The All Star break has ended and now it’s time to get back to actual real basketball. Being a fan of the Golden State Warriors, that means i’m part of the most conflicted fan base in the NBA right now – because Golden State couldn’t be more on the cusp of a playoff run. But though they’re on the cusp, a lot needs to happen for them to get there.
By now, both the fans and management thought that the Warriors would be a lot further along in the standings than they actually are. Golden State currently holds the 8th seed in the Western Conference, making them the bottom seed of the playoff bracket in the West and are really right on the edge of the playoff picture with Memphis simply a game and a half behind them. The distance between the 6th seed (Dallas Mavericks) in the West and the Grizzlies is only two games total, so it’s anyone’s game for the bottom rungs of the playoff ladder going into these last three weeks of the season. The Phoenix Suns, holding the 7th seed in the West with a 30-21 record have been playing fantastic ball this season, considering the injury to Eric Bledsoe, thanks in great part to Gerald Green coming off the bench and making them truly dangerous from behind the arc. Chances are, this is going to be a very intense four-way battle for the last few spots; everybody’s got a chip on their shoulder between four franchises that were all expected to make a playoff run, and are all now vying for a playoff run. But not everybody can make it.
One of the key factors that may determine who will ultimately make it to the playoffs is schedule difficulty. Based on the difficulty of the games ahead, the frequency of back-to-back games, and the number of road trips is a strong (though not perfect) indicator of the chances of any given team making it to the post-season. All these factors can have a large affect on records of teams, and should be paid attention to when evaluating whether or not any given team has a shot of making it.
Strength of Schedule
As far as the Warriors’ strength of schedule goes, of the four teams vying for the playoffs (Dallas, Phoenix, Golden State, Memphis), Golden State luckily has the easiest strength of schedule going forward. Fifteen of their next twenty-nine games are against teams that have no shot at the playoffs. Considering that the Warriors are at 10th in the league in total offensive points scored (103.6/game), that’s a break that they need to pick up steam again and becoming as prolific a scoring juggernaut as they should be on paper. This gives time for players like Klay Thompson and Harrison Barnes to pick up steam and start producing like they were expected to produce from the beginning.
The fact that the Warriors have not yet truly hit their stride is worrisome, but the fact that more than half of their remaining games are against non-playoff contenders makes me assume that they’ll likely hit their stride as the playoffs approach (though, Harrison Barnes worries me, which i’ll get to later). The other three teams in the four-way competition also have similarly easy schedules, but less-so than the Warriors.
Road vs. Home Games
Teams generally perform better at home than they do on the road, which is intuitive since if the opposite were the case, then home field advantage would be worthless. The Warriors have been struggling at home as of late, but still have a winning record at home. All but three teams in the entire Western Conference have a winning record at home, and this is a great time to start winning at home to gain momentum.
Golden State, Phoenix, and Dallas all have 15 home games going forward, whereas Memphis only has 13. Two games can be a huge difference when the playoff contention run is different by only two games between four teams. Golden state has 14 road games, which is the second least of the four teams, which is in their favor as a majority of their games giving them the advantage of the crowd.
On the other hand though, the Warriors have the longest road trip out of the four teams. Starting on February 24th, the Warriors will be on the road for six games straight, starting in Detroit and ending in Boston. The only real team that will be a difficult hump to get over is Indiana, since they are arguably the best in the East. In their favor is the fact that they play Detriot, Boston, Chicago, The Knicks and Toronto within those six games on the road; those five are very win-able, since only Chicago and Toronto are amongst those players with winning records, and they are barely winning records at all. Golden State could catch a break on the road by having these Atlantic failures to play against, but they can’t be caught sleeping; they’re n0t in a position to be cocky and not take these games seriously because of the general disarray of the Atlantic Conference as a whole.
Some additional optimism is that their last East road trip ended with the Warriors going 6-1.
Back to Backs
This is where things get dangerous for the Warriors. The Warriors have one of the toughest remaining schedules when it comes to back-to-backs. They have six B2B’s remaining, including several difficult ones between @Sac/ vs. Hou, @Tor/@NYK and @Por/ vs. Minn. Memphis also has six back-to-backs remaining, but less difficult than the Warriors.
Harrison Barnes and Klay Thompson both need to step up. Neither have progressed as expected. Despite Barnes’ amazing performance in the playoffs last year, he has actually regressed this season, shooting only 43% from the field and his passing has been pathetic, averaging a mere 1.3 assists per game.
Thompson has not expanded his game in the slightest. While he has improved in shooting from the field and beyond the arc, he’s still merely averaging 43.2% from the field, which is unacceptable for a starting shooting guard. Furthermore, Thompson has been ineffective in the paint, at best. For a 6’7″ shooting guard, being ineffective in the paint really restricts how dangerous he can be from all areas of the court. Having an effective post-up game is exactly what would bring the Warriors to an entirely different level.
Andre Igoudala has also been lacking. His big-play potential is exactly the reason that he was brought to Golden State, and it was presumed that he would be the one to bring the Warriors over the top. He has been anything but useful thus far. Despite his injury trouble, he has fallen off this season completely. His scoring is lower than it’s ever been since his rookie year in 04-05, and rebounding an assists have also both fallen off. The $13 million he’s getting this year doesn’t add up with this type of performance, and is detrimental to the team.
If what’s around Curry can’t work, then this team can’t work. Golden State needs to step up their game and take advantage of the ease of the schedule going into the next few weeks.