Updated Friday, April 17
There’s no debate over which NBA team is the best of this season. The Golden State Warriors have the best record, and nobody else is close. They’re led by the MVP-to be, the acrobatic Steph Curry. They’re No. 1 in the league in most offensive and defensive metrics, they’re the most fun to watch, and they haven’t lost at home since January.
Curry is the master of high-speed basketball ballet. He’s 27, Nureyev at the peak of his artistry. He drives to the hoop with an endless repertoire of twists and turns, spins and reverses. He’s a point guard who makes every sort of pass, including behind the back.
And yet, his outside shooting probably will be his legacy. Last week he broke his own NBA record for 3-pointers in a season.
There’s never been a more natural shooter, but everything is calculated and calibrated. He began studying basketball at an early age, being the son of Dell Curry, who made 40.2% of his 3’s during his NBA career. Steph’s feathery rainbow of a jumper flows from what’s been called The Most Perfect 0.4 Seconds in Sports.
“I love everything about shooting,” Curry once told ESPN Magazine. “But mostly that perfect form when your body is in rhythm from the time you plant your feet until the time you release the ball. When it happens, everything is smooth and calm from your feet to your release. Everything moves through you like a wave, almost. It’s a beautiful thing.”
Curry is nailing 44 percent of his 3’s. He recently sank 77 in a row in practice. Every Warriors starter except center Andrew Bogut is better than 33 percent from the arc. They bury you from 22 feet away. No bombs are smarter than theirs — connecting at 39 percent as a team.
Curry scores 24 points a game. The other Splash Brother, Klay Thompson, averages 21.7. The Warriors have five players putting up double-digit scoring.
Even so, they enter the playoffs – Saturday afternoon against New Orleans — under a cloud of doubts. They’re a perimeter team in a postseason tournament that rewards inside grit over style points on the open floor.
What happens when Curry or Thompson run cold, as shooters inevitably do? Curry this season has experienced nothing you could call a slump, but Thompson occasionally has.
With refs more lax in the playoffs, the hand to hand infantry, its close-to-the-target shooting, is preferred over long-range artillery. The fact that Curry and Thompson have had the run of the court does not mean they won’t be better defended in the postseason.
Manu Ginobili, guard for the defending champion San Antonio Spurs, suggested that the Warriors’ lack of playoff experience will show. They have appeared in only seven postseason games in two years. The Spurs were in the Finals both of those years.
At times the Warriors seem off-balance with their perimeter bias. And Curry, while averaging 7.8 assists, is at heart more shooting guard than point. Those who back Houston’s James Harden for MVP say Curry doesn’t make teammates better, he has better teammates.
In fact, Golden State has one of the league’s better small-forwards, Draymond Green, who’s competing with San Antonio’s small-forward, Kawhi Leonard, for Defensive Player of the Year.
And despite their reputation for finesse, the Warriors have a low-post stopper in Bogut, 7-foot, 260-pound Australian. He’s a combination of Crocodile Dundee and a crocodile.
Still, while Las Vegas sports books list the Warriors as 2-1 co-favorites with Cleveland to win the championship, Charles Barkley, TNT’s Round Mound of Opinion, says with his usual bluntness, “You’re stupid to go against the Spurs.”
He argues that Curry is more a one-man fireworks show than facilitator. “No disrespect to Steph Curry, but James Harden should be the MVP,” Barkley said. “When I am sitting there watching these games, I am asking myself, ‘How are the Rockets still winning?’ James is the only reason they’re still winning.”
Barkley sees Curry with better teammates than Harden but insists the Warriors, including, specifically, Green, are “not tough enough” to beat San Antonio. Never mind that Vegas has the Spurs as 4-1 to win the title. Barkley’s never afraid to bet against the house, which he figures is ahead of him by about $10 million.
That doesn’t make him wrong on Golden State, which has lost to San Antonio by double digits at home and on the road. The Spurs and Warriors are likely to clash in the second round of the Western Conference playoffs, for the best ball of the postseason.
The Warriors’ big weakness is just that – no big forward. Steve Kerr, winningest rookie coach in NBA history, is an adept tactician, but he can’t come out well with undersized, underskilled Harrison Barnes and David Lee, 6-8 and 6-9, grappling with 6-11 Tim Duncan, who’s still among the best of power forwards as he turns 39.
And while the Warriors have no answer to Old Man River Walk, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich has contained Curry by attaching “The Claw” – Leonard, whose long arms and wide hands can strangle anyone. Another Spur who excels at perimeter defense is shooting guard Danny Green, who can’t drive like Thompson but can fire from the arc.
If Warriors shots aren’t falling, they can fall far behind, because they’re mediocre at rebounding: 18th in the league, to San Antonio’s 12th.
Like Barkley, I like the more complete sort of champion, old, slow San Antonio. But it will take contributions from starting center Tiago Splitter and 32-year-old point guard Tony Parker, both of whom are iffy with leg issues. It’s not a given that the Spurs get by the late-surging Los Angeles Clippers, on a 14-1 run and opening at the Staples Center.
In the East, the Atlanta Hawks are top seed, with Mike Budenholzer’s share-the-ball, spread-the-floor blueprint he copied from Popovich. We don’t need Barkley to tell us that if they meet in the Finals, we’d be stupid to go with Spurs East against the original.
As for the Cleveland Cavaliers, No. 2 in the East, they have nowhere near the chemistry of Golden State, San Antonio and Atlanta. LeBron James at 30 may be the sport’s greatest all-round player, but he’s not the most consistent. He’s become prone to turnovers and errant free throws with the game on the line.
Further, he’s not on the same page as his coach, David Blatt. Hell, he may not be in the same playbook. Literally. They’re barely on the same continent. Literally again. Blatt, who was coaching in Israel a year ago, gave up his Princeton offense months ago. Now he is struggling — along with Kevin Love — to adapt to LeBron’s playcalling.
Whatever flaws the Spurs, Warriors and Hawks have, they work together as a team at both ends of the court. And their coaches do more than relay plays. The Cavs, who created such great expectations last September, are still a work in progress.
The Warriors are a beautiful work as is. We’d all do well to appreciate Steph Curry. But the ideal championship team is versatile, able to grind in the half court when splash and flash, Curry and spice aren’t enough. Sometimes you have to bash and gash. In the end, in the Finals, probably earlier, the Warriors aren’t ugly enough.