At the unofficial halfway point, which Warriors are at the head of the class and which players should be sent to detention?
As I write this, I'm looking forward to -- yet worried about -- covering the Warriors/Celtics game this evening. The one reason why I'm worried is that I'm trying to write a midseason report card here for the team and all the players, and the perception of the Golden State Warriors changes nearly every day. If the Warriors beat the Celtics, the talk is going to shift toward how they can make the playoffs and how they'd match up against teams like San Antonio, Dallas or the Lakers in a first round series. If Boston beats them by 30, it's the same-old-Warriors, not good enough to compete but not bad enough to win the draft lottery.
Every Warriors season has its ups and downs, dramatic moments and injury issues. The 2010-11 season has been no different. Ownership changed before the season started, leading to more transparency (or accessibility, anyway) from the top and a new head coach. They began the year with a pretty favorable schedule and took advantage, then injuries and road games created a huge hole to climb out of if the they wanted to make the playoffs for the second time in 18 years. Then the schedule became very home-heavy, and the Warriors won seven of their final nine games to head into the break with a 26-29 record, matching their win total from last year.
That's a pretty remarkable achievement, needing 26 fewer games to reach 26 wins. In terms of how the Warriors achieved this "milestone" as a team, let's first judge how well each player performed individually. And if you're wondering, of course the following grades are on a curve based on expectations, salary and prior performance. Otherwise anybody could just look at the stats and see which Warriors performed and which players didn't. And no "incompletes" will be handed out here either, even for the guys dealing with injuries. Warriors fans are tired of injury-related excuses, so you won't see those here.
1. Monta Ellis
While Ellis not making the All-Star team wasn't a tremendous surprise, it spoke volumes to the respect Monta has earned throughout the league when Blake Griffin mentioned how he felt "guilty" taking Ellis' spot on the Western Conference squad. While Monta's defensive footwork isn't the best and he's a little undersized for his position, those are just about the only qualms anyone could have with a guy who's scored 30+ points in 17 games. In all probability this is Ellis' peak season. His shooting is better than ever (including game-ending situations), he leads the league in minutes played. and he isn't sulking like when the all-time wins leader was around.
2nd half assignment: Don't get tired, improve team defense and AST/TO ratio (currently 1.65).
After a lot of preseason talk about defense and rebounding, the biggest difference between Don Nelson and Keith Smart has been their respective treatment of Curry. Nellie called the Warriors Curry's team last year, and this season Smart has been quick to pull Curry after the first careless one-handed pass or silly foul. But while Curry hasn't exactly made "the leap" in his sophomore season, it's unfair to say he's slumped -- especially considering he's been dealing with ankle issues since last summer and he averages 18/6 every night. He's also the best FT shooter in the NBA, and 48.3% from the field is pretty good for a small guard who shoots as many threes as Curry does.
2nd half assignment: Work on decision-making and defense, and try not to land on anybody's feet after a jump shot. Not good for the ankles.
3. David Lee
Lee's had a strange first season since getting traded to and agreeing to a lucrative contract with the Warriors, mostly due to the case of rabies his elbow acquired from Wilson Chandler. (Wait, that wasn't rabies? Then why did the Warriors require all bloggers to get vaccinated before they can be given media credentials? Maybe that was just me.) Lee's freak injury was blamed for his poor shooting early on (46% through December, after making at least 54.5% of his FG in five years with the Knicks), although he's only made 45.7% of his shots from the field in eight February games. His rebounding numbers are also down from his years in New York, and the Warriors rank 25th in the league in rebounding differential. The Warriors had to know they weren't getting a superstar for all those millions, rather a player who scores efficiently, does the so-called dirty work and acts as a locker room leader. He's got the leadership part down, but he needs to be a more physical inside presence if he wants to be seen as a guy who's earning his money.
2nd half assignment: Rebound. Then, rebound some more.
The best $3.5 million/year the Warriors could have spent. Formerly known as a talented yet injury prone reserve swingman, Wright is currently 5th in the NBA in minutes played, and shows no signs of slowing down. Wright's also the best individual defender on the team, and even got selected to compete in the 3-point contest last weekend. SF was a question mark coming into this season, and Wright's production allowed the Warriors to release Rodney Carney when they were hurting for guard depth.
2nd half assignment: Take care of himself, because he'll continue to get as many 40-minute nights as he can handle.
Uggghhhh. Something is drastically wrong. Either Biedrins' injury-plagued 08-09 and 09-10 seasons are still affecting him, or it's the fact that at some point last season he completely forgot how to shoot free throws. Whatever his problem(s), Biedrins has gone from a double-double guy with tremendous upside to a guy whose trade value has sunk to almost zero. Biedrins may have doubled his FT% this season (from 16% last year to 33% in 2010-11), but 0.9 blocks per game is a career low since he started playing regular minutes.
2nd half assignment: Get aggressive, see a sports psychologist, start spiking his hair out again ... just do something.
Williams is in a fairly enviable position for a guy who started last year in the NBDL. The Warriors want Williams to come off a bench, handle the rock a bit, and shoot without conscience. Sometimes, Williams thrives (like when he scored 18 points on 7-of-10 shooting and dished out 6 assists in 29 minutes in a 116-114 win over Denver on 2/9). And then there are times where he seems afraid to make a mistake, like his next off target 3-pointer will result in a one-way ticket to Reno. With the Warriors so short on point guards, it would be nice if Williams was a better playmaker. But for instant offense off the bench, the Warriors could do worse.
2nd half assignment: Don't be afraid to step on Monta's or Steph's toes, and stop looking so goshdarn nice out there. Williams and Brandan Wright sometimes look like they'd rather be reading to first graders than throwing elbows.
People laughed when beat writers reported that VladRad tried to inspire his teammates during a lackluster early season practice, but Radmanovic has proven in his contract year that he still has something to offer an NBA team. Mostly known for his outside shooting, Radmanovic has actually blocked a few shots this year, grabbed more rebounds per 36 minuts (6.7) than Ekpe Udoh (6.3), and has been the only Warrior willing to commit hard fouls all season. The biggest problem with Radmanovic is inconsistency, as it has been his entire career. If he's on, the Warriors' bench suddenly looks versatile. If he's off, watch out for flying bricks.
2nd half assignment: Make shots early, otherwise Smart usually pulls him.
8. Ekpe Udoh
Since not many had heard of him before the 2010 NCAA Tournament, and even fewer knew the correct way to pronounce his name, expectations for Udoh were mixed going into this season. Then he injured his wrist shortly after the Warriors chose him No. 7 overall in the draft, and nobody knew what to expect, if anything. Now, it's hard to remember another rookie who's caused this much excitement among his fanbase while averaging fewer than 3 points and 3 rebounds per game. Udoh's rebounding needs work, but he's improving at a rapid rate on defense and has a decent little jump hook when he deigns to use it. Smart recently noted Udoh's study habits, mentioning how he gave a select few Warriors a video to study before facing the New Orleans Hornets, with instructions at the end of the video to call Smart. Udoh was the first person to call. If his late-season offense can match his work ethic, this might be the Warriors' PF/C of the future.
2nd half assignment: Keep up the defensive intensity, improve rebounding numbers and don't be afraid to shoot every once in a while.
9. Louis Amundson
He's played fewer than half his team's games, and he's actually been worse at the line than Biedrins (26.7%). However, while he's been a pretty good rebounder and shot-blocker (10.0 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per 36 minutes), even he would have to agree that when given chances -- like the 7 games he started when Biedrins was hurt -- he hasn't come through.
2nd half assignment: Get healthy, practice free throws and try to win the battle for minutes with Udoh and Radmanovic.
10. Acie Law
He's a familiar face, coming to the Warriors in 2009 along with Speedy Claxton from the Hawks in the Jamal Crawford trade. Since then he's been traded twice, signed as a free agent by the Grizzlies and then released. Now he's back with the Warriors (currently he's dealing with a wrist injury that's kept him out since the beginning of February). Law can get to the hoop, but he isn't a great creator and still believes he's a long range marksman -- even though he's only made 25% of his shots from beyond the arc in his career (27.3% in 23 games with the Warriors).
2nd half assignment: Start racking up assists; stop shooting threes.
11. Brandan Wright
Offensively efficient and more fragile than a cheap champagne flute, that's Brandan. Sad Dracula usually ends up with a DNP-CD most games, and it's clear if he's to succeed, it's going to be with someone else. On a team that's almost always on the short end of the rebounding stick, you'd think Wright would get a few more chances to make up for the first few years of his injury-plagued existence, but it seems like Smart and the Warriors have seen enough.
2nd half assignment: Hope for a trade, and/or somehow look meaner in order to convince everyone he isn't softer than frozen yogurt.
12. Dan Gadzuric
The definition of "expiring contract," meaning that his salary slot and time left on his deal are his only tangible qualities. That, and the ability to foul other, more skilled big men.
2nd half assignment: Don't injure any of his teammates in practice.
13. Charlie Bell
Finally started getting some playing time recently due to Law's injury and the Warriors' meager backcourt depth (did I mention they don't have much in the way of quality guards off the bench?), although that might also have to do with the Warriors showcasing Bell and his expiring contract before the trade deadline. Along with his recent DUI charge, this has been a decidedly forgettable year for Bell.
2nd half assignment: Build off recent minutes, try to break into the rotation.
14. Jeremy Lin
Written off as a marketing gimmick by many, Lin looks to be somewhat improved after his stint in the D-League. He'll never remind anyone of Chris Paul, but in the past couple weeks it's hard to say he doesn't look like he belongs in the NBA. Defensively, opposing guards try to push him around with limited success, and Lin will nab a steal or two in his limited minutes. Still, on a team that's searching for playmakers, Lin needs to start thinking pass-first. He isn't bad at getting into the paint, but he has the tendency to be a bit of a black hole once he gets there.
2nd half assignment: Continue with the physical individual defense; play more like a true point guard.
Coach: Keith Smart
Grading coaches on anything other than wins is difficult, because so many things go into coaches' decisions that fans/writers don't see. But there's no arguing that Smart has come into a very difficult situation (1-year contract, losing team, new owners) and changed the culture, lifting the black cloud that followed Nellie around after Baron Davis left. I've been in the locker room a half-dozen times now this season, and the guys don't just like each other, they support each other and talk basketball incessantly (led by Lee, who talks constantly, period).
While some think his leash is too short with Curry, if Curry becomes a more efficient player in future years with an assist/TO ratio of 3+, Smart will get the credit. He probably plays Monta (and D. Wright) more minutes than he should, and his patience with Biedrins has driven fans batty, but there's no denying Smart has done pretty well with what he's been given. So well, that many fans hope he'll be brought back next season -- and how many people were saying that just a month ago?
The Warriors were an absolute mess last season, a ragged group of undisciplined gunners who couldn't care less about defense since their half-asleep coach couldn't be bothered to spend any time on the topic. They're still under .500 this season, and with a challenging 2nd half schedule it would appear unlikely that they'll win the 15 games needed to reach 41 wins, let alone the 17-20 wins they'll probably need to make the playoffs.
But this is still, in many respects, a much better season than most observers expected, and they've brought some momentum with them into the post-All-Star portion of the season. If their overworked players (Monta/D. Wright) can stay healthy, and the players they counted on for somewhat better production this season (Lee/Curry) can perform up to or surpass preseason expectations, and Smart can cobble together some sort of a bench rotation, it could be the most exciting March and April in Oakland since "Fear The Beard" referred to a guy on the Warriors.