The Golden State Warriors –who the league’s schedule-maker deigned were worthy of a mid-December holiday, apparently– are slowly and steadily starting to show the faintest signs of cracks and demonstrating why they need Steve Kerr back on the bench, toot sweet.
Their defense has slipped just enough, from the vice-like unit it was last year to one that has lapses nearly every game and only turns up the intensity when it absolutely has to. Their turnover percentage has climbed, from 14.4 percent last year, good for 12th in the league (which was perfectly acceptable for a squad who led everybody in passes made) to 15.7 percent this season, which ranks 23rd. The Dubs’ margin of victory has sunk from 16.7 points in October to 15.1 in November to 8.1 in December. They’re allowing opponents to take and make more threes this month, and their own accuracy from downtown has slipped to the land of mortals. Perhaps most damning of all, the Warriors are surrendering 108.9 this month, which is just far too much for any contender no matter how prolific their offense is.
It’s getting harder to ignore how boorish and obnoxious the team is acting this season, and bizarrely the more adulation they receive, the more they’re turning wrestling heel in response. They strut, they dance, they preen. They turn away and celebrate on three-pointers mid-flight, like a team full of “Swaggy P’s” and engage in silly beefs with teams beneath them like the Milwaukee Bucks. No one is acting like they’ve been here before and bubbles of individuality are starting to rise to the surface.
The latest example of this came Saturday when Klay Thompson declared himself the best shooting guard in the league.
He was asked to name the best player at each position by the team’s beat writers, and for the two-guard he said, “I’m going to go with myself,” explaining “We’re 26-1.”
His statement is silly of course, with no basis in fact by any statistical or anecdotal measure known to man. If being named first-team All-NBA simply had to do with best record, then Harrison Barnes should get the honor over LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Durant et al. Thompson ranks seventh among shooting guards in scoring, fifth in shooting, and sixth in NBA.com’s efficiency rating. 44 guards, including Stephen Curry, average more rebounds and 63 guards, including Kobe Bryant, average more assists.
When you get to the advanced stats Thompson ranks eighth among shooting guards in PER, sixth in Value Added, sixth in Estimated Wins Added, third in Offensive Plus-Minus, a cool 46th in Defensive Plus-Minus, fifth in overall Adjusted Plus-Minus, and fifth in Real Plus-Minus Wins. Thompson isn’t among the top shooting guards in Win Shares, Win Shares/48 Minutes, VORP or Box Plus/Minus. There’s just no credible way to conclude he’s as good as James Harden, Jimmy Butler, Dwyane Wade or Eric Bledsoe, and Minnesota’s Andrew Wiggins will leapfrog him soon if he hasn’t already. Thompson may be the streakiest shooting guard, and the one most capable of catching fire every blue moon, but that’s about it.
If Kerr were back full time, he’d have counseled Thompson to keep a lid on it. Confidence is good, and players are free to think whatever they want about their games, but public statements like this invite unnecessary distractions into the locker room that will be brought up whenever they have an off night. Tim Duncan would’ve never said he’s the best power-forward, Kerr would’ve told him. Let your play do your talking for you.
The beauty of the Warriors’ lot in life is that no matter how they act out, there is no one out there to make them the villains. There are no lovable scrappy underdogs for casual fans to cheer for against these antagonistic bullies. The Spurs are still thought of as a collection of ageless, soulless cyborgs bent on the systematic extinction of the human race. The Thunder have Russell Westbrook, who’s clearly a sociopath, and Kevin Durant, who’s been a pill for three years now. The Cavs, with LeBron James, will never be seen as David to Golden State’s Goliath, not with Curry’s whole body weighing as much as one of James’ thighs. The Clippers, with dour, cheap-shot specialist Chris Paul and whine-enthusiast Doc Rivers are universally loathed and the Rockets, with Harden and the chronically phony Dwight Howard, wouldn’t get neutral fans to root for them in a game against the GOP presidential nominees much less the Warriors.
Maybe the lesson here is you can’t be both great and likable, not long term anyway. Michael Jordan’s Bulls weren’t and neither were Magic Johnson’s Lakers or Larry Bird’s Celtics before them or the Bill Russell/Red Auerbach dynastic Celtics long ago. They all had artistic elements to them, from the way Russell would block shots to himself and outlet to Bob Cousy in an instant, to the way Johnson ran the fast break in L.A. to Jordan’s aerial majesty, but beating everyone over the head repeatedly demands a certain level of ruthlessness and nastiness. Maybe that’s why the Spurs, for all their greatness, have never repeated. Maybe Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker just aren’t mean or selfish enough to not be subconsciously sated the year after.
That doesn’t seem to be an issue for the Warriors, who are basking in their jerk-i-tude. Who knows, maybe Kerr, who saw firsthand how Jordan’s Bulls and Duncan’s Spurs went about things during their peaks, is encouraging this stuff behind the scenes after all. Maybe he sees it as a necessary evil to get where they want to go.