Why Have the Warriors Struggled Versus Houston?

(Written for Blue Man Hoop)

In the last 8 days, the Warriors have suffered two discouraging losses to the Houston Rockets. The first, a blowout in Houston, saw the Warriors score only 83.2 points per 100 possessions while allowing 105.2.  James Harden scored 34 points on a 65.5 percent true shooting percentage, while Harrison Barnes, Stephen Curry, and Klay Thompson were held to a combined 12-of-40 shooting.  Monday night, the Warriors lost the rematch in Oakland.  Though the offense was excellent, scoring 113.7 points per 100 possessions, the Rockets surpassed it, scoring 117.7.

In both games against the Rockets, the Warriors have seemed overmatched. Houston’s offense has effortlessly sliced through the Warriors defense while the Warriors offense has at times been slowed, especially when Diwght Howard and Patrick Beverley share the court. While both Houston games were played without Andre Iguodala, the Warriors’ matchup issues seem significant.  Patrick Beverley fits the mold for Curry defenders. Quick and physical, Beverley is able to deny open shots from the perimeter, forcing Curry into a lurking Dwight Howard in the paint.  Howard also has a significant effect in denying Curry on the perimeter.  His ability to hedge and recover on screens, contrary to the Rockets’ typical strategy, gives the Houston perimeter time to recover to Curry without surrendering easy baskets to the role man. Part of this is due to Andrew Bogut’s offensive limitations.  When Howard is defending Bogut, he can hedge a few extra steps on Curry, and play aggressive off ball help defense, knowing that Bogut must reach the basket to be effective offensively. In the two games versus Houston, Curry has scored 42 points on 35 true shooting attempts (possessions used excluding turnovers).  While his 57.1 percent true shooting percentage versus Houston is only slightly below the season average of 59.5, Curry has struggled from the field. Ignoring the free throws that have salvaged his scoring, Curry has scored .846 points per shot.

The real offensive struggles come from the pieces surrounding Curry.  Harrison Barnes has shot a mediocre 50 percent true shooting percentage versus Houston, while Klay Thompson has shot a mind-numbingly horrendous 33.9 true shooting percent, per NBA Wowy.  While Barnes has not excelled, he has not been especially damaging. Thompson, typically an efficient scorer, has crippled the Warriors offense.

Here is Thompson’s shot chart versus Houston, via NBA.com

(Disclaimer: the following should not be viewed by children below the age of 13)

Picture 6


Part of Thompson’s struggles, beyond field goal variance, may be due to the defensive burden of defending James Harden. When Iguodala returns, Thompson may have more success offensively simply due to the decreased expenditure of energy on defense.

David Lee also creates some damaging matchup issues versus Houston.  Lee is too slow to defend wings in Houston’s four-out attack, and does nothing to slow guards against the pick and roll. ESPN writer Ethan Strauss made a video displaying Lee’s struggles defending Terrence Jones in the first game versus Houston:

The Warriors struggles versus Houston, though not entirely condemning, are an issue.  The Warriors have not done an effective job optimizing the expected value of a high percentage of their possessions. To overcome Houston, and many of the West’s great teams, the Warriors must do a better job positioning themselves for success.

Nightly Picks: 11-19-13


Minnesota Timberwolves (-3.5) at Washington Wizards

Washington’s defense, absent Emeka Okafor, has not yet approached last year’s potency, while John Wall and Bradley Beal have struggled offensively.  They face the Timberwolves, who, after a season of three point ineptitude, rifled the barrels of their once useless muskets, adding Kevin Martin and a healthy Kevin Love.  Now, the Minnesota offense is among the best in the league. While Minnesota’s lack of rim protection remains an issue, they rebound well enough to muster a respectably efficient defense.  The John Wall-Ricky Rubio matchup will be fun.  Both point guards are creative passers -Rubio especially so- and pesky defenders.

Detroit Pistons (-4) versus New York Knicks

Though Tyson Chandler is considered the anchor of the Knicks’ defense, it is their offense that has suffered most dramatically in his absence.  New York has taken threes at a much lower rate compared to last season, and is embroiled in typical Knickerbocker dysfunction.  Carmelo Anthony will have many opportunities to score against Corey Brewer and Minnesota, however it is unlikely that he or the rest of the Knicks can overcome a more talented, less dysfunctional Minnesota team.

Atlanta Hawks (+9.5) at Miami Heat

Houston Rockets (-11) versus Boston Celtics

Phoenix Suns (+1.5) at Sacramento Kings

The Hidden Value of Stephen Curry

Centuries from now, as our descendants laugh at the misguided politicians denying the presence of a global cooling epidemic, the preachers will tell tales of the legend that was Stephen Curry, he of the golden jump shot, flames spewing from his fingertips. No spot on the court was free of his fury, no shot too far, no lane too tight.  However, for all the glorious parts to his game, one significant facet often goes unmentioned.

Watch the Thunder defend Curry on this possession:

The Warriors set a basic down screen for Curry. Typically, a player would run outside the screen closer to the sideline.  Russell Westbrook knows this, and, wanting to deny the jump shot, tries to fight over Bogut’s screen rather than sliding under.  Curry recognizes Westbrook’s strategy, and cuts back on the other side of the screen.  Steven Adams, Oklahoma City’s rookie center, steps towards Curry to delay his catch and give Westbrook time to recover. This action gives Bogut an easy lane to the hope, and, more importantly, Adams almost definitely knows this.

A huge portion of the value of Curry’s shooting is not the shooting itself, but the threat.  Players know that the expected value of a Curry three is very high. Per Vantage Sports, Curry shoots 55 percent on three point attempts after using an off ball screen. To put that in perspective, a Curry three point attempt off a screen is worth 165 points per 100 possessions. The Miami Heat, the league’s best offense, score 111.5 points per 100 possessions.

Against nearly every other player in the league, Adams would simply allow the player to receive the ball a bit more open than usual, trusting Westbrook to recover.  Against Curry, Adams takes two steps to hedge, hoping that Serge Ibaka can rotate to Bogut with minimal time.

Stephen Curry is already considered one of the most productive offensive players in the league.  His passing creates a variety of opportunities for teammates, while few parallel his scoring prowess. However, the attention Curry draw’s off the ball is itself incredibly valuable.  While many factors have contributed to his success, Andre Iguodala is having the best season of his career in part because of the space he receives playing alongside Curry.

Offensive creation is often discussed, and, with the emergence of SportsVu and similar technologies, we will soon be able to quantify what was once an ephemeral description.  Stephen Curry’s mere presence shapes the movements of everyone on the court, and, while the magnitude of this effect remains unknown to the common observer, NBA teams can make much more concrete judgements, measuring the deviance from expected location of defenders in Curry’s presence, or similar actions.

The Importance of Depth

It is commonly accepted that star-caliber players determine success.  Though some teams follow ulterior paths, the majority of NBA teams are constructed around a few high-level players or are in pursuit of those players.  Despite this, roster depth, or a lack thereof, is used as a critical in the analysis of a team.

A large portion of many teams’ successes appears to be based on the contributions of their perceived role players.  In recent seasons, the Denver Nuggets have swarmed opponents with a ten-deep collection of talented players.  The Los Angeles Clippers’ “bench mob” sprinted its way to game-changing runs, while the Spurs seemingly have a continuous collection of players capable of perfectly filling their system.

However, these non-elite players are often dependent on the better players on their roster.  Elite and very good players impact a game in such a way that allows lesser player to increase their production, be it LeBron drawing help defense in the mid-post and finding Shane Battier in the corner, Tony Parker drawing the defensive attention on a pick and roll and setting up Tiago Splitter, or Kevin Garnett patrolling the paint and closing driving lanes allowing Rajon Rondo to aggressively hound opponents and passing lanes (That’s not to suggest that Rondo is not a very good player, just that without Garnett’s incredible defense behind him the value of Rondo’s selective defensive aggressiveness would diminish).

So, how important is roster depth?   In an attempt to display the relative value of roster depth versus “star power”, I ran a linear regression comparing the  total Win Shares of the top X players on a team with that teams net rating, points scored per 100 possessions minus points allowed per 100 possessions, for the 60 rosters of the last two NBA seasons.  Ideally, more data would be gathered.  As the process is relatively simple I will attempt to add further years’ data in the future.

Win Shares are not a perfect indicator of player quality, but serve as a decent proxy (and are easiest to convert excel in team units).  It is worth mentioning that the high r-squared values do not necessarily suggest a high predictive worth for Win Shares.  The defensive win shares formula is largely based on team defensive efficiency, so the likelihood of a relatively high correlation between a group of players’ win shares and that team’s net rating is increased.  Net rating, or efficiency differential, is a better indicator of team quality and a better predictor of future results than team wins, so net rating was used as the dependent variable.

Here are the results the effect of the total win shares of the top 3 players on a team by aggregate win shares on net rating:


For every increase of one total win share, an increase of 0.63 is expected for net rating.

For the top 9 players:


For the top 9 players, an increase of 1 total Win Share adds 0.4 points for net rating.

This table shows the relationship for other groups of players:

Number of Players Increase in Net Rating Per Win Share (slope) R-Squared
Top 3 0.63 0.70
Top 5 0.49 0.77
Top 7 0.43 0.81
Top 9 0.40 0.83
Top 12 0.37 0.81


These results clearly display that as the increase in win shares is spread out over a larger group of players the expected return in net rating diminishes.  This suggests that it is preferable for a teams’ top few players to be better by a unit than a larger group or a single player of lower quality.  To many, this is intuitive.  It is better for your best player to be very good than for a few lesser players to improve.  However, some teams are constructed in such a way that their top one to three players are of lower quality than other teams while the comparison of a larger group is closer.

For a team like the Pelicans who, at least by win shares, lack elite players but have a collection of high quality players, this is a significant dilemma.  Having your aggregate talent spread over a greater amount of players may be less productive for than having that talent concentrated among fewer players.  Fortunately, the Pelicans are in position to “add” elite level players.  Anthony Davis has the potential to be one of the top five players in the NBA, while Jrue Holiday, Eric Gordon, and Tyreke Evans have the skills and athleticism to produce at a higher rate.

The value of top players versus depth likely affected a few key decisions this offseason.  The Golden State Warriors lost bench leaders Jarrett Jack and Carl Landry to free agency, but added Iguodala. Though the departure of Jack and Landry was not specifically prompted by Iguodala’s arrival, the Warriors seem to believe that the value of retaining the depth granted by Jack and Landry did not match the potential of adding a single high caliber player.

The value of talent concentration versus depth is one of the several questions facing NBA front offices, and an issue the Pelicans will surely address several times in the near future.

Collection of Blue Man Hoop Posts

Here is a list of my posts at Blue Man Hoop since June 19, 2013:

Festus Ezeli’s Injury Could Be Costly For the Golden State Warriors

Golden State Warriors: Would Thomas Robinson Be A Good Fit?

Carl Landry: Revisting His Most Likely Suitors

How Will Tyreke Evans Effect the Golden State Warriors?

Golden State Warriors: How Does the Addition of Andre Iguodala Affect Their Future Salary Situation?

What Makes Andre Iguodala Such a Good Defender?

Golden State Warriors: 5 Teams That Could Be Like Them In 2013-14

Golden State Warriors: Will Marreese Speights or Draymond Green Have a Bigger Impact?

NBA: 10 Players Likely to Break Out Next Season

Analyzing the Golden State Warriors 2013-14 Schedule

Projecting the Golden State Warriors’ Record Using RAPM

Golden State Warriors: Why Keeping Bazemore Was The Right Decision

Golden State Warriors: 5 Keys to Becoming an Elite Team

Golden State Warriors: Stephen Curry or Damian Lillard?