“Who knows?” Klay Thompson said to reporters about Thursday’s matchup between the Golden State Warriors and the Toronto Raptors. “It might be a preview of June.” Thompson is right. Despite all the injuries and locker-room drama, Golden State (15–7) is still the favorite to come out of the West for the fifth straight year. The Warriors’ opponent on Thursday night has the best record in the NBA (18–4), and is outscoring opponents by 8.3 points per 100 possessions, second best in the NBA. June is a long time away, but here are eight thoughts and questions in November about the two Finals favorites.
1. The Warriors Are Regressing to the Middle
When Steve Kerr was hired as Warriors head coach in 2014, he installed an offensive system that unleashed Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson by promoting the 3-pointer and ignoring the midrange. In 2014–15 and 2016–17, the Warriors took the sixth-highest share of 3s and the seventh-fewest midrange shots; and in 2015–16, their historic 73-win season, they took the most 3s and the second-fewest midrange jumpers. The Warriors helped change the way offenses play in the NBA; now, almost the entire league follows the same blueprint.
So it’s funny to look at their numbers this season. The Warriors are in the middle of the pack in 3-point rate (17th), and only the Spurs have attempted a greater share of shots from midrange, per Cleaning the Glass. It’s not as if the Warriors are taking drastically fewer 3s; they still take around the same number of their shots from 3 (32 percent) as they did the past four seasons (between 29.1 and 33.6 percent). The Warriors are, however, trading layups and dunks for midrange jumpers. They’ve tried a lower percentage of shots in the restricted area than any other team in the NBA (28 percent), and since Kerr’s first season, they’ve taken the highest percentage of midrange shots (40.2 percent). These numbers are effectively the inverse of the Dwane Casey–led Raptors teams that were bashed for their archaic style before switching it up last season.
Here’s how the 2016–17 Raptors’ shot distribution compares with that of the 2018–19 Warriors:
Raps Last Season vs. Dubs This Season
|Team||% of Shots From Restricted Area||% of Shots From Midrange||% of Shots From 3|
|Team||% of Shots From Restricted Area||% of Shots From Midrange||% of Shots From 3|
Curry’s shot selection hasn’t shifted over the years. Neither have the role players’ or the bigs’. Kevin Durant and Thompson are changing, though. Durant is shooting like it’s the early 2010s in Oklahoma City; 58 percent of his shots have come from midrange, compared to only 19 percent 3s. Thompson’s at-rim chances have plummeted (22 percent in 2015–16 to 12 percent this season), and he’s taking a career-high 49 percent of shots from midrange. Their decline is undoubtedly affected by the absence of Draymond Green (who has missed the past six games with a toe injury) and Curry (who has missed the past 10 because of a groin injury); their shot creation (and Curry’s gravity) produces open shots near the rim and behind the arc. But Golden State’s shot distribution has been similar not just in recent games but throughout the Kerr era.
The Warriors have three of the greatest shooters ever; when they’re healthy, they compensate for all of the low-value attempts. They still score 114.2 points per 100 possessions, which ranks third in the NBA and a mere tenth of a point behind the Raptors (114.3). It’s comical, and rather stunning, how the Warriors ( a team at the forefront of a revolution ) are now behind the curve, while the Raptors ( the team that was once stuck in the dark ages) are now playing a progressive style. If the Warriors are healthy, it won’t matter in the playoffs. But their old habits could hurt them down the line if one of their superstars isn’t on the court.
2. Kawhi’s Path to MVP May Be With the Pass
Leonard can do it all: He can be a go-to scorer or he can lock down the opponent’s best player; he can rebound; he can pass. Tuesday, in a 122–114 comeback win over the Grizzlies, Leonard helped fuel Toronto with his playmaking. Kyle Anderson, who played four seasons with Leonard in San Antonio, played prevent defense on his former teammate, holding Leonard to 17 points on 5-for-11 shooting. When Leonard did get a touch, the Grizzlies harassed Leonard with help defenders to force him to pass. But Leonard has become a player who has the strength to fire passes to the perimeter from the paint, and he’s accurate even when pressured.
Leonard is averaging only 3.1 assists per game this season with the Raptors (and 2.3 for his career), but that doesn’t begin to explain his passing prowess. In the clip above, Leonard gets credited for nothing in the box score even though he’s the one who generates the open shot by driving baseline, drawing the defense, and then delivering a pass that leads to an assist. Later in the game, as the Raptors began building a lead, the stats came.
Leonard logged three assists over the final five minutes Tuesday — including this powerful drive followed by a LeBron-like kickout to Kyle Lowry for the corner 3. It’s a magnificent play that few players are capable of making, but Leonard isn’t asked to do it as often as Toronto’s other stars, since Lowry runs point and Fred VanVleet handles the bulk of the creating off the bench. But when the Raptors need Leonard to make plays for others, Leonard comes through.
I find that to be Leonard’s best quality: He can morph into the type of player that his team needs, whenever they need it. Leonard may not put up the per-game statistics to earn more MVP votes over Giannis Antetokounmpo, because Giannis is also Milwaukee’s primary playmaker. But Leonard’s been one of the best two-way players in the NBA so far this season, even though it still seems like he’s not quite 100 percent healthy. Once he is, the Raptors will level up.
3. Pascal Siakam, Hustle-Belt Holder
Hustle has never been a concern for Siakam. At New Mexico State, it looked like he was auditioning to play Forrest Gump when he ran the floor. He played hard on defense, and he’d chase down loose balls and rebounds the way a kid goes after candy spraying out of a piñata.
But the rest of his game was rudimentary: His defensive fundamentals were raw on the perimeter. He couldn’t shoot well outside the restricted area. He had a quick first step, but his loose handle prevented him from scoring on pro-level athletes with any consistency. Siakam was drafted 27th in 2016 by the Raptors; in the three seasons since, his role has increased incrementally, and his weaknesses have become strengths. Now he’s one of the NBA’s best role players.
Siakam leads the NBA in 2-point percentage at 69.9 percent, largely because of his performance on the break. Just like in college, Siakam will beat defenses up the floor to get open for layups and lobs. The difference now is he can do it all by himself.
Plays like the one above are regular occurrences for Siakam. According to Synergy, he finishes 1.5 possessions per game as a ball handler in transition, which is the same number as Blake Griffin. Siakam is shooting 18-for-23 on the break. Siakam tightened his ballhandling and sharpened his footwork, and the Raptors empowered him to initiate the offense or go from coast to coast. This didn’t happen in college; Siakam logged only five possessions as a ball handler in 68 games over two seasons. It was a scouting oversight.
It’s in Siakam’s personality to give maximum effort, and as a result, few players run the floor as hard as he does. Young, active big men should look at Siakam as a model for their games. There was no question that he could be a rim-runner in the NBA, but by developing his ballhandling skills — and landing with a team that lets him use them — he has become one of the game’s most ferocious transition scorers.
4. Three Bigs Are Equal to None
The Warriors haven’t had the same luck with their big-man draftees as Toronto did with Siakam. Now that David West, Zaza Pachulia, and JaVale McGee are gone from Golden State, there are plenty of minutes open for one of its young bigs to seize.
The three big men — Kevon Looney (drafted 30th in 2015), Damian Jones (30th in 2016), and Jordan Bell (38th in 2017) — are different players, and none has taken the full-time starter role. Jones, 23, didn’t get better over three years at Vanderbilt, and not much has improved now in his third NBA season. He’ll throw down lob dunks and athletically block shots, but it doesn’t make up for his flaws. Jones still doesn’t execute plays well on offense and gets lost on defense like a Lyft driver whose GPS stopped working.
Bell played fairly regular minutes as a rookie last season and had big moments in the playoffs. But he lacked discipline at Oregon, and rebounding has never been his strength. Remember when he failed to box out on two offensive rebounds in the final minute of the Final Four, leaving him in tears after the game? Bell, who turns 24 in January, still loves to swipe at the ball to try to block a shot, leaving his feet instead of using his length to contest.
These problems aren’t new for Jones and Bell. It’d just be nice if they went away. They were drafted into a perfect situation for a young big man to develop. With superstars surrounding them at all times, their tasks include basic things like screening, rebounding, and defending. But they too often screw them up.
Looney is the best of the trio — and the youngest, at age 22, despite coming out of college before both Jones and Bell. Looney magnetically attracts rebounds with his enormous 7-foot-4 wingspan, plays hard, and does well at the little things like boxing out and screening. As a result, he has outplayed Jones and Bell in virtually every game this season.
Looney fell to the back of the 2015 draft’s first round because of concerns about his hip — he underwent surgery on his right hip in August 2015, then his left hip in April 2016 — and his stamina, as his motor ran way too cold for long stretches in his lone season at UCLA. Both factors explain why Looney, despite outperforming Jones and Bell, plays only 18.5 minutes per game.
Bell, Jones, and Looney will be losing more minutes soon with DeMarcus Cousins expected to return after Christmas and Draymond Green coming back from his toe injury. The Warriors will be more than fine. With so much elite talent, all they really need is a journeyman big man or the equivalent. It’s just too bad none of the bigs they’ve drafted have totally panned out.
5. Is Golden State’s Offense Down to Boogie?
Speaking of Boogie: I can’t wait to see how Kerr uses Cousins considering the clash in styles between the big man and the Warriors offense. Cousins has ranked in the top 10 for postups logged in each of the past five seasons, per Synergy. But the Warriors haven’t ranked in the top half of the league in post scoring once during Kerr’s five-year tenure.
But that doesn’t mean Golden State ignores the post completely. The Warriors use the post as a source for playmaking, as The Athletic’s Ethan Strauss recently highlighted. You’ll frequently find Green or even a reserve like Bell posted up, but instead of making a move to score, they’ll first survey the floor to find an open shooter. Boogie, however, prefers to make his move, and if he can’t get a shot off, then he’ll look for an open shooter.
The clip above is Boogie’s final assist before rupturing his Achilles last January, and what a beauty it was: While double-teamed, he spun and managed to throw an off-balance dart to Darius Miller, who drained an open 3. On the Warriors, he’ll be surrounded by more talented shooters than ever in a system that preaches off-ball movement. Cousins can and does pass well. But now he’ll have the opportunity to evolve into a true playmaker.
6. A Blueprint for Fultz? Be Like Livingston.
Shaun Livingston’s career hasn’t panned out the way he expected it to after being selected fourth overall in the 2004 draft. One of the most grotesque leg injuries in sports history kept him from becoming a star, but Livingston has gone on to play 14 seasons and win three titles as a critical role player. Livingston was and is a creative at-rim finisher, a savvy cutter, a smart passer, a hard-nosed defender, and a good teammate. What he’s not is a shooter: He’s attempted only 77 shots from 3 over 886 regular-season and playoff games and made only 15. But he is a solid midrange shooter; he’s hit 43.5 percent of his over 3,000 2-pointers attempted outside of the restricted area, including the playoffs. Even without a 3, Livingston became a player who fueled winning.
Watching Livingston, now 33, excel today, I’m reminded of Sixers second-year point guard Markelle Fultz, whose mysterious shoulder injury has turned him into a useless shooter. Fultz has made only 41 of his 146 attempted 2s outside the restricted area (28.1 percent) and just 4-of-15 of his attempted 3s (26.7 percent). Livingston could shoot from midrange and the free throw line early in his career, but he suffered his debilitating injury at 21; Fultz was 19 when his shoulder/shooting issues first arose. Regaining his shot will be a challenge for Fultz, who is now 20. But he should look at Livingston as a model for the rest of his game.
Fultz, at 6-foot-4 with a 6-foot-10 wingspan, is athletic enough to be a versatile defender. He knows how to run pick-and-roll, change speeds, find open shooters, and finish around the rim. It’s important that he at least become an average midrange shooter, like Livingston, but he should commit himself to playing hard on defense and mastering his playmaking. Fultz’s career may never be what he expected it to be, but he can still be a success.
7. Fred VanVleet Is Everywhere on Defense
VanVleet was an elite defender in college; he communicated with his teammates, didn’t miss rotations, and was great at picking up and pestering opposing point guards the full length of the court. Still, there were questions about whether his defensive skills would translate to the NBA. He is undersized (6 foot, 195 pounds) with a tiny 6-foot-2 wingspan and wasn’t exactly quick laterally.
But times have changed since 2016, when he went undrafted. VanVleet quickly morphed into a stellar defender. After a slow start this season while dealing with turf toe, VanVleet is back making plays all over the court:
This play had me howling. Watch how VanVleet handcuffs himself to Mike Conley Jr. VanVleet fights through a screen, moves laterally, helps on a Marc Gasol drive, and then closes out to contest Conley’s shot. It was just one of many special possessions by VanVleet in Tuesday’s comeback win in Memphis, and it’s one of many to come the rest of this season. If Warriors-Raptors truly is a Finals preview, you can bet VanVleet will be on the floor for some of the most memorable moments.
8. Is Toronto for Real?
The Raptors are on a 67-win pace, but they’ve played the NBA’s fifth-easiest schedule so far. We’re about to find out just how great they really are. Only four of their 14 games following the Warriors showdown come against a team with a record currently below .500 (both versus Cleveland). After Thursday, they’ll host Denver, Philadelphia, and Milwaukee early next month before a West Coast road trip against the Clippers, Warriors, Blazers, and Nuggets.
I buy the Raptors. Kawhi is still Kawhi, Lowry is having an outstanding season, and their surrounding pieces all fit. Raptors president Masai Ujiri has built a strong, deep, and versatile roster that head coach Nick Nurse is utilizing well. Even simply alternating the starting five between Jonas Valanciunas and Serge Ibaka — the latter of whom has seemingly not missed a jumper all season — has been a smart call. But the next few weeks will begin to reveal just how ready this Toronto team is for its true test in June.