The most pivotal moment in Golden State's championship run last season was an injury. No, not Cavaliers point guard Kyrie Irving fracturing his kneecap in the first game of their matchup in the Finals, or Memphis point guard Mike Conley breaking his face before facing them in the second round, or even Kevin Durant's season-ending foot surgery in March. This moment came much earlier and seemed much less consequential at the time. On the final game of the preseason, Warriors' power forward David Lee strained his hamstring. It wasn't a season-ending or even season-threatening injury, but it did force Lee to the sideline for the first 25 games of the season. Steve Kerr started Draymond Green in his place, and the rest has become Golden State lore.
Green was the skeleton key that unlocked the Warriors' potential on both ends of the court, aiding them in their transformation from feisty upstart into all-time juggernaut. The Warriors went 22-3 in Lee's absence. Not only did Lee never regain his starting job; he dropped to the periphery of the rotation. Other than a couple cameos in the playoffs, Lee watched the crucial battles of the Warriors' title run from the bench.
Steve Kerr had been given a mandate to revamp Golden State's offense, and it's possible that he had an inkling of Green's game-changing potential. But it's still hard to imagine a rookie coach feeling comfortable benching his highest-paid player and two-time All-Star in favor of an unheralded third-year tweener forward, especially given the political capital he'd spent moving Andre Iguodala to the bench. Lee's injury gave Kerr both reason and license to test out Green, and thus changed the course of the season.
No such sea change is likely to happen in 2016, but this season's spate of injuries, assuming that they do not linger into the playoffs, may also end up helping the Warriors in the long run. The first, and most obvious, way is that they've given some bench players room to bloom. Andrew Bogut's injuries at the beginning of the season pressed Festus Ezeli into service with the first unit, where his assuredness and confidence on offense and his defensive instincts have both blossomed. While he didn't replace Bogut in the starting lineup, and Ezeli is a better natural fit with the second unit, they're now splitting minutes at center virtually evenly. Who plays more in a given game depends as much on matchups as it does on rotations and foul trouble.
Similarly, Harrison Barnes' lingering ankle sprain bumped Brandon Rush from garbage-time duty into the starting lineup, and has led to a renaissance in his game. He is having his most productive season in four years. He's rediscovered his stroke and is shooting a blistering 48 percent from three-point range, though that number may be a little misleading—his great shooting might be largely owed to Curry's floor-warping gravity giving him wide open shots, as (per nbawowy.com) Rush is shooting an absurd 57 percent from three with Curry on the floor and a mediocre 33 percent without him. Still, defenses have to respect his shot enough to run him off the three-point line. Even if Rush regresses to his career average from distance, he'll be a very useful situational player. Golden State has long wanted another shooter off the bench, and now they might have one.
At a broader level, the injuries have also spurred (wait for it) the Warriors to become, in a couple ways, more like the franchise they model themselves after, perhaps the only team that still intimidates them: the San Antonio Spurs (cha-ching!). Injuries have forced the Warriors to spend time tinkering with lineups they otherwise might never have bothered with. "Lineup tinkering" is a bit difficult to capture quantitatively, but we can still see evidence of it in the NBA's lineup stats. Last season through 39 games, the Warriors used 206 different lineups; their three most-used lineups played 313, 170, and 101 minutes, respectively. This season through 39 games, the Warriors have tried 250 different lineups, and their three most-used lineups—none of which are their preferred starting lineup—have played 197, 120, and 110 minutes, respectively.
The Warriors are trying more combinations of players, and distributing their minutes over the different lineups more evenly. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich has used the regular season as a laboratory for this kind of experimentation for years. While pundits often talk about how Popovich's strategy of careful minute-rationing for his aging core means his team is unusually spry in the playoffs, the less emphasized effect of the rest regime is that the Spurs are able to try their bench players in many different configurations and situations. The Warriors, famously, are often so far ahead at the end of the third quarters that their bench plays the entire fourth. But playing in extended garbage time with a huge cushion is far less valuable than playing in a close game that still hangs in the balance.
It's these meaningful minutes, as much as the rest for the starters, that pay dividends in the postseason: the Spurs' battle-hardened bench plays with discipline and precision even under playoff pressure, making for a team that's flexible enough to adapt to all kinds of situations, having built confidence and chemistry in the regular season. The coaching staff, too, can make confident playoff adjustments, having already determined which lineups work and which don't.
It's not advisable, of course, for all teams to follow this path. The Spurs are able to get away with it because of the years of experience of their core and a demonstrable ability to win on the road in the playoffs that lets them risk losing winnable games. Most teams can't afford to sacrifice opportunities for their starters to build familiarity with each other or risk their playoff seeding. Even the Spurs have tacked away from this strategy this year. Because they need to integrate LaMarcus Aldridge, their starting lineup has already played twice as many minutes as their most-used lineup last season, and we're not even at the halfway mark of the season. But for the Warriors, a team returning almost every piece from their championship run and with a well-established identity, the regular season can be used as proving ground for lineups and strategies.
For instance, when Barnes was sidelined, the Warriors were unable to deploy their vaunted Curry/Thompson/Iguodala/Barnes/Green "death lineup" that was key to winning their championship last year and has been their closing weapon this year. The Warriors have sometimes instead gone to so-called "pestilence lineups" with another non-big (usually Livingston) substituted in for Barnes. While we'd expect these lineups to be less potent than the death lineup, they've been surprisingly bad. Though we only have a small sample of their minutes, this lineup has been outscored by 12 points per 100 possessions. The Warriors seem to be much better off when they play Curry/Thompson/Green with either Livingston or Iguodala (but not both), or even playing more traditional lineups with Green at 4 and Ezeli or Bogut at 5. This is valuable and hard-earned knowledge that they may not have gained without Barnes' injury.
The Warriors might have engaged in some of this lineup experimentation anyway, with or without injuries, under Kerr, but that scenario would seem less likely under Luke Walton. As a temporary head coach, Walton might not have felt he had the authority to deviate much from the winning blueprints that the coaching staff drafted last season. Walton is also, in some ways, auditioning for his next job. Obviously, this doesn't mean he's consciously compromising the team's long-term interests to strengthen his resume, but it might make him less inclined to take risks with lineups that could lead to losses.
Injuries also might have saved the Warriors from themselves by ending their winning streak. While the streak was fun for fans and was great for the league at large, there were signs near the end that it was beginning to have a negative impact on the team. There were the psychological effects of the spotlight and the circus that gave every Warriors game a playoff intensity that's unsustainable over multiple regular-season games. But there were also more concrete signs. The Warriors were pressing a little too hard to keep the streak alive—starters repeatedly playing extended minutes to save games that they otherwise might have conceded in the interest of health, and papering over problems with Curry's brilliance instead of building the winning habits that they will need come playoff time. The streak might have ended eventually, but injuries helped end it early and decisively. Playing without Thompson and Barnes forced the Warriors to gut out a double-overtime victory over Boston, softening them up to be defeated by the Bucks on the second night of that back-to-back.
Steph Curry said yesterday that the team hadn't even broached the topic of maintenance rest until this week, and it's certainly possible that if the streak had gone on longer, that discussion would have remained shelved. The Warriors convinced Draymond Green to rest for the next two games, and they'll also try to get Andre Iguodala to rest soon. This rest, like the other eventualities the Warriors have been herded into by injuries, can only strengthen them for their title defense—even if it might have cost them a win last night.