We are a quarter through the NBA season, and I'm still writing "the undefeated" in front of "Golden State Warriors." They are 23-0, a record that looks like a typo because it's never happened in American pro sports.
Steph Curry is one-fourth of the way to the best season the league has ever seen, and his numbers remain stubbornly unreal. He's putting up more points per minute than anyone other than Wilt Chamberlain while simultaneously flirting with the highest scoring efficiency of all time. The way he's doing it, with hair-trigger, deep three-pointers and circus shots around the rim, makes it look like he's CGI enhanced or aided by actual, literal magic. We keep waiting for the regression to come, for his play to return to earth, but he remains defiantly, flagrantly weightless.
Steph doing the impossible while leading his team to do the improbable is (understandably and justifiably) the biggest story in the NBA, so loud that it's drowning out so many other interesting narratives: the Spurs returning to an defensively intimidating iteration of themselves from last decade, the resurrection of the Dallas Mavericks, the rehabilitation of Paul George, the Charlotte Hornets having the second best record in the East, and so on. His play even threatens to overshadow other aspects of his own team's play.
For instance: the Warriors might be having the greatest passing season in a quarter-century.
NBA passing is generally thought to have reached its peak in the 1980s, particularly in the Celtics and Lakers teams that won a combined eight titles in that decade. Led by two of the greatest passers ever to play their respective positions, Larry Bird's Celtics and Magic Johnson's Lakers dissected defenses in the half-court and shredded them in transition.
It was gorgeous, up-tempo basketball that transfixed hardcore junkies and casual fans alike. The statistics bear out conventional wisdom. All of the winning teams in the top 20 in assists through 23 games played in that era except for one: the 2015-16 Golden State Warriors. The Warriors' 665 assists in 23 games is the 10th best start ever recorded.
Of course, we have to subject cross-era comparisons to the usual caveats about pace, style, and how well the crude statistics that enable these kind of historical comparisons capture what actually happens on the court. But they do confirm that the Warriors are within range.
So far this season, the Warriors are averaging 28.9 assists per game. Stats provided by NBA.com tell us that they're averaging 70.3 points off of those assists, and 40.9 adjusted assists (a stat that also counts assists of assists and passes leading to free throws), which lead the league. The gap between the Warriors and the Hawks, who rank second in all these measures, is about the same as the gap between the Hawks and the fifteenth best team in the NBA. By virtually any measure available, the Warriors are by far the best passing team in the league.
So how are they doing this? The typical story that's told is this: Steph Curry is such a terrifying shooter that when he comes off of a pick, defenses double-team him rather than leave him open for an instant or isolated against a player too slow to guard him. This leaves opposing defenses with three men to guard four Warriors, which means an open shot. And since the Warriors often field a lineup with five capable perimeter shooters, that open shot is often a three. That's what happens in the play below. The Clippers defend it as about as well as one can, and it doesn't matter in the slightest.
While it's true that lineups with Steph on the floor and Draymond Green at the 5 are destroying opponents, they've only been on the floor together in that alignment only 2 percent of the total minutes played, and that lineup is putting up assists at the same rate as the average Warriors lineup. In fact, Warriors lineups without Steph Curry on the floor at all would still lead the league in assists. So while the story starts with Steph's scoring threat, it doesn't end there.
So how are the Warriors doing this?
There were many reasons why the Warriors decided to fire Mark Jackson, but the primary one was their woefully stagnant and underachieving offense. The problem was obvious to casual fans: too often, Golden State ran skeletal sets that would quickly die after their first foray, saddling Steph with the task of conjuring points out of nothing, or requiring Klay Thompson, one of the league's best shooters, to score on brutal post-ups. The result was a predictable and inefficient offense that threw the fewest passes in the league, and was only slightly above average in offensive rating, despite all of their offensive talent.
Last year, Steve Kerr and his staff installed a new offense that emphasized and encouraged ball movement. The results have been obvious: the team jumped to first in assists, leapt from 12th to second in offensive rating, and won the championship. But how they got there is a bit more subtle. Two years ago, in Mark Jackson's last season as head coach, Curry was responsible for 33 percent of the team's assists. Last year, he was responsible for 27 percent. This year, he accounts for 13 percent. It's not because he's playing more selfishly: the number of passes he's thrown has actually gone up, and his adjusted assists have stayed relatively constant over these three years. Rather, Steve Kerr's system has redistributed playmaking opportunities, spreading responsibility for creating offense across the entire team.
Take the Warriors' weave, which looks like a pretty but pointless gimmick right up until the moment it leads to an open dunk by Festus Ezeli:
There is a method to the madness. The play will end with a high pick-and-roll between Curry and Ezeli, with the rest of the Warriors spaced out along the three-point arc. None of the dribble-handoffs that precede the pick-and-roll are ornamental, however. Because each player that catches the ball is a threat to drive or to shoot from the perimeter, the Clippers defenders have to concentrate hard to follow their defensive assignments through all the cross-cutting, which makes it difficult to help when the Warriors finally spring the pick.
When Steph Curry (#30, who makes the first pass) eventually gets the ball back, he's coming off of two screens instead of one. The first is from Harrison Barnes (#40), who screens Curry's primary defender (Chris Paul, #3) after he passes him the ball, then Ezeli, who screens the defender (Lance Stephenson, #1) who tries to switch onto Curry. The Clippers defend the play very well—DeAndre Jordan cuts off Curry's path to the basket and Stephenson recovers well enough to prevent Curry from throwing the pass directly to the cutting Ezeli—but it's all for naught. Curry rifles a pass to Draymond, who instantly throws a perfect lob over the top of Blake Griffin's hands.
This is the Warriors' offensive strategy in a nutshell: put the ball or the players, or both, into motion, forcing their opponents to ward off multiple attacks every possession, bending a defense back and forth until it breaks. This motion offense perfectly matches the Warriors' strengths: they're a team rostered with unselfish passers and gifted creators. Now, with an additional year of experience in this offensive system, Golden State has reached another level.
When teams force the ball out of Steph's hands, the task of keeping the offense moving often falls to Draymond Green, whose abilities and confidence as a playmaker have blossomed with the added responsibility. His court vision and touch are both impeccable, and his timing has grown more and more precise: he's not only making the right pass; he's making it exactly when the defense can do nothing to stop it. His seven assists per game puts him in the top 10 among all players this year, easily the best mark by a big man. In fact, his 7.5 assists per 36 minutes would be in the top 5 ever recorded by a frontcourt player.
In this example, the Bulls have Jimmy Butler on Green so that when Green screens for Curry, the Bulls can simply switch, leaving Butler on Steph. Butler is an excellent athlete with a big, long frame—the kind of defender that sometimes bothers Steph. The problem is that Draymond and Steph are too smart for them. When Butler moves to prevent Curry from getting the pass from Barnes, Steph simply backcuts him, and Draymond delivers a perfect pass into a narrow window.
Green is joined in the frontcourt by Andrew Bogut. His days as a scorer are far behind him, stolen by a gruesome injury to his shooting arm, five years ago. But he remains an offensive weapon because of his basketball literacy and passing touch. When he's on the court with the starters, he can act as the maestro of the offense, finding Steph and Klay cutting off screens or feeding them on dribble-handoffs. Look at how Bogut's pivot on the fake dribble-handoff acts as a screen to get Steph a sliver of space, and how his soft touch on this pass leads Steph like he's a wide receiver:
When the second unit comes on the floor, they replace the gravitational pull of Steph and Klay with the guile of Shaun Livingston and Andre Iguodala, two veteran basketball craftsmen who are able to manufacture shots for just about anyone. This makes them a perfect fit for players like Ezeli and Marreese Speights, both of whom need to receive passes in the right places to score—Ezeli on dives to the rim and Speights on pop outs for his midrange jumper. This chemistry is why the Warriors' prototypical second unit of Livingston, Barbosa, Iguodala, Speights, and Ezeli is putting up assists at a rate that would still lead the league. This is no aberration of small sample size either: last year's second unit would have led the league in assists, too. Even accounting for the fact that this bench unit likely sees most of its minutes against opposing second units, this is remarkable.
Then, of course, there's Steph Curry. With the burden of repeatedly resuscitating dead offensive sets lifted, Curry's audacious creativity has been free to bloom. This blind overhead lob probably violates some kind of obscenity statute:
The result of unshackling all of these playmakers has been at once gorgeous and devastating. Look at how Steph splits the double team with a pass. Draymond's pumpfake draws one defender and freezes another, leaving Livingston with a free run to the rim.
The better opposing defenses play, the more rotations they make, the longer they're able to hold out, the more satisfying the inevitable denouement, like the climax of a libretto. This is bordering on gluttonous:
If the Warriors' passing is baroque in the half-court, it's a rock band on fast breaks: raucous, unpredictable, and aggressive. Even on made baskets, a team that fails to match up as soon as Golden State gets possession can abruptly find themselves retrieving Warriors' made buckets from the net:
When the Warriors are clicking as a team, defending their passing is physically and mentally exhausting. Perfect defense can still surrender open looks, and even when it doesn't, one of the greatest offensive players of all time might beat you all by himself. This is why Golden State's offensive rating is the highest ever recorded over the first 23 games of a season. The defense's misery is fans' gain, though, because the Warriors are playing some of the most beautiful and effective basketball of our era.