Before David Lee tore his hip flexor, the Golden State Warriors frontcourt was already lacking in playoff caliber talent. Without Lee, the most potent interior option on the team, coach Mark Jackson went a different route. He featured a new lineup, featuring Stephen Curry, Jarrett Jack, Klay Thompson, rookie Harrison Barnes and Andrew Bogut.
The lineup destroyed the Denver Nuggets. In 76 minutes, the combination outscored Denver by 15.4 points per 100 possessions. Perhaps most impressively: Both offensive and defensive figures, where a small lineup with below-average defenders typically falters, easily bested the No. 1 regular season marks.
Golden State got away with small-ball against Denver. They won't be so lucky against the systemic brilliance of the San Antonio Spurs.
The Warriors need consistent offensive outbursts from the Curry-Thompson duo to upset San Antonio. (They are shooting 39.7 percent on 14.6 3-point attempts per game during the postseason.) That is painstakingly obvious to any casual NBA observer.
But that is ignoring perhaps the biggest difference maker: Andrew Bogut and the rest of the Warriors frontcourt. Bogut was the lone defensive fulcrum in most of Golden State's small lineups last series, a tall task with perimeter defenders prone to defensive breakdowns. And it worked — somehow. The Warriors allowed a mere 100.5 points per 100 possessions while Bogut was on the floor.
Golden State played even better with 6-foot-7 rookie Draymond Green on the floor. Green's unlikely shooting contribution — namely his six 3's on 12 attempts — made him an attractive floor spacing option against Denver's leaky perimeter defense.
Carl Landry was the only negative amongst the Warriors frontcourt. Not only did Denver corral more offensive rebounds when he was on the floor but Golden State hemorrhaged more points than the last-ranked Charlotte Bobcats. Landry, a bruising power forward with decent range, wasn't a
good solution against Denver.
The biggest wild card is Lee — or, at least, whatever is left of him. He returned remarkably early after tearing his hip flexor and tallied one rebound in 87 seconds of action in Game 6. A healthy Lee means a lower scoring burden for Curry, whose handling the biggest offensive workload in the playoffs. The primary trade-off, meanwhile, is on the defensive end. In a research article conducted by Grantland's Kirk Goldsberry, focusing on interior defense, Lee was tagged as the "worst interior defender" in the NBA. While having an engaged Lee adds a unique element to the offense, it also could spell disaster against Tim Duncan and Tony Parker, both of whom will feast on Lee's deficiencies. And though the Warriors defense improves in his absence, they still yielded 46.1 attempts per game inside 10 feet last series, easily the highest figure in the league. That would be a big a no-no against the Spurs.
Entering the semifinals, Golden State will be at a frontcourt disadvantage against San Antonio. Dealing with Duncan is a problem in itself but Tiago Splitter, Boris Diaw and Matt Bonner offer Gregg Popovich interesting lineup flexibility.
The Warriors need an answer. Small ball may have gotten them this far but, like a pitcher with an electric fastball, they need something else to throw at San Antonio if they want a legitimate chance to advance to the Western Conference Finals.