As the Golden State Warriors started off the season setting the NBA on fire—the Dubs were 14-2 through November—much of the team’s success was credited to Steve Kerr livening Mark Jackson’s stagnant one-on-one offense and rejiggering the starting lineup. Kerr’s offensive scheme features whirring, Spursian player movement with Draymond Green and Harrison Barnes starting over Andre Iguodala and David Lee.
In turn, the Warriors became a vaunted top-10 offensive and defensive team. They embarrassed other top Western Conference opponents in front of a roaring Oracle crowd. Steph Curry morphed into a legitimate MVP candidate. Green began a compelling candidacy for Defensive Player of the Year.
Then Golden State’s frontcourt depth came into question around the turn of new year. Lee and Andrew Bogut both have suffered from injuries this season, with Bogut missing 14 games already and Lee having watched 24 games from the bench in street clothes.
Kerr relied on a small ball-ish lineup to navigate through those shorthanded games. The Warriors’ lineup of Curry, Klay Thompson, Iguodala, Green and Marreese Speights became an offensive juggernaut. That five-man unit has the third-best offensive rating of any lineup in the NBA this season, scoring a staggering 126.2 points per 100 possessions in 117 minutes together.
But Kerr has only played that lineup 11 total minutes since February 1. He’s gone even smaller, unlocking an even greater potential for his Warriors.
Facing a 26-point deficit in Boston on Sunday, Kerr handed the game over to Curry, Thompson, Iguodala, Barnes and Green. The result? The small ball unit outplayed the Celtics by 16 in eight fourth-quarter minutes. It’s an extremely small sample size, but the five-man unit posted an absurd 146.7 offensive rating with a 58.6 defensive rating.
Golden State managed to claw back and escape TD Garden with a 106-101 victory. After allowing 38 Boston points in the first quarter, the Warriors held the Celtics to just 36 points in the entire second half.
The defensive prowess is the impressive element here—any lineup with Curry and Thompson is going to be able to score. Curry, Thompson, Iguodala, Barnes and Green have played 53 of their 85 minutes together this season since January 1. When those five have shared the floor, the Warriors have limited opponents to 85.9 points per 100 possessions. It’s the eighth-best defensive lineup in the entire NBA this season, and it’s a lineup that doesn’t boast a textbook rim protector.
That last facet of the Warriors’ success is potentially the greatest argument for Green to win DPOY.
“He deserves some accolades for what he does: Guards everybody on the floor, switches onto Isaiah Thomas and guards Tyler Zeller,” Kerr said. “How many guys in the League can do that? He’s the key to our small lineup because we can still have rim protection and rebounding and toughness around the paint.”
Outside of Curry, the lineup features four malleable defenders all standing around 6-8. With the majority of the players in the unit boasting similar statures, it’s incredibly easy for the Warriors to switch pick-and-rolls. And what they might give up in size against bigger, opposing rebounders, Golden State makes up for in athleticism. Throughout all 48 minutes of each game, Kerr has every Warriors player attacking the glass. Even Curry is averaging a career-high 4.9 rebounds per 36 minutes this season.
“In the NBA, every team has talent,” Kerr said. “Usually it’s the team that plays a little more desperate [that wins].”
In nighty chess matches, it’s always interesting to see which coaches will adjust their lineups to their opposition rather than try and force matchup problems by sticking to their game plan. Teams like the Memphis Grizzlies and Chicago Bulls have been committed to playing two traditional big men in this pace-and-space era dominated by small ball.
Golden State’s flexibility—their proven track record of succeeding playing small and loading the frontcourt with Bogut and Lee—is arguably the Warriors’ biggest strength entering the stretch run of the regular season, on the doorstep of the Playoffs. Kerr has shown he’s willing to alter his lineups night in and night out. He’s not afraid to upset a player with limited playing time for the betterment of the team.
And if the Warriors have their backs against the wall in May, he’ll always be able to fall back on a seemingly transcendent small lineup.
“Every night’s a little different and every matchup’s a little different,” Kerr said. “You just gotta adjust.”
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