Warriors’ Small Ball is Lethal

The Golden State Warriors have started 49-12 thanks to a variety of factors. The Warriors are elite on both sides of the ball, and they have the personnel to beat you in different ways. Sometimes (a lot of times) Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson will destroy you with jumpers. If those shots aren’t falling, the defense can shut you down. Golden State can also beat you with depth.

Factoring into this is the fact that the Warriors can beat you both big and small. Andrew Bogut is the anchor of the defense in the middle, while Draymond Green has transformed into a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidate. Off the bench, David Lee and Marreese Speights offer quality depth in the frontcourt, with Festus Ezeli a decent enough fifth big.

But Golden State also has the best starting backcourt in the league and a bevy of other solid wings. Andre Iguodala isn’t what he once was, but he’s still a hellacious defender and can handle the ball. Shaun Livingston is rounding into form as the backup point guard. Harrison Barnes can play both the 3 and the 4.

Thanks to this, first-year head coach Steve Kerr has plenty of options when it comes to lineup choices. The Warriors’ starting lineup is a more traditional group featuring Curry, Thompson, Barnes, Green and Bogut. That unit has played 628 minutes together this season, and it has outscored opponents by 18.0 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com. The next three most-used lineups all include two bigs, and they’ve all been dominant. (Even better than the starting lineup, actually.)

But when things can get real crazy is when the Warriors go small. And by small, I mean playing Green, all 6’7 of him, at the 5.

Kerr has unleashed Green at the 5 more and more of late, and the head coach talked about it after a win last week over the Milwaukee Bucks, per Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News:

“We don’t necessarily want to, but we feel like we’re really good at it. And Draymond allows us to do that, along with Andre and Harrison.

“But Draymond’s sort of the key guy because he can play the 5. Looked at some numbers today, when Draymond is at the 5, our defensive rating is just off the charts, like 87.5 per 100 possessions. To give you some context, we’re No. 1 in the league overall, we’re at I think a defensive rating of 98 points allowed per 100 possessions… When Draymond’s at the 5, that number is 87.5. It’s crazy.

“Small ball is the way everyone’s going and it’s good for us; we’re good at it.”

Green may not be that tall, but his wingspan is over 7’1, and he’s strong and versatile when it comes to guarding different positions. That versatility is why he’s a Defensive Player of the Year candidate, and a big reason why the Warriors’ small ball works so well.

Around Green, Kerr can use his plethora of long, athletic wings to wreak havoc on opposing offenses. Barnes, Iguodala and Livingston all have wingspans near 7′. Thompson is a strong defender in his own right, while Curry is improving. They try and speed opponents up and then use that to their advantage on the other end, where they can overwhelm teams in the open court.

Even when the Warriors’ small ball lineups are forced into playing half-court offense, they’re still lethal. Having Livingston and/or Iguodala out there allows Curry to play off the ball, and all five guys in these lineups can put the ball on the floor and create offense. Green is an excellent passer from the high post, and he can also spread the floor with a respectable three-point shot.

The sample sizes for these lineups are still quite small, but the results are superb. Here’s the five most-used lineups with Green at the 5 (via NBA.com):

Lineup MIN OffRtg DefRtg NetRtg
Curry-Thompson-Iguodala-Barnes-Green 86 113.9 86.6 27.3
Curry-Livingston-Iguodala-Barnes-Green 21 147.5 79.2 68.3
Curry-Livingston-Thompson-Barnes-Green 21 131.2 89.4 41.8
Livingston-Thompson-Iguodala-Barnes-Green 21 103.2 90.4 12.8
Curry-Livingston-Thompson-Iguodala-Green 19 100.7 86.9 13.8


Yeah, all pretty great.

Now, I’m sure some are skeptical about whether these types of lineups will be effective come playoff time. Will they work against the likes of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol? Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan? And it’s not like the Memphis Grizzlies and Los Angeles Clippers are the only two Western Conference playoff teams capable of throwing out two excellent big men at a time. A potential first-round opponent in the Oklahoma City Thunder have Serge Ibaka, Enes Kanter, Steven Adams, Nick Collison and Mitch McGary in the frontcourt.

But what’s great about the Warriors is they don’t have to rely on small ball to be successful. They can play big, too. And even if those smaller lineups don’t seem ideal against bigger teams, what Golden State can do with those lineups presents its own set of mismatches that can overcome the lack of size. This versatility is what makes the Warriors so great, and it’s why they’re one of the favorites, if not the favorite, to win it all.

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