The Warriors look to be well on their way to their 2nd NBA championship in as many seasons. Their combination of offensive firepower, excellent defense, positional versatility, and top level coaching are the marvel of the league and have teams scrambling to try and replicate a formula which may not even be replicable.
Roughly 30 years ago, the Lakers were a team very much like this season’s Warriors. If not so much in style, but in aesthetics. Explosive in the open court and precise in the half court, the Showtime Lakers ran roughshod over the league for an entire decade. They went to 8 Finals in the 1980’s and captured 5 titles in the process. I think teams would have tried to play like them, but it just didn’t even seem possible. No one had the horses.
These two teams are linked by the Thompson family. In the middle of the 1987 season, the Lakers traded for Mychal Thompson. The former 1978 #1 overall pick of the Trailblazers, Thompson was brought in to be the Lakers’ back up C and 3rd big man. Mychal did his job, helping the ’87 Lakers defeat the Celtics in the rubber match of their 3 NBA Finals match ups.
Mychal’s son, Klay, is now the starting SG for the Warriors. Drafted with the 11th pick in the 2011 draft, Klay has outperformed his draft slot and become one of the best two-way wings in the league. In a bit of a role reversal from his dad, Klay was famously not traded two seasons ago for Kevin Love. Now Klay’s Warrior’s are on the verge of beating Love’s Cavs in the Finals for the 2nd straight year.
So, the 2015 and 2016 Warriors are likely to be back to back champs. The 1987 and 1988 Lakers were back to back champs. In the post-game presser following the Warriors’ game 2 victory, Draymond Green was asked about where these Warriors ranked in the pantheon on all-time teams. Green, diplomatic, said we’d never know if his Dubs would beat teams like Jordan’s Bulls or the Showtime Lakers.
Klay, never shy of taking a shot, lined up his dad’s former team in his crosshairs and said with a smirk and a chuckle, “we’d beat the Showtime Lakers.”
I’ve always been of the same mindset Draymond has. The league has changed too much to compare players in ways beyond trivial barroom arguments. Forget, then, comparing entire teams. There’s simply no good way to do it.
If you think that’s going to stop me, though, you’re wrong. Thanks, Klay!
Now, for some quick ground rules: I’m only going to look at guys from the ’87 and ’88 Lakers and from the ’15 and ’16 Warriors. Those are teams (and in the Warriors’ case, presumed) who won back to back. So, sorry Norm Nixon, Silk, McAdoo, and other great players who were on earlier versions of the Showtime teams.
Second, since there have been so many rule changes, I’m going to try and discuss each team’s strengths within the context of the rules they played under (think about illegal defense rules more than the hand check rule or the advent of “verticality” – though those are important too).
With that, if you’re still reading, let’s get to it.
The best part of the match up between Magic and Steph is that neither would be able to guard the other, so they won’t. Steph’s jitterbug handle and ability to explode in and out of jumpstops to get off his jumper would be too much to handle for Magic. Meanwhile, Magic’s superior size and post up game would absolutely bury Steph inside of 15 feet.
So, both teams would be better off cross-matching by putting Byron on Steph and Klay on Magic. While I hate to say this, the slight edge here might go towards the Warriors. Yes, I think Magic would still mostly have his way with Klay. Klay offers very good size — a la Pippen in 1991 — but we’re also talking about absolute PRIME Magic Johnson here. This version still had great burst off the dribble, could hit the outside shot and would punish in the post. He won the league and Finals MVP in 1987.
As for Byron guarding Steph, well…talk about a match up problem, here it is. Byron was often tasked with chasing the smaller PG’s around defensively, so this is nothing too new for him. Zeke, Danny Ainge/Dennis Johnson, Stockton, etc were all guys Byron had to guard. That said, none of those guys were the offensive threat Curry is. With Steph’s range and ability to penetrate, Byron was likely to get cooked more than hold his own and that’s no disrespect to Byron. Curry cooks everyone!
On the flip side, Magic guarding Klay would likely be a problem for the Lakers. Magic was a better team defender than on ball guy, so there is a chance his smarts and anticipation help when defending off the ball. There’s also a chance his strength and length allow him to fight through screens and get deflections. That said, Magic was simply not used to chasing off the ball and navigating screens the way he would have to when guarding Klay and that might lead to too many open threes.
As for Byron’s offense, his ability to run the floor and finish above the rim would be of real benefit in this match up. With the Warriors taking a lot of threes, there’s a real chance the Lakers’ uptempo style of play would allow for Byron to leak out and get some open court chances. His ability to hit spot up jumpers while also putting the ball on the floor against closeouts would be a bonus. Especially if the Warriors are helping in the post. That said, Steph is a good enough defender to stay in front of Byron off the dribble and track him well enough in transition. This doesn’t mean Byron would be neutralized, but I don’t see him turning a series.
Let’s start with the two former Tarheels. James Worthy has the clear advantage over Harrison Barnes.
Yes, Barnes is good at defending bigger players and can hold his own in the post. But Worthy’s turn and face game combined with a fantastic first step in either direction would be hard to handle. Look at how LeBron attacks Barnes from the mid-post and you’ll see the exact formula Worthy would use. Lots of jab-steps to create uncertainty and then explosive drives to the rim. If Barnes backs off, Worthy can also hit the 16 foot jumper well enough to give him fits.
On the other end Worthy might have some trouble staying with Barnes on the wing, but with his good size, length, and smarts he likely holds his own well. Worthy also likely eliminates Barnes’ ability to post up as a release valve option. Barnes does have the advantage as a floor spacer and he could hurt Worthy if the latter is too slow to close out to the arc — especially in the corner. I think the Lakers live with this match up.
At PF, as much as I love A.C. Green, I think Draymond controls this match up much the same way Worthy controls his. I think Draymond handles A.C. around the basket defensively and then spaces him out on the other end with his jumper and off the dribble work. I also think A.C. would have problems helping and recovering to Draymnd in the P&R which then sets off a bunch of other problems. Draymond’s passing is also important, though I do believe A.C. could hold his own enough in the post where some of the actions the Warriors run off that wouldn’t be as effective.
I do think A.C. could do well hitting the mid-range jumpers he’d be afforded and when attacking the offensive glass. Green had a knack for outworking his opponents and even high-motor players like Draymond can be susceptible to this — especially if his main focus is on being a help defender.
Kareem may not have been at the height of his powers, but his advantages over Bogut are still very real. Bogut’s best assets as a defender are in his ability to protect the rim and his instincts as a team defender. Kareem, though, would be content to battle for position to the 12-15 foot range and just shoot skyhooks until the help came. Kareem would also be more than happy to clean up on the offensive glass should Bogut over help defensively. On the other end, Bogut isn’t the type of forceful offensive rebounder who might give Kareem a lot of problems with either excessive bulk or supreme foot speed.
Offensively, Bogut isn’t much of a threat, though he is a good passer and a threat to catch lobs. Kareem would have issues defending in space and my guess is the Warriors would try to exploit that via P&R’s. Whether Kareem would have enough mobility to play in these actions would remain to be seen, so I think the Lakers would have to live with him playing back below the pick and hope the guard could get over the top of picks.
All in all, how Kareem was handled on both ends of the floor might be the most interesting subplot of the series. The Warriors have never faced a player like him and he’d likely score at will against single coverage. However, on the other end of the floor, while he could still protect the rim, it’s hard to see him closing out on shooters or holding his own on switches. Maybe in 1980, but not nearly a decade later.
We’re looking at Michael Cooper, Kurt Rambis, Thompson, and (maybe) Wes Matthews vs. Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston, Festus Ezeli, Mo Speights, and Leandro Barbosa.
From a numbers standpoint, the Warriors have the edge. Their depth truly is fantastic and they can come at you in waves. They also have the higher ceiling players as three of those guys (Iggy, Livingston, and Festus) could step in as starters on a lot of teams around today’s NBA and do well. They also have enough variety to turn to a different option within the group should the match ups dictate. For example, if they need more scoring punch and can get by with lesser defense vs. an opponent’s lineup, Speights and Barbosa might get minutes over Ezeli or Livingston.
On the Lakers side, though he was a reserve, there are few players more important than Cooper. Cooper was defensive player of the year in the 1986-87 season. He would likely be used at various times against Steph and Klay, and would likely be in the game whenever the Warriors went small with their “Death Lineup”. His ability to switch onto most of the Warriors’ perimeter players and hold his own defensively while also being a secondary ball handler and three point threat offensively makes him an ideal player vs. this team.
For the Warriors, of course, Iguodala offers a similar skill set to Cooper and would also be a key player. His ability to guard Magic or Worthy would be incredibly valuable, especially when either player goes to the mid-post. His scoring would be a bonus, but his ability to facilitate — especially if guarded by a slower, less natural perimeter defender, would be a big advantage for the Warriors. He can drive, hit the jumper, and attack the glass with proficiency. He would be a problem (as he’s shown in both the Warriors’ deep playoff runs).
Ultimately, I think a game or series between these teams really would come down to what rules they played under. In a hand-check heavy game with the old illegal defense rule, the Lakers have some distinct advantages. They could manufacture spacing simply by positioning players above the 3 point line (even if they weren’t a threat to shoot), which would open up driving lanes and post up chances.
They could then maximize match up advantages in the post with Kareem, Worthy, and Magic. Because the illegal D rule did not allow soft/halfway doubles, the Lakers could then score in single coverage or force the type of hard doubles which would open up ball movement to shooters who, while not great, were capable of hitting open shots. Meanwhile, in the open court, the Showtime Lakers were the best fastbreaking team ever and would be difficult to slow when given real open court chances.
The Warriors would still have some things to fall back on, of course. Steph and Klay’s shooting is still next level. Draymond’s versatility isn’t erased under these rules. Livingston’s strong post play only improves under these rules. Even players like Barbosa or Barnes have certain aspects of their games (namely, their ability to straight line drive) which are aided by these rules, though the hand checking might negate some of those advantages.
But, if the game were played under today’s rules, then is when matchup starts to tilt in the Warriors’ direction. They could switch any type of screen and then play quasi zone defenses to help against any disadvantaged defender in the post. Without a hand check on the perimeter and less physical play in general allowed, the Warriors then have more freedom to move around the wing and within the half court to get shots behind the arc. With better athletes overall, their defense becomes even stiffer due to their ability to rotate within their scheme and challenge shots all over the floor.
Further, it’s hard to truly quantify how much their 3 point shooting would be an advantage. With shooting all over the floor and the Lakers not used to having to defend that shot at the volume the Warriors would attempt them, the Warriors would likely hold a significant scoring edge from distance. As we’ve seen during their two seasons under Kerr, the 3>2 formula can be devastating when trying keep games close or even hold them off in late game situations when no lead seems safe.
However, lets not forget these Lakers are an all-time great team for a reason. As we just saw in the Western Conference Finals, the Warriors struggled with the Thunder’s superior size and ability to contest shots both on the perimeter and at the rim. The Lakers’ starters were a 6’4″ Scott, three 6’9″ players (Magic, Worthy, Green), and a 7’2″ Kareem. Add to that their key bench players were Cooper (6’6″), Rambis (6’9″), and Thompson (6’10”). Not a small guy amongst this group.
This isn’t to say the Warriors couldn’t use their quickness and athleticism advantages, but with so much size the Lakers would be able to attack the offensive glass, switch a lot of the screen actions the Warriors depend on, and not have to worry about the secondary post up actions the Warriors can often go to when teams get in scramble mode defensively. The Lakers were never an elite defensive team, but they were 7th and 9th in Defensive Rating their back to back championship seasons. And as we saw with his Heat and Knicks teams, Pat Riley knew how to build a defense.
So, who ultimately wins in a 7 game series. I’ll go with the homer pick and say the Lakers. But, honestly, if nothing else this exercise only reinforced the idea to me that these Warriors belong in the conversation with some of the best teams ever. Which is all anyone who plays this game could really hope for.