You'd think the mere presence of a shooter and playmaker like Steph Curry would guarantee you a top 10 offense. Last year, you would've thought wrong. Despite surrounding Curry with Klay Thompson, Swiss Army Knife Andre Iguodala, and a couple of skilled big men in David Lee and Andrew Bogut, Mark Jackson's Warriors finished third in defensive efficiency, but just 12th in offensive efficiency. It wasn't hard to see why. Creative set pieces and individual play calls like the Elevator Doors for Curry, Thompson, and the two bigs caught a lot of eyes, but those were the exception. Instead, a steady diet of isolations under Jackson—Golden State ranked 3rd in the number of those plays per game per Synergy Sports data—led to an unsettling number of stagnant and ineffective possessions. The Warriors shut down Steph Curry better than any opposing defense could have hoped to.
And so, coming off a 51-win season and a second consecutive playoff berth, Golden State made an unusual change. It let Mark Jackson walk and hired yet another ex-player with no coaching experience, Steve Kerr. Kerr brought in his former head coach in Phoenix, Alvin Gentry, and together they're in the process of creating a system that blends the best of the Triangle, the old guard Suns, and modern analytics. And if everything goes right, the Warriors are going to blow the doors off the league this year. It's about time they did.
It's not a surprise that Kerr's first move was to implement the Triangle Offense as his base system. During his time with the Bulls in 90s, Kerr played in the famed systems utilized by Phil Jackson during his title winning years with both Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant's Lakers. From the looks of it so far this preseason, the Warriors aren't going to rely too heavily on the system—it's more a weapon than a philosophy—but certain aspects of it will be readily apparent.
For instance, you'll definitely notice one Triangle staple: the split cut. The split cut is essentially a coordinated two-man cutting and/or screening sequence that occurs whenever the ball is thrown into the post:
Yet despite being spoken of in almost reverential terms, the Triangle, in it's original form, may not hold up well in today's game due to rule changes—primarily the changing from illegal defense to defensive 3-seconds—and the heavy influence of advanced metrics. The main critique is that it relies heavily on post ups and a tangled web of screens and cuts that produce a lot of shots from the mid-paint to the mid-range. You know, like the Lakers. That type of set up doesn't take advantage of a generation of players who grew up attacking off the bounce or playing in pick-and-roll. Kerr and Gentry have remedied that with some subtle changes.
Usually when the ball is passed away from the "strongside triangle"—two perimeter players, one on the wing and one in the corner, and the post man on the block—it triggers the second big to flash to the opposite elbow and get into a two-man game of handoffs and screens inside the arc. In Kerr and Gentry's system, that doesn't happen. The two players not in the triangle are stationed on the perimeter, stretching the defense, instead one of them loitering in the opposite short corner like the original Triangle alignment.
Now instead of getting into a two-man game at the elbow, the Warriors can flow into either a big catching and dribbling at the corner man for a hand off or a drive-and-kick game, like what happens here against the Heat:
That spacing also helps free up space to attack the basket off the split cut:
Because Iguodala is cleared out to the corner, and not near the paint along the baseline, it forces his defender into a longer rotation. Harrison Barnes exploits that by curling his cut all the way around and driving to the basket without a weakside help defender (Matt Barnes) being able to rotate into his path.
The Nash-to-Amar'e Legacy
Just as Kerr's days in the Triangle influence this offense, so too does Gentry's tenure in Phoenix. The Warriors, like last season, are looking to play fast. So far this preseason, they are fourth in pace after finishing last year in sixth, according to ESPN.com. The Warriors pushing the tempo is maybe obvious, but where you notice Gentry's true impact is the subtle off-the-ball movement during pick-and-rolls. While coaching under Mike D'Antoni and later on his own, Gentry had the opportunity to design plays around the dynamic pairing of Amar'e Stoudemire and Steve Nash. Specifically, because Stoudemire was such a terrifying finisher out of pick-and-rolls, Gentry (and D'Antoni before him) came up with a unique approach to maximize that advantage.
Most teams try to create driving lanes out of pick-and-rolls for their ball handler to attack the rim and structured their alignments to provide as big of driving lanes as possible. The Suns flipped this and instead tried to create situations where it was Stoudemire's roll to the rim that occurred with the least amount of congestion. Ideally, that meant a lone help defender faced the choice of either jamming Stoudemire's dive to the rim—and conceding a 3-point shot in the process—or half-heartedly stalling him and hope the play didn't end with a highlight reel dunk.
It's still early, but you can already see this philosophy taking hold in Golden State, where both Curry and Iguodala can play the Nash distributor role. Here's Festus Ezeli playing the part of Stoudemire against the Clippers:
Because Iguodala has the size to easily throw the ball back to teammate Leandro Barbosa lifting on the wing, the Clippers J.J. Redick is reluctant to leave him and slow down Ezeli's roll to the rim. With both Thompson and Draymond Green located on the strongside of the floor, there's no one else behind Redick to attempt to stop the lob. But had Redick left Barbosa to slow Ezeli, it would have created an open 3. Redick's teammate Jared Cunningham shows the other side of this conundrum when he leaves Curry in order slow down David Lee's roll to the rim:
Now, overloading the strongside of the floor doesn't come without it's drawbacks. For teams with players whose strengths lie in driving to the basket out of pick-and-rolls, it puts more bodies in front of them during their attempt to get to the rim. This is less of a problem for the Warriors because Steph is sort of crap at the rim to begin with, but willfully packing the paint on yourself isn't a great idea for any team. You can get around this by surrounding the pick-and-roll duo with three shooters, thereby creating enough space for a ballhandler to attack the basket, but the Warriors start two big men in Lee and Bogut who can't stretch the floor to the 3-point line, so that's out. In order to keep the roll side clear, Golden State does something more unconventional. Their solution is positioning one of their bigs directly into the path of their ballhandlers. Take a look at how cramped the spacing is on the strongside of that last play.
Had the Warriors tried to set up their pick-and-roll for Thompson to have a chance to drive to the rim, they would have needed to move big man Ognjen Kuzmic to the weakside. But if he's stationed there, Cunningham won't need to help off Curry because Kuzmic's defender would be there to jam Lee's roll to the basket and not have to worry about Kuzmic knocking down a 3 or catching a lob behind him. But because the Warriors sacrificed Thompson's driving lane as an opening gambit, Cunningham is forced to decide whether to let Lee roll unaccosted to the rim, or cheat off Curry.
If you're going to try this, you need to have guards that are capable of scoring efficiently from the mid-range, and bigs who are a legitimate threat on the move. Luckily, the Warriors are loaded with exactly the type of players that made Gentry's Suns go. They might not have a dominant finisher like Amar'e, but pinging the ball off of Lee off the roll demands nearly as much attention because of his post game and passing. Here's a look at a similar situation, where Kuzmic circles under the rim into Thompson's path to free up the weakside, and Thompson responds by claiming the space in front of him and sinking a jumper.
By combining the best two systems that emphasize ball movement and spacing, the Warriors have looked like a completely different team on offense this preseason. They trail only Cleveland in offensive efficiency so far, per RealGM.com, and the scary part for the rest of the NBA is this team is still getting used to what Kerr and Gentry are asking them to do. If Golden State can elevate their offense to the point of last year's third-ranked defense, the Dubs are going to do some damage.
Brett Koremenos is a freelance writer and a basketball trainer and coach. Follow him on Twitter here.