indiana likely falling out of the race, the East is still filled with four teams that pose interesting questions for the Warriors. There’s a case to make for all four.
Ask the team, and they’ll generally point to the Celtics, largely due to the massive amount of respect that Kyrie Irving has earned from anyone that associates with Golden State. I think Toronto is the toughest matchup, and I promise that’s not being reactionary to the Raptors’ 2-0 record against the Warriors this year. Kawhi Leonard is better equipped to guard Kevin Durant than anyone on the planet (except, perhaps, Draymond Green), and the duo of Kyle Lowry and Danny Green is about as formidable a backcourt as you can find to defend Steph Curry and Klay Thompson. They can score in myriad ways, have depth and shooting, and can switch everything on defense, which is a must when facing Golden State.
Milwaukee is certainly interesting, as their length has given the Warriors fits. They might be the most logical choice, even if I still lean towards Toronto.
But, in my eyes, those two stand above Boston and Philadelphia. The Celtics have seen mild regression from Al Horford, stagnant development from Jaylen Brown, and the exoskeleton of Gordon Hayward, while the Sixers aren’t quite deep enough, and lack the tools with the current iteration of Jimmy Butler. Until those things change, Toronto and Milwaukee are the toughest outs for Golden State, in my eyes.
Question #3: Even the Warriors, who are now starting five multi-time All-Stars, are not perfect. If you had to single out one weakness that this team has, what would it be?
There’s no glaring weakness, but there are certainly a large number of notable ones to choose from. In my eyes, the biggest weakness is Cousins’ inability to switch onto perimeter players, but I already covered that.
Ask many Warriors fans, and they’ll probably point to Steve Kerr’s pseudo-socialist coaching philosophy. Kerr likes to empower his players (understandable, given his playing days), and that means a refusal to lean on Steph Curry and Kevin Durant the way Mike D’Antoni leans on James Harden. It also means doing things like playing Anderson Varejao in critical NBA Finals minutes. Kerr is a great coach, but his willingness to give everyone a chance, and his insistence on running ball-movement heavy sets rather than allowing his best players to simply make plays (can we get a Curry/KD pick and roll, please? Just one?) can keep the Warriors from clicking.
But I’m going to say complacency. Or, perhaps more accurately, arrogance. In last year’s Western Conference Finals, the Warriors fell behind the Rockets 3-2. With their backs against the wall, Golden State laid an absolute egg in the first half of a must-win game six. Then they overcame a big deficit and won anyway. Then, in game seven, they did it again! They were completely unperturbed by the fact that they had nearly been eliminated, and entered a winner-take-all game with all the urgency of a preseason game. And it worked, again!
You see it in every sport, and nearly every facet of life. The best team gets a little complacent, flirts with disaster, and finds out they can survive anyway. So they push the boundaries a little bit more, seeing if they can still do it, like a kid slowly climbing up the tree before jumping into the river, getting a little higher each time. The Warriors could continue to test the limits of how deep of a hole they can climb out of. And you only find out how deep of a hole you can climb out of when you find the hole that you can’t climb out of.
If they decide to play that game, they’ll eventually find an answer.