The defending champion Golden State Warriors are back in the Western Conference finals for a second straight year after beating the Portland Trail Blazers in five games. Now, Golden State will wait for the conclusion of the Oklahoma City-San Antonio series, led 3-2 by the Thunder, to find out its opponent.
That opponent will have to figure out a way to stop the most devastating lineup ever designed, affectionately known as the Warriors’ small-ball lineup of death.
The Warriors were trailing the Cleveland Cavaliers 2-1 in the 2015 NBA Finals, prompting Coach Steve Kerr to switch things up — swapping out Andrew Bogut for Andre Iguodala in the starting lineup. And with that change, the Warriors’ small-ball lineup of death was formed.
Small ball sacrifices height and strength for speed and finesse, and it worked as well as Golden State could have hoped for. The most common version of the Warriors’ small-ball lineup has two-time MVP Stephen Curry at point guard, Klay Thompson and Iguodala playing on the wings, Harrison Barnes at power forward and Draymond Green at center. This lineup had been the Warriors’ third-most used five-man lineup during the regular season, logging 172 minutes and outscoring opponents by 47 net points per 100 possessions. The next best five-man lineup that logged at least as many minutes plays in Cleveland, but it “only” outscored opponents by 24.2 net points per 100 possessions.
Curry’s injury has limited the time this lineup spent together. When Barnes, Green, Iguodala and Thompson have shared time with backup point guard Shaun Livingston in the 2016 NBA playoffs, the Warriors outscore opponents by 46.2 net points per 100 possessions. With Curry it has been 34.
Here’s why it works.
When the Warriors go small, they have five players who are proficient at hitting the three-point shot. Maybe “proficient” is an understatement: Golden State’s traditional small-ball lineup of death hit 53.5 percent of their threes in a league where the average is 35.4 percent. In the playoffs that lineup is hitting threes at a 46.2 percent rate with Livingston and 60 percent rate with Curry.
As you can see here during this simple pick-and-roll play against the Trail Blazers, there needs to be someone on Curry and Thompson (green arrows) for obvious reasons.
Once Green sets the pick, all eyes turn to Curry, the ball handler. That leaves the Warriors with a few options: Thompson and Barnes open on the far side or keep the ball with Curry for the three. In this case, Curry hits from long range.
Here is Curry handling the ball again. And again, all the defenders key in on Curry, leaving Iguodala, Thompson and even Green open to make a play.
And true to the script, Portland fails to pick up Green, who is streaking to the basket for an easy two-point play.
Defensively, you might expect a lineup of players who are 6 feet 8 or smaller to struggle, but this Warriors lineup held opponents to 95 points per 100 possessions during the regular season, a lower rate than this year’s historically good San Antonio Spurs (defensive rating of 96.6). In the playoffs it is down even further to 92.5 points allowed per 100 possessions.
Iguodala is again paying dividends, holding opponents to 0.84 points per possessions. Here is an example from Game 4 against Portland’s C.J. McCollum, who tries to get to the rim but is kept at bay by Iguodala. Instead, McCollum has to settle for a contested shot, which he misses.
Green playing center in these lineups means he is being matched up against taller, heavier players, and hasn’t fared as well (0.99 points allowed per possession). However, he is holding opponents to 33.3 percent shooting in the low post and fighting for rebounds.
Maybe some day an NBA team will figure out how to neutralize this small-ball lineup. But until then, we’re left to marvel at how well this versatile not-so-secret weapon tears up the rest of the league.