The NBA regular season is fast approaching, and the Golden State Warriors are returning the same starting lineup from their championship season last year. The Warriors are opening up their quest for a title defense at home against the Houston Rockets on October 17, and this is what their starting lineup will probably look like.
Point Guard: Stephen Curry
Legendary outfielder Reggie Jackson reportedly referred to himself as “the straw that stirs the drink” for the 1977 New York Yankees, and if Curry had a similarly-sized ego as Mr. October, it’d be an apt self-description. On a team full of stars, Curry is the one that radiates the most excitement. The only evidence one needs is to observe the frenzy he cultivates during pre-game warmups with his ritualistic heaves from the locker room tunnel. As if the rate at which he sinks those nearly impossible shots isn’t remarkable enough, what’s even more astonishing is how many people milling about the arena stop to look upon it, anticipating the moment they can experience the disbelief at what they just saw occur. Mark McGwire during batting practice in 1998 might be the only accurate comparison in athletic practice lore.
Last season was the first year since 2013-2014 that Curry didn’t win MVP, so he has certainly set a high standard for himself. Despite not winning MVP, he was still an All-Star and a member of the All-NBA Second Team. There were stretches where his outside touch seemed to lose some of its precision compared to where it has been these past few years, but he still finished the season with a 41.1% mark from downtown. Although it was the lowest of his career, it’s still an elite total. For some perspective, famed sharpshooter Reggie Miller only had a higher 3-point percentage than that in 5 of his 18 NBA seasons. With the addition of Durant, Curry had less of a load to carry on offense, but he still averaged 25.3 points per game and 6.6 assists per game. Curry’s perennial MVP status will continue to be hurt by the perception that the Warriors rely less on his production than a typical team does from a superstar, but he has reached a stage in his career where championships are all that matter to him.
Shooting Guard: Klay Thompson
It’s hard to quantify how crucial Thompson is to the success of this team. Everybody can attest to his stellar perimeter shooting, and how even with a backcourt partner like Curry, there may not be a better marksman on the planet when he catches fire. His epic 37 points in the third quarter against the Sacramento Kings a couple years ago comes to mind, as well as his 60 point effort in just 29 minutes against the Indiana Pacers last season. Given the empirical evidence, it’s not absurd to expect more instances of unreal scoring production next season. On offense, Thompson is nearly automatic on the catch-and-shoot when he curls off screens, but it’s his defense that makes him even more indispensable to the squad. Thompson is able to use his quick feet and long arms to shut down the opposing team’s most explosive guard, allowing the Warriors to hide the less defensively-gifted Curry on the easier backcourt assignment.
Thompson has increased his scoring average each of his 6 seasons in the league, finishing with a career-high 22.3 points per game last season. There was speculation that Thompson would be the player who sacrificed offensive opportunities the most with the addition of Durant, but Thompson actually saw his shots per game total increase by 0.3 last year. Curry, Durant, and Draymond Green all decreased their shots per game last year compared to their previous season. Thompson made his 3rd All-Star team last year but ended up being excluded from the All-NBA Third Team for the first time since the 2013-2014 season. He knows his role on this team, and Thompson looks poised to continue illustrating that he’s one of the best two-way players in the NBA.
Small Forward: Kevin Durant
On the sidelines of Super Bowl XXIX, San Francisco 49ers illustrious quarterback Steve Young exuberantly pleaded with teammates to “take the monkey off my back” as it became clear that he’d finally led his team to a championship. Although no microphones caught Durant using that exact phrase in the waning moments of game 5 of the NBA Finals last season, the sentiments he felt were most definitely similar. After arriving at the decision to leave the Oklahoma City Thunder and sign with the Warriors as a free agent in July 2016, Durant was subjected to the type of animosity from fans that only LeBron James himself could relate to when he had left the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Miami Heat back in 2010. Perhaps the most dynamic offensive player of the past two decades chose to join a team that was already coming off two seasons in which they had won a championship as well as a record 73 regular season games.
The backlash was swift and ferocious, and it was unclear how Durant would adjust to being viewed as a villain instead of the amiable character he had been up to that point. His decision was ultimately vindicated when he hoisted the elusive Larry O’Brien Trophy at the end of the playoffs. He missed about a month and a half near the end of the regular season with an MCL sprain, which only added to the suffocating adversity he had already faced prior. Durant might be the most difficult player in the league to guard. He’s officially listed at 6’9’’, but those around the league insist he’s 7’0’’ in shoes, and his wingspan is about 7’5’’. Abnormally quick for someone his size, he can essentially create a shot for himself anytime he pleases. When he pulls up for a midrange jumper, the defender basically just has to hope he misses, because there’s no easy remedy to nullify Durant in that scenario. Big men are too slow to stay with him, and shorter players with more lateral quickness sacrifice the size needed to adequately contest his shot. On 2-point field goals 16+ feet away from the hoop last season, Durant shot a remarkable 55.8%. His total field goal percentage was actually the highest of his career at 53.7%, although he attempted the fewest shots per game of his career with 16.5 shots per game. Volume was sacrificed for efficiency, which is a luxury only a team equipped like the Warriors could allow for him. He still managed to average 25.3 points per game last year, although that mark was the lowest he’d averaged for a season since his rookie campaign of 2007-2008, which illustrates his stunning scoring ability.
Durant also made tremendous strides as a defender last season. He’d always had remarkable physical gifts on defense, but he fully bought into a team culture that is predicated on defensive intensity. With less of a burden on offense compared to what he had previously been tasked with, Durant was able to devote more defensive emphasis to his game. The next challenge for Durant is to undeniably assert his case for being called the best player in the world.
Power Forward: Draymond Green
If Durant is the most talented, and Curry is the undisputed leader, then Green is the heart and soul of this team. The passion with which he plays is unrivaled, and there’s a sense that he still has a rather large chip on his shoulder that remains from all the doubts that were heaped upon him before NBA stardom was achieved. He finally wrestled the Defensive Player of the Year Award from the smothering grip of Kawhi Leonard last season, and while Leonard may stake a claim as the preeminent perimeter defender in the league, Green is the league’s most versatile defender. Nobody in the NBA can guard 4 positions with the prowess he can, and he has made the NBA All-Defensive First Team each of the past 3 seasons. His defense alone makes him an elite player, even before factoring in his contributions on offense. Green was tied for 5th in the NBA with 5 triple-doubles last year, while also leading the team with 7.0 assists per game. While his facilitation skills remained impressive, his shooting dropped off. Compared to 2015-2016, Green had a field goal percentage that was 7.2% lower and a 3-point field goal percentage that was 8% lower in 2016-2017. Some reason for optimism is that those percentages went up during the 2017 playoffs.
Green shot 44.7% in the postseason compared to 41.8% in the regular season. From downtown, his improvement was even more dramatic, with Green netting 41% on 3s in the playoffs compared to just 30.8% on 3s during the regular season. Those increases indicate a positive outlook for his 2017-2018 shooting numbers. It’ll continue to be a compelling duel between him and Leonard regarding defensive supremacy. Leonard has 2 DPOY awards, and Green would love to match that with another transcendent defensive season.
Center: Zaza Pachulia
While he may feel like the Ringo of this group, Pachulia plays an important role. He keeps the ball moving with efficient passes, sets screens, and cleans up around the hoop. Although he wasn’t able to duplicate his rebounding totals from 2015-2016, he was still able to serve proficiently in that regard. He averaged 5.9 rebounds per game in 18.1 minutes per game and ranked 24th in the league in rebounds per 48 minutes. He also boasted a 17.7% mark in terms of Total Rebound Percentage. He didn’t qualify in that category based on playing time, but of players who did, Alex Len ranked 15th in the league with 17.8%, offering some insight into how Pachulia’s rebounding ability compares relative to the rest of the league. Although a solid rebounder, he doesn’t serve as a rim protector on defense despite his 6’11’’ stature. On this team, his scoring comes mainly from easy put-backs. His field goal percentage last season of 53.4% was his career best, and 66.4% on his field goal attempts came from inside of 3 feet, which was also a career high for him.
Although it’s not necessary with the offensive pieces around him, he has proven capable of knocking down midrange jumpers over his career, and his free throw shooting ability prevents opponents from intentionally sending him to the line the way they would with past Warriors’ centers like Andrew Bogut and Festus Ezeli. He’s not a star like his fellow starters on this team, but if he’s a squad’s worst player among their starters, that team’s in pretty good shape. It will suffice for the Warriors if Pachulia can hold his own on the boards and capitalize on easy offensive opportunities created for him.