This is a subject I’ve been thinking about for the past couple weeks. I was interested to observe the difference between two teams, the Portland Trail Blazers and Houston Rockets, who have been beset by injuries this season, and the Warriors. And even though I accepted the injuries as an excuse for the Warriors, I wondered how teams like the Blazers and Rockets, also decimated by injuries, could keep winning while the Warriors continued to lose.
When the Blazers beat the Warriors handily on Saturday with a roster far more depleted than anything the Warriors have had to deal with this season, it only made the discrepancy more glaring. Out for Portland in Saturday’s game: Greg Oden (starter), LaMarcus Aldridge (starter), Steve Blake (starter last season), Joel Przybilla (starter last season), Travis Outlaw (sixth man), Rudy Fernandez (key reserve) and Nic Batum (starter last season). When I saw the starting lineups at the beginning of the game, Portland’s was almost laughable: Andre Miller (fine), Brandon Roy (great), Martell Webster (meh), Jeff Pendergraph (who?), and Juwan Howard (he’s still in the league?). And they beat the Warriors by 16.
If teams like the Trail Blazers and Houston Rockets can get by with key players injured, if they can still find ways to win despite the turmoil surrounding their teams, why can’t the Warriors do the same? We already talked about Portland’s ridiculous injury woes this season. Yet the Blazers are 22-13, tied for first place in the Northwest. The Rockets lost superstar center Yao Ming before the season began, and former star guard Tracy McGrady was so ineffective upon returning from injury, the Rockets basically granted him a release. The Rockets are starting guys like Aaron Brooks, Luis Scola, and Chuck Hayes. The Rockets have some talented players, but their roster is anonymous to everybody but the most rabid NBA fans. The Rockets don’t have a player on their roster who averages more than 17.9 points per game (Brooks). Yet the Rockets are 20-14.
So what’s the difference?
The Blazers were a very talented, very deep team to begin this season, and that has helped them overcome the injuries and still win. But take an honest look at the situation. The Blazers have only eight healthy players right now, and yet they keep winning. Is the Blazers’ eight (Miller, Roy, Webster, Howard, Pendergraph, Jerryd Bayless, Dante Cunningham, Shavlik Randolph) really more talented than the Warriors’ top eight (Monta Ellis, Corey Maggette, Stephen Curry, Anthony Morrow, Anthony Randolph, C.J. Watson, Andris Biedrins, Ronny Turiaf)? Not on paper. Run those two teams against each other on NBA Live or 2K10 and the Warriors roll.
So why are the Warriors so much worse in real life than they are on paper?
What about the Rockets? Look at the Rockets’ starting five without Yao and McGrady. Is it better than the Warriors (on paper)? I’m going to go with the sensible Warriors starting lineup here, not the one we saw against the Blazers.
PG: Aaron Brooks vs. Stephen Curry (advantage: Rockets)
SG: Trevor Ariza vs. Monta Ellis (advantage: Warriors)
SF: Shane Battier vs. Corey Maggette (advantage: Warriors)
PF: Luis Scola vs. Anthony Randolph (push, maybe slight advantage Rockets)
C: Chuck Hayes vs. Andris Biedrins (advantage: Warriors)
What about the bench? The Rockets run out Carl Landry, Kyle Lowry and Chase Budinger. The Warriors counter with C.J. Watson, Anthony Morrow and Ronny Turiaf. Landry gives the Rockets a slight advantage (he’s really good).
But even though these two teams seem equally matched, the Rockets are 20-14. The Warriors are 9-23.
I have a couple theories, and the ones that come to mind are star power (in the case of Portland) or coaching (applies to Portland and Houston).
Star Power: The Blazers have Brandon Roy, who is a superstar. Monta Ellis is a great player, but until he starts taking over the fourth quarter and willing his team to wins (like Roy), he won’t be a superstar. Ellis scores a lot of points, but he needs to do so more efficiently and his turnover rate has to come down for him to be grouped in the same class as a player like Roy. The Rockets don’t have a superstar, so star power can’t explain the difference between the Warriors and Rockets. If the Warriors were to somehow land a player like Chris Bosh without giving up Ellis (who is a fantastic player and would thrive as player 1A to a superstar), things could change quickly. Even if the Warriors had to give up Stephen Curry and Anthony Randolph to make it happen, a starting lineup of C.J. Watson, Monta Ellis, Corey Maggette, Chris Bosh and Andris Biedrins would win games.
Coaching: The Blazers and Rockets have outstanding coaches (Nate McMillan and Rick Adelman). Both coaches run offensive and defensive systems that complement the strengths of their best players. Does Don Nelson do this for the Warriors? I don’t know. I’m torn between the problems for this team being personnel or coaching issues. It could be a little of both. I do know that in Saturday’s game, Nelson was outcoached by McMillan. McMillan had a plan defensively (zone) that thwarted the Warriors and allowed him to hide some of his own team’s inadequacies. McMillan also ran his offense right at the Warriors, knowing that in order to beat the bigger and deeper Warriors, he needed to attack and get to the free-throw line. This would enable the Blazers to control the pace of the game as the frequent stoppage that occurs because of fouls would be detrimental to the Warriors’ offense. Nelson’s offense was brilliant in the first quarter when the Warriors were breaking down the zone by hitting outside shots, but when the shots stopped falling, what did Nelson do? Did he make any adjustments? Why weren’t the Warriors attacking the perimeter of the zone? The Blazers guards (Miller and Roy) are not great defenders and guard penetration has been a constant problem for the team this year. If the Warriors were able to penetrate the outer rim of the zone, who was going to stop them inside? Howard? Pendergraph? Please. This was a missed opportunity by the Warriors. Maybe Nelson was instructing his team to do this and his players didn’t listen. I don’t know. That’s why it’s hard to know which to blame: personnel or coaching. It’s a mystery.
What do you think? Why aren’t the Warriors better and what do they need to become a legitimate playoff contender again in the West? Post your thoughts in the comment section below.