It’s a widely held, decidedly unscientific theory that big men need touches, otherwise they won’t to work hard to do the things that Warriors big men haven’t done enough of this year — play defense and rebound. It’s as if power forwards and centers are all the same. Their large frames and specialized skills give all of them a similar sense of right and wrong, consisting of some sort of tit-for-tat corollary that in order to perform tricks like absorbing and dishing out punishment, they need treats in the form of deep post entry passes and plays called in their honor.
Tonight, David Lee had an opportunity to let everyone know that he understands what fans and writers want to see more of from him, because he provided it against the Thunder. 23 points, 19 rebounds, and a semi-surprising win against an Oklahoma City team that played as if they ate lunch this afternoon at the same restaurant that weighed down the Chicago Bulls a week ago (complete tongue-in-cheek speculation on my part, although Animal-style fries aren’t exactly the optimal choice for carbo loading). After the game, Lee said he knows that what this team needs rebounding and defense from him more than scoring. That’s right, all it took was 52 games and a lopsided loss in Phoenix to figure it out.
Andris Biedrins is another player who’s large even by NBA standards and been known to check out if he isn’t given the ball enough early on. It’s odd that a guy who’s afraid to afraid to shoot free throws would make his defensive effort contingent on how often he’s handed chances to score inside, but it’s as good a reason for Biedrins’ sometimes listless play as any. In other words, he’s either dealing with chronic injuries these days or has forgotten to play defense without Baron Davis and/or Stephen Jackson around.
To say all big men are like a bunch of moody children who play with equal parts skill and spite is going too far. There are your rare Ekpe Udoh types who worry only about keeping the other team from scoring, and the fact that the Warriors added a player with that mindset to this team is a victory in itself, regardless of his statistical production this year. But offensively selfless guys like Udoh are especially rare — everybody who follows the Warriors knows that.
There are so many schools of thought about what’s wrong with the Warriors’ high-scoring guards, a divide now exists between fans desperate for the answer to the eternal question: Monta or Steph?
What makes it all the more difficult is that both Stephen Curry and Monta Ellis are great players. Sure, they have their faults, but who doesn’t? The problem isn’t that Curry isn’t a true point guard in the John Stockton sense, or that Ellis can’t defend taller 2-guards. It isn’t because Curry’s size and speed deficiencies and addiction to steals lead to too much gambling and foul trouble that comes to soon. It isn’t their lamentable combined assist-to-turnover ratio. It isn’t even that they don’t know how to make each other better. Those are all examples of things that have gone wrong for the Warriors, but none of those problems are problems every game.
One thing we can say for sure is when the Warriors lose it definitely isn’t because Curry and Ellis don’t like each other, because thankfully that tired storyline has gone the way of Charlie Bell’s relevance.
Instead of stating what the Curry/Ellis problem is, let’s posit a question first. How many great NBA teams counted on their guards to be their No. 1 and 2 scorers every night? The 1989-90 Detroit Pistons’ leading scorers were Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars, but David Lee isn’t Bill Laimbeer and the Warriors don’t exactly have Dennis Rodman coming off the bench. The 1978-79 Supersonics won the title with Gus Johnson and Dennis Johnson as their two top scorers, but Jack Sikma was right there with them and they had seven guys who averaged double figures. The Warriors barely have five.
Throw Dorell Wright in the mix, and you have the team’s three smallest starters taking the most shots. The Warriors were expected hoped to become a better rebounding team this year, with a stronger commitment to defense. Since last year nobody on the Warriors really cared about anything but racking up numbers, from the head coach on down, this year’s defense has been inconsistent but still far better than last season’s. But defense is hardly their strong point, their rebounding (save for tonight) has been abysmal, and they’ve given up more easy three-point-plays than they did in the DunMurphy days.
It would be nice if Lee and Biedrins focused on the so-called dirty work to pay the Warriors back for giving them abnormally large salaries and loads of playing time. Or if Udoh didn’t have wrist surgery that delayed his development and hampered his conditioning. But the Warriors reliance on small guys to handle the scoring load leads to the unbalanced style of play we’ve come to know and tolerate. Long shots lead to long rebounds. NBA teams create their own identities, and the Warriors try to mosquito-bite teams to death. The Warriors don’t necessarily need a “true point guard,” but they need a guard who cares more about initiating post offense for the guys on the team who are over 6’5″. Telling the big players to initiate their own offense through put-backs of Curry and Ellis misses might lead to resentment in the long run. That is, if you believe the theory that big men are moody and spiteful.