For the Golden State Warriors, this season is shaping up to be playoffs or bust...ed ankles.
The fate of the 2012-13 rests on the problematic ankles of their star players, Stephen Curry and Andrew Bogut. There's a good reason why the ESPN staff picked Golden State as one of the biggest candidates for a turnaround in this year's Summer Forecast: If healthy, Curry and Bogut are good enough to push the Warriors into the playoff scene for the first time since 2006-07 and just the second time in more than 15 years.
It's easy to see why the Brooklyn Nets are the most popular pick to make the leap this season; they landed a six-time All-Star in Joe Johnson, they might get a full season out of Brook Lopez, and they beefed up their rotation with newcomers Mirza Teletovic and C.J. Watson. Top it off with a new arena, look and locale, and the Nets feel like an expansion team that doesn't have to suffer through a talent drought like an expansion team.
Though the Nets unquestionably boast the sexier offseason compared to the Warriors, what happened in Golden State's summer could be just as fruitful. Both Curry and Bogut have been rehabbing from ankle surgeries since April, and both hope to be healthy enough for training camp. This can't be stressed enough: If Curry and Bogut strengthened their ankles enough to survive a season without a flat tire, that rehab could have a bigger impact than any free-agent pickup.
Bogut, defensive monster
Bogut and Curry might represent the most underappreciated defensive and offensive players in the NBA, respectively. When healthy -- and that hasn't been the case for about two years now -- Bogut can be as dominant defensively as any big man outside of Dwight Howard and maybe Tyson Chandler. (Side note: It's a myth to say that Bogut is injury-prone, considering his broken ankle in 2011 and mangled right arm injury in 2010 were exactly as he described them -- freak occurrences).
Before Bogut landed on Kyle Lowry's foot in January, he and his 7-foot frame had anchored a top-five defense for three seasons in Milwaukee. Sure, you could owe a bulk of the credit to coach Scott Skiles' instruction. But Bogut's stellar defensive on-court/off-court ratings underline his instrumental role on that side of the floor: minus-4.9 per 100 possessions in 2009-10; minus-3.0 in 2010-11; and an absurd minus-10.0 in 2011-12 (albeit in just 12 games). All this is to say that no one could score on the Bucks when Bogut took the floor. Without him? The Bucks had just another defense.
With the critical "if healthy" qualifier in mind, Bogut could be the perfect antidote for Golden State's chronic defensive ills. The Warriors basically have laid down for opponents a red carpet to the rim, ranking dead-last in defensive efficiency the past five seasons. You could count on one hand how many players can transform a defense as Bogut does, and well, look at that -- he's about to debut for the league's most defensively inept franchise of recent times.
"Steve Nash and Dwight Howard lite"
[+] EnlargeAndrew Bogut
Chris Graythen/Getty ImagesAndrew Bogut could be the defensive anchor Golden State has needed for years.
The Bucks were never able to surround Bogut with an efficient offense, but that shouldn't be an issue anymore as long as Curry's on the floor. Executives from around the league have touted Curry as the next coming of Steve Nash, and that's not without merit. Though he hasn't been able to shake his ankle issues, Curry has been nothing short of a wizard with the basketball in his short time in the league. He currently owns the second-best 3-point shooting percentage in NBA history and ranks among the best free throw shooters the game has ever seen.
Curry can shoot, but it remains to be seen whether he'll ever approach Nash's distribution skills. Curry's assist rate checks out below the league average, but it's worth noting that his turnover issues might be overblown: His assist-to-turnover ratio, for example, was better than Russell Westbrook's and on par with Deron Williams'. It's worth remembering that when Curry has played without Monta Ellis in his career, the Warriors have scored 110.1 points per 100 possessions -- an offensive rating that would have been tops for the league each of the past two seasons.
In Curry and Bogut, the Warriors for once will pair an offensive genius with a defensive powerhouse. Think of it as a slightly lesser and less-talked about version of Nash and Howard. As Howard will be for Nash, Bogut will be able to rescue Curry from his defensive mistakes. On the flip side, Bogut will look like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar compared to Golden State's status quo of Kwame Brown, Mickell Gladness, Andris Biedrins and Mikki Moore.
If the biggest question in Warriors world is whether Bogut and Curry can finish the season in one piece, the next biggest unknown is who will emerge from the logjam at the wing positions. Between Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes, Richard Jefferson, Brandon Rush and Jarrett Jack, the Warriors have one of the most diverse groups of perimeter players league-wide. Young and old, spot-up shooters to dribble-drivers, defenders to gunners. It remains to be seen whether any of them will pan out to become a reliable scoring option, but coach Mark Jackson will certainly have his hands full there.
Elsewhere, I'm on the record as being a big fan of Draymond Green's game, especially if he's paired with Bogut to mask his defensive liabilities at power forward. Green and Barnes might have been established names in the collegiate ranks, but skepticism remains whether their games will translate to the big show. Not scoring points in Barnes' favor is that statistically speaking, his closest collegiate comp is Alonzo Gee, a player who has been waived four times in three seasons, according to KenPom.com.
Coupled with the uncertain health of their star players, the Warriors' wing competition makes them perhaps the league's most unpredictable team this season. With their bubbling youth, unproven coach and gimpy ankles, it makes sense that our staff isn't completely sold they'll even be a .500 team next season.
But this has the makings of a breakout season. Bogut's career has been mired in relative obscurity in Milwaukee, but rest assured, if he has an injury-free season in one of the country's biggest markets, people will come around. Golden State finally got its defensive anchor to complement Curry's brilliant offensive talents. And if -- a Bogut-sized if -- they can stay healthy, chances are a playoff ticket will finally complement Golden State's rabid fan base.
I'm hoping Curry and Bogut are healthy this season. Would love to see playoff B-ball back in the Bay.