('88 Record: 20-62)
At the beginning of the '86-87 season, there seemed to be quite a few people who had high hopes for the Golden State Warriors.
"This is the Warriors year! I'm telling you!"
"The Warriors are going to make the playoffs this year!"
"Have you been watching the Warriors? They look pretty good this year."
No, I hadn't been watching the Warriors. Ever since I had moved from the Bay Area in '84, I had basically forgotten about them. In the Pacific Division, there were the Lakers, the Trail Blazers, and a bunch of teams without much personality. After hearing so many people boasting about the Warriors, though, I decided that I had better reacquaint myself with my former home team.
There were a few familiar names: Purvis Short, J.B. Carroll, Larry Smith, and Sleepy Floyd. Everyone else was new. It seemed like a lot of change at first, but I soon realized that teams like Chicago, Cleveland, and the Clippers had also changed dramatically in that time. I actually ran through rosters at one point and found that Golden State hadn't changed any more than average since '84. The league average number of players remaining on a team from '84 rosters was 3.8 and the Warriors had four, so they were actually more stable. It was still hard to absorb all the new names: Teagle, Higgins, Mullin, Washburn. Some of them had been big names in college, but they didn't seem to fit at Golden State.
About a month into the season, the Warriors were 10-6 and about to face the hot L.A. Lakers. When the news came in the paper the next morning that the Warriors had won, their fans spoke up, "How 'bout the Warriors now? They beat the Lakers last night. Did you see that? Golden State's going to push the Lakers this year." A couple nights later, the Lakers crushed the Warriors 132-100 and my Bay Area friends were silent.
As the season progressed, the media hype that the Warriors had been getting died down. The Warrior games, which had been getting the headlines in the NBA Roundup, eventually became the games at the end of the Roundup with the basic write-up, "So-and-so scored 27 points in leading the _____ over the _____." Whether they won or lost, the media treated the Warriors as boring.
The Warriors' playoffs of '87 were quite eventful, if not just plain weird. The team went to Utah's Salt Palace for its first playoff appearance since Star Wars came out in the theaters. Like your typical good guy/bad guy movie, the good guys got into big trouble early by losing the first two games. Utah played the role of the stupid bad guys by basically saying, "We've got you now and we're going to have fun watching you die." They must have set up the old 'when-this-candle-here-burns-through-this-rope-here-the-block-of-granite-there-will-crush-you-into-dust-ha-ha-ha' trick, because, like you see in comic books and on Get Smart reruns, the good guys had just enough time to put out the fire, save the girl, and beat up the bad guy. "In real life," mom used to say, "things like that never happen." Well, it happened and all it needed was some dramatic music in the background or laugh tracks to make it worthy of CBS coverage.
This series was weird in other ways besides the unusual turnabout. First of all, both teams had been quick teams during the regular season, but this series was quite slow. More surprisingly, though, was that the Warriors won the series with defense (they actually played some!), something they were near the bottom of the league in. Looking back on the series and the stats and how Utah was only a slight favorite in the beginning, the result isn't too surprising, but it still seems like we went past that sign post up ahead and right into the Twilight Zone.
The Warriors next opponent was the Lakers. Golden State was badly humiliated through most of this series as their defensive weaknesses became very apparent. Even in their best game, Game 4, in which Floyd had his miracle quarter, the problems with the Warriors were still obvious. They had no defense; they had offensive holes at power forward, off the bench, and often at center; their best offense was Floyd shooting nearly 100% with his eyes closed (and not distributing the ball); they became too confident after that game, too thrilled by winning to realize that they got extremely lucky. When their season was ended in the next game, they seemed satisfied with all they accomplished. They had a winning season for the first time in five years; they had the only victory of the West playoffs against the World Champion Lakers; they had some young stars and some more players with 'great potential'. Things looked pretty good to them for '87-88.
When the Warriors started the next season losing every game, then finishing at 20-62, stunned fans asked what happened. As I see it, Lady Luck and the Warriors got divorced with the judge awarding the house, the car, and the dog to Lady Luck, leaving the Warriors with a bunch of snotty kids to raise and mature. There was no gold mine in the deal, but there undoubtedly was a shaft.
The '86-87 Warrior season, though it superficially was quite good, was not that good statistically. When all the magazines came out with their NBA previews, it was apparent that some of the sportswriters had seen that the Warriors were not as good as their record. Most everyone had something bad to say about J.B. Carroll and something good to say about Sleepy Floyd. A few mentioned that the Warriors were outscored in '86-87, but they didn't say how badly they were outscored. In the end, a lot of previews were saying, "We don't think the Warriors are that good, but they have a pretty good backcourt and they should make the playoffs just because the Clippers, Suns, Kings, and Spurs are worse."
As predictable as the Warriors fall-off was, it's surprising that no one came out and said that this team was going to be pitiful. The main thing that made the Warriors' drop so predictable was how badly they were outscored in '86-87. They were outscored by nearly 200 points for the season or about two and a half points per game. By the Pythagorean 17 formula, those phoney Warriors that won 42 games should have won only 34 games. Eight games is a very big difference. Part of Golden State's 22 game collapse were those 8 games.
Another nine or ten games of that drop were due to an incredible offensive decline. In '86-87, Carroll, Floyd, Mullin, and sometimes Short were all offensive threats, making the Warriors a top ten offensive team. In '87, first Short went to Houston. Then, Carroll and Floyd took a later flight to the same destination. Finally, Mullin must have thought alcohol was his only friend left until he found that it was no friend. He took a couple weeks off to see if he could survive on his own, then came back to play some good basketball. Otherwise, the Warriors were playing playground basketball (just like in their commercials) with young guys who could only make the Clippers look bad.
The final four or five games lost can be attributed to a bad defense gotten worse. When Carroll left, some of the limited number of blocked shots and intimidation he provided in the middle left with him. In '86-87, this team was 22nd in blocks; in 87-88, it was 24th, behind every team and Mark Eaton. If anything is going to change next year for this team, though, it is this stat. The Warriors next year will have Ralph Sampson and Manute Bol jamming the airways with seven and a half foot frames. With these guys' hands in the air, what the Warriors will have is twenty feet and 450 lbs. of ball swatters.
What will the Warriors be like in '88-89? It's hard enough to guess their starting lineup, much less their record, but there are some indications that they will improve.
Getting Don Nelson to coach is going to be a steadying influence on this team. The Warriors should get along well with Nellie and his past success with the Bucks should make his players believe in him. Also, almost all the teams Nelson had in Milwaukee were very good defensively; if that defensive quality was due to Nelson, the Warriors should quickly patch up the defensive problems they've had for the entire decade.
Another thing that will help this team is the addition of Bol. Though Bol is absolutely no offensive threat, his presence in the middle on defense should make the defense at least average. It's anyone's guess at this point how much playing time Bol will get, but if he gets only 1600 minutes, he'll probably be Mark Eaton's defensive equal. Offensively, Bol is, at best, slightly better than Eaton and, at worst, worse than Eaton. Both players are awful offensively, but Utah showed this year that it's possible to have a fair offense without a reasonable offensive center. If Bol can handle 2300 minutes next year, I would say to give it to him. He may really help this team.
Finally, it looks like this team will improve because it is very young. A friend of mine whom I've worked with in a rotisserie baseball league, says I go overboard when it comes to youth and he's right when it's baseball, but basketball is my specialty and I think Golden State's youth is going to help a lot in '88-89. Playing defense is a lot easier for young players. Getting through picks or keeping up with a quick player becomes increasingly tiresome with age. Defense is one of those skills that improves or stays constant until about age 28, then deteriorates quickly afterward. Teaching defense to the Warriors shouldn't be a big worry of Nelson next year as the young players should learn it quickly if they really want to win. The Cleveland Cavaliers use their youth and athletic ability to tremendous advantage on defense. The Warriors are about as young, though perhaps not as athletically gifted, and should be significantly improved defensively next year, which will add a few games to the win column.
You'll notice that I haven't said anything about offense. With the acquisition of Bol, it's not going to really improve unless draftee Mitch Richmond is something special. Small forward Rod Higgins and guard Chris Mullin appear to be fine offensive players and may make the team better offensively, but didn't last year. Point guard Winston Garland got a lot of positive press at the end of his rookie season, but his numbers don't indicate why. Is Larry Smith coming back? His rebounding helps, but probably not enough to justify keeping him around very long because he has no offensive value. If Sampson plays the center position as well as he did in his rookie year, that will really help the team, but his performance the past two years don't indicate that he can do it.
Thinking about the whole situation - offense, defense, and expansion teams, I can see the Warriors winning 25-29 games next year. Any fewer than 25 should be considered disappointing. Any more than 29 and they probably have the Coach of the Year (Nelson), Rookie of the Year (Richmond), Most Improved Player (Higgins), or Comeback Player of the Year (Sampson).
Basketball Hoopla, © 1988, L. Dean Oliver