Usually, it’s unacceptable when athletes or coaches make excuses following a loss. It’s looked at as an admission of weakness, and no self-respecting player or coach would want to give future opponents any indication of feebleness or frailty.
The Warriors made excuses after their last loss, Saturday’s 104-95 loss to the Pistons. In this instance, however, I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt. There are justifiable reasons that explain the Warriors’ inability to close out games this season. Some of it is breaking in a new go-to player (Monta Ellis). Part of it is a young, inexperienced lineup that’s prone to ill-timed turnovers and streaky shooting. Part of it is the Warriors have played short-handed, using unorthodox lineups all season. The strange lineup combinations are partly because of the depleted roster and partly because that’s the way Don Nelson sets the lineup even when the team is healthy, and Keith Smart has followed suit in Nelson’s absence.
“There was one point when we were playing two point guards, a shooting guard and two small forwards,” point guard Stephen Curry told the Associated Press after the loss to the Pistons.
For most of the season, the Warriors have played with as many as 6-9 healthy players. They have missed the contributions of four possible starters for most of the season. Andris Biedrins, whom I consider to be the Warriors’ most consistent player, has been out since the beginning of the season, as has Ronny Turiaf, the team’s primary backup big man and an option as a starter at power forward. For much of the season, they have been without the services of starting forward Kelenna Azubuike, who was developing this season into the Warriors’ most talented small forward. One of the players they received in the Stephen Jackson trade, Raja Bell, is a good defensive player and underrated offensive guard. He could have started at shooting guard or played meaningful backup minutes, but he instead will sit out the rest of the season rehabilitating after surgery.
“We just don’t have enough bodies out there right now,” interim Warriors coach Keith Smart told the AP after the loss to the Pistons. “These guys are giving it everything they’ve got, but when your roster is this small, your margin for error disappears.”
This isn’t a perfect indicator because there are other variables present, but if you look at the combined stats of those four players from last season, the Warriors have been missing out on 44 points, 24 rebounds, 7 assists, 5 blocks and 3 steals of production per game. Obviously, the Warriors have had other players step up and fill the void, but when you look at the replacement players for some of the Warriors’ injured stars, it’s not a fair trade. Biedrins for Mikki Moore? Turiaf for Chris Hunter? Azubuike for Vladimir Radmanovich? Bell for Anthony Morrow? Obviously, Morrow and Radmanovich are legitimate NBA players who deserve the playing time they’re receiving this season, but you could argue successfully that Moore and Hunter wouldn’t be getting playing time for any other teams in the NBA. It is because of the injuries that the Warriors have been forced to send out players like Moore and Hunter.
When Biedrins and Turiaf return, it will give the Warriors a legitimate center who can rebound and block shots, and a backup at both post positions who can play 25 minutes per game and provide energy, rebounding and defense. Their presence could be enough to turn around the fortunes of the Warriors in close games (they’re 0-4 this season in games decided by five points or fewer). It would be nice to have Azubuike and Bell back, but they’re out for the season. But the return of Biedrins and Turiaf will be a major boost to the Warriors, and it’s not really fair to judge this team or this season until those two players are healthy and back in the lineup.
Biedrins’ back injury usually takes between four and six weeks to heal. He is entering the fifth week of rehab. He has said he plans to wait until he is 100 percent before he returns, but if he doesn’t have any setbacks, he could return in a week or two. Ronny Turiaf (knee) could be back in a week.
Until then, the Warriors’ gritty and inspired play, even in losses, is reason for optimism. Warriors fans have to hope that the return of their top two big men will be enough to turn those close defeats into victories.