Of all the things that were remarkable about the Warriors’ wire-to-wire run to a championship last season, the fact that they did it with a squad that was deceptively thin has to be among the highest-ranking items on the list. Coach Steve Kerr constructed a false narrative and got the team’s beat writers to run with it by virtue of his charm. We all unquestioningly bought the rhetoric that Kerr was paying homage to his mentor Gregg Popovich by liberally using his bench and giving his stars occasional games off to rest late in the season, but when you look at the numbers, via NBA.com, Stephen Curry was still 19th in the league in regular-season minutes and both Draymond Green and Klay Thompson were in the top 36. Harrison Barnes was 54th.
Contrast that to the Spurs, who unlike the Warriors were fighting for playoff seeding all season long. Danny Green led them with 2,311 minutes, which ranked 57th in the NBA. He and Tim Duncan were the only guys on their team in the top 100 in minutes.
Even though the Warriors frequently got out to huge — and in most cases, insurmountable — leads with their regulars, Kerr still played them more than he could have or perhaps should have, which gets back to my original point. The Dubs had a sneaky mediocre bench last season, aside from Andre Iguodala and Festus Ezeli, and the latter only saw action in 46 games due to injury.
The team was actually outscored during the 1,331 minutes that Curry sat. Kerr’s three primary subs, aside from Iguodala, were Shaun Livingston, Marreese Speights and Leandro Barbosa, and all three suffered through bouts of inconsistency and ineffective play that we typically associate with bench players. Golden State’s roster will be largely unchanged in their bid to repeat, and there’s no reason — aside from fatigue perhaps — to think that the starters won’t be just as devastating next year. It’s certainly arguable that none of their “big three” of Curry, Green and Thompson, who are 27, 25 and 25, respectively, haven’t even reached their primes yet.
As terrifying at that notion is, the scary thing for Kerr is the very likely prospect of Livingston, Speights and Barbosa struggling more next season.
Livingston’s story is well-documented. A Clippers lottery pick once upon a time, Livingston suffered the kind of gruesome leg injury (to both legs, in fact) that if it happened to a horse, the poor thing would be euthanized without a second thought. Livingston missed all of the following season and played just 48 games combined from 2009-2011 before settling back in the league for good, but even then he’s been strictly a journeyman.
After Los Angeles came brief stops at Miami, Oklahoma City, Washington D.C., Charlotte, Milwaukee, Washington again, Cleveland, Brooklyn and then finally the Warriors. A 6’7 string-bean who was never overly quick or explosive in the best of times, Livingston’s only remaining assets are his court vision and length on defense. He’s the rarest of commodities in 2015: An NBA guard who’s vehemently opposed to the three-point shot.
As a consequence, Livingston’s never posted even a league-average PER and been decidedly unimpressive in other advanced stats. He works best when surrounded by a bunch of scorers and outside shooters, but if you put him in a lineup with similarly gun-shy types like Iguodala and streaky shooters like Barbosa, it can get ugly in a hurry. Jason Kidd figured that out quickly when he coached Livingston in Brooklyn, so Kidd used him mostly as a starter so that Livingston could make a defensive impact on one end while chilling out on the other end of the floor.
Livingston turned 30 on Sept. 11, and his defensive reputation has been in direct contrast to his numbers over his career. He actually had one of the worst defensive ratings and net ratings on the club, according to Basketball-Reference.com. He’s not going to get any quicker, and the guys he’s being asked to guard are younger, faster and not shy about crossing up veterans.
Livingston is severely limited, and it’s hard to see him playing even at the level he did last season, with opponents determined to pack the paint whenever Curry rests. Post-ups are really the only way he can score, but that gets unwieldy when the Warriors haven’t suckered the opponent into taking out their bigs. You wonder if the Warriors wouldn’t be better off playing Livingston with Curry (which was rarely the case last year, according to NBAWowy.com) and letting Iguodala create for the second unit and setting up willing and able shooters like Thompson and Barbosa.
Barbosa, meanwhile, used to be nicknamed “The Brazilian Blur,” but he’s turning 33 a month into the season and has been easier to keep in focus of late. A one-dimensional chucker, defense has never been his forte. Barbosa slipped out of Kerr’s rotation at times last season because he’s such a liability in his own end that if he slumps at all offensively, he becomes borderline unplayable.
Even with the occasional benching, Barbosa had a renaissance season of sorts in 2014-15 after a couple of injury-plagued years in Boston and Phoenix. Barbosa shot a far better percentage than we’ve grown accustomed to with him, especially from two-point range, and had his best overall season since 2008-09. He only has one direction to go after that, and it’s a safe guess he’ll regress to the mean next year. For Barbosa to offset his weaknesses, he has to shoot over 44 percent from the field and 37 percent from downtown. Otherwise, you’re getting diminishing returns and inefficient play on both ends.
Finally, there’s Speights, who at 28 still theoretically should have some good basketball left in him. Our last memories of him aren’t good, and there’s the danger of falling into a recency bias with Speights. He suffered a nasty calf injury early in the playoffs, which reduced him to mostly an observer. He was so diminished that he could only finish one of his final four dunk attempts in the playoffs.
Like Livingston, Speights has never been a standout athlete for his position or even an above-average one. He can’t jump, he’s not quick and he offers so-so rebounding and little-to-no shot blocking. What he does give you though, unlike most of his bench mates, is an itchy trigger finger.
Speights used a higher percentage of possessions than anyone on the team last season while he was on the floor, including Curry, according to Basketball-Reference.com. He’s got a reliable 17-foot jumper, which no other big on the team can claim now that David Lee is a Celtic. Opposing 4s are hesitant to get out and guard him on the elbow or high post for fear of leaving the paint completely unoccupied.
Certain advanced metrics love Speights, while others run screaming in the opposite direction. Mid-range jumpers are by definition inefficient shots and Speights is decent from outsize, but hardly a LaMarcus Aldridge. He doesn’t get to the free throw line enough for someone who shoots so often, and he’s almost pathologically averse to passing.
Like Barbosa, Speights’s entire value depends on his ability to fill it up, but unlike the Brazilian, he at least buys his teammates some room on the floor by sucking up attention around the paint.
Ironically, while Speights has the best chance of the three to follow through with another solid year, he’s also the likeliest to lose his rotation spot. Not only did the Warriors acquire Sacramento’s Jason Thompson — at a hefty salary, no less — but their most talented deep reserve is James Michael McAdoo, a springy young banger. There isn’t anyone around to threaten Livingston or Barbosa no matter how they might struggle. All that could happen is Kerr rationing more minutes to the starters.
It’s for you to decide if that’s a good or bad thing.