After a decade of dominance, the Warriors dynasty has come to an end.
Sure, they can still make the playoffs and Steph is still Steph, but the days of competing for championships are behind them. If it’s any solace to him, LeBron and the Lakers are also struggling to merely stay in the play-in, and it feels like the NBA is going through a changing of the guard.
One of the new faces of the league is, of course, Zion Williamson. His Pelicans are surging up the West standings, but a similar story happened last year too, resulting in a disappointing end. So, will this season be any different?
Let’s find out.
Are the Pelicans for real this time?
Remember all the jokes that were launched towards Zion and the Pelicans following their humiliating loss to the Lakers in the In-Season Tournament?
I certainly don’t, because I haven’t made any.
Since then, New Orleans has gone 11-4 with a +15.3 net rating (1st), 122.8 ORTG (6th), and 107.5 DRTG (1st). They’re now 6th in the West but only 3.5 games out of the first seed, and many consider them as a sleeper to make a deep playoff run.
I’m not buying it.
For one, opponents are only making 34.2% of their threes against them this season, which is the third-lowest mark in the league. To be fair, New Orleans also had the lowest opponent three-point percentage last year at 34.3%, but only two other teams that ranked in the top 10 last year remain there this season. So even though the Pelicans must be doing something that influences opponent three-point shooting, the variance involved still makes me question how sustainable such a low percentage will be moving forward.
Moreover, the trio of Zion, Ingram, and CJ just doesn’t mesh well offensively. When those three share the court, New Orleans only has a net rating of +0.3, with a decent 115.2 DRTG but a shockingly low 115.6 ORTG. Interestingly, every configuration involving just two of those players has blown teams out of the water, suggesting that there’s some overlap and redundancy between their skill sets.
Such a theory checks out: Zion and Ingram both like to drive and occupy the same area of the court, and even tho CJ is a floor-spacer, all three need the ball to be effective. Another problem is that both Zion and the team’s offense are at their best when he’s the ballhandler. This season, he’s running 3.7 pick and rolls per game while scoring 0.97 points per possession, which ranks in the 74th percentile. Those numbers are around his career norms, but during the latter half of the 2020-21 campaign, his P&R usage roughly doubled, which resulted in the most productive stretch of his career.
When he has the ball for large stretches, the flashes of Point Zion are still there. For example, his playmaking and scoring chops were put on full display in the Pelicans’ blowout win against Golden State: in the clips below, you can see him find his teammates when he senses help coming or punish mismatches to score on his own.
Zion Williamson running the Pelicans late game offense vs the Warriors pic.twitter.com/7ICqWakc6V
— Boppa ♂️ (@ihatebbls) January 11, 2024
Simply put, this is the best version of Zion, and the Pelicans aren’t taking full advantage of him due to his clunky fit next to Ingram and CJ. The firepower of those three is still enough to blow out any team on any night, but I don’t trust that they’ll be able to find the best shot when things get bogged down in the playoffs. Defensively, opponents will likely start making more shots from three, and I’m never confident that Zion will remain healthy (or fit enough) to sustain a long postseason run.
I hope they prove me wrong, but similar to the Clippers, anything that can go wrong almost always does for the Pelicans.
Do the Lakers have an IST hangover?
Contrary to the Pelicans, the Lakers have plummeted in the standings after the IST. I mean, does LA even know that winning the IST isn’t the same as winning the actual championship?
Since being crowned the inaugural IST champs, the Lakers have gone 5-11 with a -5.1 net rating (24th), 114.4 offensive rating (22nd), and 119.5 defensive rating (21st). In fact, outside of the IST, LA is just 12-20, so maybe they should continue playing on those blinding gold and purple courts.
In all seriousness, this Lakers roster is just shallow. They have two All-NBA talents in LeBron and AD and another good player in Reaves, but outside of those three, the only other player who has been consistently reliable this year has been Taurean Prince. The team just doesn’t seem to be in sync, which is a big reason why many have called for Darvin Ham to be fired. Even on defense, which was supposed to be their calling card, the Lakers are miscommunicating on simple plays like the one below.
Immanuel Quickley screens for RJ Barrett to get Reaves in action. No switch, no show and recover, Quickley pops and gets right to his 3. pic.twitter.com/ytuCU8XOdf
— Steve Jones Jr. (@stevejones20) January 10, 2024
Another significant issue plaguing this team has been their struggles with their best players on the court. Just take a look at the ratings with various configurations of LeBron, AD, and Reaves playing:
LeBron, AD, and Reaves: -5.4 net rating, 115.7 ORTG, 121.1 DRTG (opposing teams are making 41.2% of their 3s while the Lakers are making 33.9%)
LeBron + AD: +1.1 net rating, 115.4 ORTG, 114.3 DRTG (opposing teams are making 39.9% of their 3s while Lakers are making 36.5%)
LeBron + AD, no Reaves: +9.3 net rating, 115.0 ORTG, 105.8 DRTG (opposing teams are making 38.2% of their 3s while the Lakers are making 40.0%)
As you can see, though, there’s a pretty simple reason why the Lakers have struggled: opposing teams are hitting an unsustainable percentage of threes against them. When their fortunes get better, LA will naturally win more as well, but the deeper issue is that this is just a bad offensive team — over the whole season, their 114.0 offensive rating ranks 22nd, and their three-point accuracy (36.5%, 20th) and frequency of threes taken (32.3%, 28th) are both at the bottom of the league too.
The most concerning part is that LeBron and AD have only missed 5 combined games, and both have performed as well as could be expected. AD, in particular, has been on one of the best tears of his career: since December, he’s averaged 28.1 points and 11.6 rebounds on over 55% shooting and he’s held opponents to shooting just 51.9% around the rim on the season (-11.1% below expected).
Given the health history of both players, the Lakers absolutely need to make a move to have a chance of staying afloat if one goes down. Even if they trade for a Lavine, DeRozan, or Murray, their ceiling is probably still capped as a second-round team. LA’s lack of depth will be exposed in the playoffs, and none of those players are perfect fits either.
Sadly, it doesn’t seem like LeBron will have a realistic shot at competing for the championship this season, and the same applies to the next aging legend we’ll discuss.
So this is how a dynasty dies... with thunderous boos
Since I wrote this article praising Golden State back in November, they have gone 11-17 with a -1.9 net rating (20th), 117.5 ORTG (16th), and 119.5 DRTG (23rd).
Sorry, Warriors fans. All 12 of you who remain, that is.
If anyone was still holding on to hope that things could turn around, Golden State’s 36-point drubbing at the hands of the Pelicans likely put that to bed. Yes, Draymond — who’s still their second most important player regardless of his antics — has been out for a lot of the season, but the Warriors have struggled even when everyone’s been in the lineup.
Get this: the starting unit of Steph-Klay-Wiggins-Draymond-Looney last year was the best five-man group in the entire league, as they outscored opponents by a ridiculous 22.1 points per 100 possessions on the back of a 128.5(!!!) ORTG and 106.4 DRTG. This season? That group has a -8.0 net rating, 111.2 offensive rating, and 119.1 defensive rating.
The most concerning part is that Golden State is being outscored with Steph playing, which hasn’t happened since they became a perennial playoff team over a decade ago. They’re somehow even worse when he shares the court with Draymond, as they sport a -5.3 net rating, 114.8 ORTG, and 120.0 DRTG, which isn’t being inflated by outlier opponent shooting, either.
With that said, we’ve seen the post-KD Warriors go through long slumps and remain a major threat (and win a ring), even if they’ve never struggled to this extent. They went 7-16 midway through their 2021-22 championship season, and also started 2020-21 a pedestrian 24-26 before finishing on a 15-7 run to sneak into the play-in. So, can Golden State rediscover their game for another magical turnaround?
Well, the Warriors’ hot finish in 2020-21 was fuelled by a change in playstyle. Steve Kerr leaned more on Steph pick and rolls since Klay was still injured and they couldn’t run their usual free-flowing offense. That season, Steph averaged 7.6 P&Rs per game and scored 1.13 points on such plays, which ranked in the 94.8th percentile. Alarmingly, he’s actually surpassed that volume this year by running 8.3 per game, but he’s only scoring 0.91 points per possession (60.2 percentile).
In other words, Kerr has already gone to his last resort and the offense still isn’t clicking. There is, however, another hope: the other Splash Brother.
It might sound ridiculous to suggest the potential of Klay saving the team, but he has had major resurgences over the past two seasons.
First 21 games: 16.8 points on 40.5/35.6/92.1 splits
Final 11 games: 27.3 points on 46.0/41.9/84/6 splits
First 26 games: 18.1 points on 39.9/37.8/87.5 splits
Final 43 games: 24.2 points on 45.5/42.9/88.0 splits
Klay’s currently averaging 17.1 on 42.8/38.5/90.7 splits, so it’s entirely possible for him to heat up again for the rest of the season. However, he’s also about to turn 34, and even if he does improve somewhat, the rest of the team simply isn’t as good as it’s been the past few seasons.
In 2021-22 and 2022-23, both Andrew Wiggins and Kevon Looney gave Golden State reliable minutes as above-average starters, and they’re borderline unplayable now. For as beautiful as Steph still is, even his numbers have dropped off throughout this season, and he’s no longer a top-five player in the league.
Will Draymond’s return help? Assuming he doesn’t continue auditioning for the MMA, then yes — he and Steph still make one of the league’s most potent P&R duos and opponents won’t continue shooting over 70% at the basket with Draymond guarding when he’s historically held them to between 50-55%.
Even if they experience positive regression, though, this is a slightly above .500 team whose absolute ceiling is capped at a second-round exit, which is far from the dark horse title contenders that many (myself included) thought they might be.
You had a hell of a run, Warriors, but all good things must come to an end.
This week, please check out nikpatel’s article on the Spurs’ individual shooting numbers! Nik did a great job of creating graphs that are easy to understand, and there’s a reason why his Twitter (X?) handle is called NumberswithNik.
Thanks as always for reading!