How one magic number has fueled the Warriors’ NBA dynasty.
The ball has energy. Ask any of the Warriors about their offense or about Steve Kerr’s passing project when he became coach in the summer of 2014, and they all say it comes down to that basketball truth. Move the ball once, and you move a defender. Move it a few more times, and it’s as if Luke Skywalker himself is forcing the entire defense off the floor. Commit to this selfless style, and even Bill Russell’s Celtics wouldn’t be able to stop this high-scoring system.
As Golden State guard Shaun Livingston put it, “Ball movement will forever be superior.” Or will it? Therein lies the most compelling question of the Western Conference finals between Golden State and Houston, which began this week.
While the Rockets are the experts of isolation, the Warriors have long since decided that passing is the key to unleashing their offense. Ever since Kerr made the move from TNT analyst to the Warriors bench, when he saw the glaring lack of ball movement under former coach Mark Jackson, this has been their ethos. So much so, in fact, that it all started with a magic number: 300.
Pass the ball at least that many times during the course of a game, Kerr told them, and the odds are the offense will hum. For Kerr, who won five titles while playing for San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich and then-Chicago coach Phil Jackson, these were the lessons learned that he simply had to convey.
“If you have shooting — if you have great shooting — then the more ball movement the better, because you have guys coming off screens and … you want to make the defense have to defend for long stretches rather than just one pass and a shot,” Kerr explained. “So we looked at the passing totals, and … (300) was a really key number for us.
“I just said I want the ball to move. That’s always how I’ve seen the game, and if you have Steph (Curry) and Klay (Thompson) on your team and the ball is moving, it’s fairly obvious that it’s going to be hard to defend.”
The proof has been in the passing ever since.
After ranking dead last in passes per game (243.8) during the regular season before Kerr’s hiring and finishing 12th in offensive rating despite already having three of their four current All-Stars in Curry, Thompson and Draymond Green, the Warriors have had the league’s best offense in three of the past four seasons while finishing second in offensive rating once. During that span, Golden State’s passes-per-game mark has ranged from 306.6 to 323.5.
Entering Game 1 vs. the Rockets, the Warriors’ two losses this postseason had come in the only games in which they passed the ball fewer than 300 times (256 against San Antonio in Game 4 of the first round; 295 against New Orleans in Game 3 of the second round). They led all playoff teams in passing (323.2, with the Rockets 15th at 227.2).
Green and Curry have been first and second among the Warriors, respectively, in passes made for the past three regular seasons.
Yet the impact of Kerr’s system has been far more profound than the box score could ever indicate. It had everything to do with the Warriors landing Kevin Durant in free agency during the summer of 2016. The 2013-14 MVP was widely known to be drawn to Golden State’s egalitarian system, one that was so different from the ball-pounding ways he’d grown accustomed to playing alongside Russell Westbrook.
Consider the polar-opposite picture that was painted in the season before Durant’s decision: The Thunder, who fell to Golden State in seven games during those Western Conference finals, were last in passes per game during the regular season (256.6) and playoffs (220.4). Durant wanted to play a more free- flowing brand of basketball.
Thompson has always appreciated the art of the pass, but his true aha moment came during practice in Kerr’s first season when the new coach stopped a dribbling drill to share a simple message.
“He would just stop the drill and say, ‘Look around. Literally every man on this team can (dribble well). That’s not the case for every team, so just trust your teammates and make the extra pass, because it’s going to come out in the wash and we’ll be successful,’ ” Thompson recalled. “That’s when I started believing.”
There was an assist from advanced technology. These sorts of stats weren’t easily attainable until SportVU cameras that track every angle of the game were installed in NBA arenas shortly before Kerr took over. Sammy Gelfand, the Warriors’ analytics manager, helped set up this pivotal play, too.
Gelfand, who worked for the Warriors’ D-League team from 2011 to 2013 and joined Golden State in Jackson’s final season, is the author of the postgame scouting report that always lists the latest game’s passing total atop the report.
As the Warriors became more committed, their teamwide goal grew as well: They now aim for 320 passes per game, or roughly three per possession.
“I think the number helps reaffirm (the message) in their minds,” Gelfand said. “So 300 was the target that first year, and I think as we’ve evolved we kind of expect more and more. In (the players’) minds, they visualize it very well, and same with our coaches.”
The straightforward nature of the number made it easy for players to embrace the strategy, and now many of them have developed a sixth sense about their total.
“It’s amazing how good of a feel they have,” Gelfand said. “I remember a couple times after games, guys would be like, ‘I don’t think we got it.’ Especially early on (in 2014).
“Once they started to figure out the 300 games and how they did vs. the non-300 games, it was incredible to me how they picked it up.”
Kevin Durant, right, joined the Warriors in free agency in 2016 because they played more of a ball movement style of basketball.