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Tag Archives: Death lineup

Durant Doesn’t Make the Warriors Invincible – Just Reveals Different Problems

Recently, you’ve probably heard the term “smallball” in reference to the NBA. Particularly with Golden State’s recent success — culminating in a record-setting 73-win season — the NBA’s “smallball” revolution has become a talking point in basketball circles as an integral part of their success.

You heard how hard it was for opposing defenses to account for the ethereal shooting of the all-star backcourt of Klay Thompson – and oh by the way  — the reigning MVP Stephen Curry, a generationally superb shooting talent, potentially the best of all time. Alongside Harrison Barnes and substituting former All-star Andre Iguodala for Andrew Bogut, the fearsome “Death Lineup” was born.

Simply put, the versatility on both sides of the ball that having interchangeable positions (i.e. positionless basketball) afforded the Warriors made them practically unstoppable.

Don’t believe me and think it was all anecdotal? Look at the numbers.

Death Lineup Domination

Golden State’s starting lineup was more than respectable at +13.2 points per 100 possessions, but nothing compared to the Death Lineup’s absolutely ridiculous +44.4 points per 100 possessions during the regular season. The Golden State Death Lineup was the third-most utilized rotation over the course of the season, often used to finish off opponents in close games – which were few and far between. The second-most common lineup was injury-related and inserted Brandon Rush in at small forward (Iguodala had missed 17 games, while Barnes missed 16 and came off the bench in seven others).

Clearly, it worked. That lineup would be inserted at times during a game and then – it’s over. Last season if the Warriors got up by 15 points or more, they practically didn’t lose. In fact, that streak even went back 114 games in such instances. If a team let them get up by 15 points, which became a frequent occurrence, they might as well have called the game.

The primary reason the “Death Lineup” works is because of Draymond Green. Despite being 6-7, he’s 230 pounds and is able to defend and rebound with centers taller and larger than he is. Green’s aggressiveness and physicality are why he would be slotted in at the center position as opposed to the slightly taller 6-8 Barnes (who must also be given some credit for defending outside his position occasionally). As the center, Green is also able to drift a bit and play free safety, if you will, since his opponent usually can’t shoot a reliable jumper. That gives Green the ability to help double-team a superstar like LeBron James, or help out at the rim in case an opposing player breaks free of his perimeter defender. Draymond Green is an exceptional type of stretch 4/5, embodying occasional shooting, lateral quickness and physicality on defense — with his playmaking just being the cherry on top. Green is what made Golden State’s famed and feared “Death Lineup” work. That innate flexibility you gain when a collection of your players can switch on defense primarily between the 3, 4 and 5 spots is crucial. Golden State had that with Barnes at the 3, Iguodala at the 4 and Green at the 5. Switch everything!

That’s the beauty and devastation of the Death Lineup — its versatility. Because of Golden State’s defensive aggressiveness and intrinsic physical profiles, they don’t lose any speed or physicality when they switch the pick-and-roll. This helps the Warriors subvert the first couple actions of their opponent’s offense, causing them to panic and make bad decisions or shoot contested shots – the ideal goal of defense at the NBA level.

Enter Kevin Durant.

Enter the former rookie of the year, former MVP, the franchise-altering player with seven all-star games under his belt and more to come. Adding those and a countless assortment of other accolades to his name to an already historic franchise and you have a fearsome squad.

Their starting lineup is probably going to be Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green and Zaza Pachulia. Their version of the Death Lineup would simply be replacing Pachulia with Iguodala in a squad that will make the opposition want to leave the arena and get back on the plane.

The Death Lineup that the Warriors roll out there will have five playmakers – that’s SO RARE – including three players with elite range and efficiency from deep for their careers – making them nearly impossible to guard (Curry- 44.4%, Thompson- 45.0%, Durant- 38%).

Basically, they are replacing Barnes (who is a fine player and will get his chance to shine in Dallas) with a taller, heavier player who is a better shooter, playmaker, rebounder and leader. What an upgrade! Just imagine how easy of a time Durant will have with the “gravity” that the unparalleled shooting of Curry and Thompson will have on a defense causing it to crumple like a house of cards – inside a tornado – inside a black hole. It will also make life easier for the Splash Brothers having Durant in the corner or on the wing to kick out to as a release value instead of Barnes.

And on defense, Green can continue to battle down low with the centers, Iguodala can take the best scoring option in the frontcourt, leaving Durant to absolutely overwhelm the remaining (and worst) opposing wing player, play as much help defense as he wants, and save his energy for offense.

Seriously, pretty much one of the three scoring powerhouses is very likely to “go off” each game – maybe even more than one. That’s to say nothing of Green continuing to take advantage as a playmaker and scorer of whichever sub-average defender opposing coaches are coerced into putting on him.

The chances are quite robust that this group could boast the record for both game and season-long splits in net rating by season’s end.

Yet — every team has its Achilles heel. Every team.

Problems for the old Death Lineup

Things changed in the playoffs as the Death Lineup became more necessary and was the most-used lineup, with the starting lineup as a very close second. The Bogut injury during the Finals seems to have pushed the Death Lineup over the starting lineup in terms of frequency of usage. Interestingly, over the entire course of the playoffs, the Death Lineup was -4.3 points per 100 possessions compared to the starting lineup which finished at +6.1 points per 100 possessions.

Part of this was due to the quality of the opponents in the playoffs, Curry being injured during their series against both the Houston Rockets and the Portland Trailblazers where the Death Lineup would have dominated and padded their overall playoff stats. The Oklahoma City Thunder were able to overcome Death thanks to their athleticism and length, causing it to not be as effective. The Cavaliers were able to overcome it, basically, based on the sheer determination and talent of James and some other players coming up big in key moments. No matter how much you switch, when James wants to drive and get to the lane, he’s going to. With the Green suspension, Bogut injury and Curry not at full-strength, the Warriors couldn’t hold on to a 3-1 lead as Kyrie Irving delivered big throughout the Finals.

One major liability of the Death Lineup was rebounding. During the season, in terms of offensive and defensive rebounding percentage, they were -1.4 percent worse in both categories per 100 possessions. The starting lineup with a legitimate center was +0.6 in both categories.

For example, the Warriors were going to have trouble in the rebounding department when they faced the number one offensive rebounding team in the 2015-16 regular season. In their matchup with the Thunder (31.1 offensive rebounding percentage), the bigs (Adams and Ibaka) averaged 3.1 and 2.1 offensive rebounds per game — a step up from their averages of 2.7 and 1.8 respectively. Enes Kanter was on his way to doing the same if his horrendous defense hadn’t kept him off the court too much (since these numbers are on a per-game basis). However, the rebounding differential isn’t enough of a deterrent to avoid going small in key spots.

While rebounding seemingly won’t be as much of a problem for the new-look Death Lineup (as the long “6-10” Durant over the course of his career, averages 2.4 more rebounds per game than Barnes), there will be several other issues.

Again favorites, but with different questions

With the new-look Warriors, the hype is real (which is saying something), though they are still reeling from the trophy being clutched from their grasp after a 3-1 lead. In 2015-16, the Warriors relied on their depth to keep fourth quarter leads as the starters laughed and relaxed on the bench. That is no longer going to be a strength to start the year. Harrison Barnes, Andrew Bogut, Leandro Barbosa, Festus Ezeli, Marreese Speights and Brandon Rush are all gone. That’s a lot of depth.

Of course Kevin Durant, along with the ancient and ring-chasing David West and Zaza Pachulia are the main additions and some draft picks. The bench will not be as strong or reliable as it was last year, and only time will tell if that will significantly impact the Warriors come April. It shouldn’t affect them much in the regular season as they play many inferior opponents where their superior talent will overwhelm. They should be on track for near 70 wins again.

However, they may need to at times stagger Durant and Iguodala with Curry and Thompson (or some combination) so that the second unit has more playmaking and scoring than just Shaun Livingston.

Another potential issue is chemistry. There seem to be two nuances to chemistry. A more apt term for one side of the coin is cohesion and the question is: will the second unit be able to have enough to be effective. The other, more popular, side is egos. Two MVPs still in their primes – along with two other current all-stars – on the same roster, in fact, in the same lineup. The tension comes as there is only one ball. Is there enough shots? Whose team is it? Even though the players probably don’t care much these questions, they will be swirling, especially if the team falters.

Durant picked Golden State, so he thinks they can make it work. All signs even point to them making it work. But this is the NBA and nothing is certain. For instance, didn’t you think it was a no-brainer and merely a mental exercise prior to June that the Warriors would win the championship?

While the addition of Kevin Durant to the Warriors and how that will play out is one of the most interesting stories of 2016-17, it certainly isn’t a given that it will go well. The severe lack of experienced AND athletic depth is concerning, there are several high-profile players on the same team which can cause issues, and until it works out – it hasn’t.

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