The Warriors enter the All-Star break three games below .500 and four games outside of the 8th playoff spot. They've won seven of their last ten games with several of those against quality playoff bound teams, such as the Chicago Bulls and the Oklahoma City Thunder. There were even a few wins against inconsistent, yet solid teams in the Utah Jazz and the New Orleans Hornets. Perhaps the Warriors are on the uptick? Marcus Thompson II of the Bay Area News Group seems to think so after last night's 107-100 win over the sliding Utah Jazz:
gswscribe: That was a chipper locker room
The Warriors ending the "first half" of the 2010-2011 NBA season the way they opened it, solid wins at home, perhaps gives Warriors fans a glimpse into what could be, now, that this team finally has played together for a good amount of games. Or are these just the constant teasing of Warriors teams filled with mismatched talent and a coach waaaay in over his head?
The fact that the Warriors are only three games below .500 is possibly a testament to how good this team might actually be had it not been for all the injuries that marred them before the season even started. Ekpe Udoh, whose hustle and energy on the defensive end shows up in the box score with consistent positive +/- every game, hurt himself in a freak accident lifting weights at the Warriors practice facilities in the off-season. Early reports said Udoh would be out until February 2011. To shore up the front court, the Warriors signed free-agent PF Louis Amundson, who ended up missing the first twenty games of the season. Then came the infamous bite that rivaled anything we were expecting from the Twilight film and book series.
With the Warriors rolling out to a 5-2 start, starring their new $80 million dollar PF David Lee and backcourt play dispelling rumors of an off-season breakup (more on this later), Wilson Chandler of the New York Knicks sank his teeth into David Lee's elbow (inadvertently) mid-game and infected in ways that seemed more like some zombie-effect from AMC's Walking Dead. The Warriors nearly lost the game against the Knicks at Madison Square Garden, but the win was costly as Lee was hospitalized. Soon after, rumors swirled that this injury was career-threatening and that in the worst case scenario Lee would have to have muscle surgically removed.
Losing seven of their next eight games on the road was cause for reflection among sports-writers covering the Warriors. Many began questioning Coach Keith Smart's rotations strategies. Fans felt Smart was out-coached given how their half-court sets were constantly stalled during this stretch of losses. Stephen Curry endured ankle sprain after ankle sprain, which seemed to exacerbate existing concerns among fans that Curry was too soft to guard NBA talent and too weak to create offense against the leagues bigger guards. Soon after Lee returned from injury, Curry went down with another ankle injury versus the San Antonio Spurs on December 8, 2010, which at that moment the Warriors and Curry collectively decided to rest it extensively. Then came a seven game losing streak featuring huge losses against the Spurs, the Thunder, the Dallas Mavericks, and the Phoenix Suns.
This was clearly the low point in what seemed to be an otherwise promising season. Upon returning from injury, Lee played inconsistently, struggling with his offensive in the paint and, especially, from the field. For a while, fans and sports writers debated whether the Warriors overpaid for what they thought was an elite power forward, who was barely removed from being the NBA All-Star replacement just a season ago. Fans, myself included, slammed Lee as purely a product of Mike D'Antoni free-wheeling system that many thought was why Amar'e Stoudemire looked so good in Phoenix. But it was soon revealed by Marcus Thompson II that Lee was still bothered by the injury, as evidenced by a leaked photo on Thompson's Twitter showing a gaping hole where Chandler's teeth once bit into.
But the Warriors slowly played catch-up with an extensive home stand. With the Warriors playing 18 of the next 22 at the Oracle, there were high hopes that a healthier roster, with the return of Ekpe Udoh, would finally show fans what how good the Warriors could be. But the home stand only seemed to magnify existing problems, which became 20-20 vision clear that this team was suffering from mid-game mental meltdowns. Opposing teams were outscoring the Warriors from the free throw line on average by 10 points a game. Rebounding and turnover disparities were equally huge. The Warriors commonly bailed out teams with touch fouls or gave them multiple and-1's on breakaway layups, which also put their star players in unnecessary foul trouble. The team was a mess but individually, players like Monta Ellis and Dorell Wright began to earn their reputation around the league.
Wright shook off early season shooting struggles from the field, which at one point hit a low of 38%, and began to diversify his game a bit. Rather than park himself at the three-point line, which Wright indirectly complained stunted his development in Miami, Wright began taking the ball off the dribble and taking more high-percentage shots from mid-range. But beyond offense, Wright's length, athleticism, and hustle has made him one of the more valuable players to the current squad. Often guarding the opponents best player, Smart often relies on Wright and Monta to steady the second unit.
Monta, too, shouldered much of the responsibility on the defensive and offensive end, which garnered him the most all-star game considerations in his young and, at time, controversial career. After a slew of 30 points games punctuated by game-winning and game-tying shots, NBA fans and sports critics alike took notice at the diminutive guard who many thought was "cancerous," to use Kevin Garnett's words, to the Warriors squad.
In the midst of the disappointing home stand which the Warriors hardly gained ground in the playoff race, Warriors majority owner Joe Lacob dropped a bomb in an interview with Matt Steinmetz suggesting that Monta was the face of the franchise and that anyone, including Curry, could be had for the right deal.
But, oddly, the trade talk seemed to spark the Warriors play. In recent weeks, the Warriors offense has run more smoothly than earlier in the season. Wright's improved shooting (48% through January), Curry deferring less (shooting a scintillating 50% since January), and Lee's improved jump-shooting could be attributed to Smart's simplifying of the offensive schemes. What that really meant was that the players were struggling to learn Smart's interpretation of Jerry Sloan's flex offense, which meant Smart had to adjust and infuse it with former Coach Don Nelson's system. Part of this included getting players more shots in very particularized places on the court in order to help with their rhythm (see Wright and Reggie Williams). With this, ball-movement has greatly improved and more players, besides Monta, began getting touches. Monta, on certain occasions, took a back seat on the offensive end, but helped shored up the perimeter defense instead.
This all brings us to the Warriors current record of 26-29. It could be worse, but we hoped it would be better. For the record, the last time the Warriors were this good (or bad) at the all-star break was the NBA 2006-2007 season, which later became the "We Believe" team that knocked out the No. 1-seeded Dallas Mavericks. Assuming that today's squad will be that good is presumptuous. But the Smart's adjustments throughout the season, as evidenced by the improvement though still inconsistent play by players like Stephen Curry, Monta Ellis, Dorell Wright, and David Lee, show that maybe this squad does have the talent to get better. With a seven game road trip coming up against some the East's worst teams, an extensive losing streak against these opponents could be the barometer of whether this team will ever be playoff bound as assembled.