The Fundamentals: Big men engineering a defensive turnaround in Golden State
By Rob Mahoney
The Warriors have proved to be a perfectly decent basketball team this season. They’ve scored and defended at virtually league-average levels, played well enough within individual games to claim a better-than-expected 13-7 record and posted a plus-0.6-point differential over a moderately difficult schedule.
That’s not an insult. Golden State has plenty of experience operating on the wrong side of that same baseline, and thanks to a refreshed approach, it now has a legitimate chance of breaking through. Smart personnel decisions help explain some of the Warriors’ newfound competence, but there’s hardly a straightforward explanation for how their defense improved so dramatically so quickly, all without Andrew Bogut and Brandon Rush — the top interior and perimeter defenders on the roster, respectively. Bogut was pegged to be the key to the team’s defensive reinvention, but the Warriors’ progress has refused to stop for his rehabilitation. Without him, Golden State made some strategic tweaks to better tailor its system to its personnel, alterations that have saved what was once one of the worst defenses in the league.
The Warriors’ improvement isn’t a product of some radical innovation, but simply the result of coach Mark Jackson and his staff embracing more modern defensive principles. Grantland’s Zach Lowe dived into some of the specifics of Golden State’s revamped pick-and-roll coverage. The gist of that change is this: Whereas in the past the Warriors’ big men would hedge so far above the screen that they couldn’t possibly recover in time to avoid a defensive breakdown, they now either cut off dribble penetration directly or sag to the free-throw line to corral ball-handlers into a specific “pocket” within the defense. That contains the immediate threat to a very manageable zone on the floor and protects against the kind of deep dribble penetration that would compromise the entire defense.
The resulting shifts on Golden State’s back line are unquestionably more reflective of contemporary defensive style, in which zone principles are applied on the weak side of the floor to maximize pressure on the ball. The Warriors haven’t really used that basic tenet to force turnovers in the same way that many of the league’s best defenses so often do, but that’s in part due to personnel limitations. Jackson now has his team managing its defensive weaknesses quite well, largely because players like Stephen Curry and David Lee aren’t asked to do any more than they realistically can. Golden State is largely stocked with underwhelming or unproven defenders, but by working on the defense’s internal architecture, the coaching staff has made almost all of those players functional on that end of the court. Given Bogut’s absence and the team’s previous defensive maladies, that’s an accomplishment in itself. We shouldn’t inflate the reputation of the Warriors’ defense too much, but adequacy is certainly to be praised when misery was the standard for so long.
Part of the problem for Golden State in the past was the ability to complete defensive possessions. Even when the Warriors successfully turned away ball handlers from the paint, applied pressure at just the right time or forced contested shots, they practically bowed out of the way on the glass so that their opponents might clean up after their own misses. That has changed in the most radical way possible this season, as the worst defensive rebounding team in the NBA a year ago is now tied for the lead by that same measure. The biggest change has been Jackson’s decision to turn away from the super small lineups he often employed in his first year as coach — a decision that could hardly be faulted at the time given the wing-heavy construction of Golden State’s roster. Forward Carl Landry and rookies Festus Ezeli and Draymond Greene have since given Jackson some very different options, and all but erased the three-wing configurations from the rotation.
The more nuanced style of the Warriors’ pick-and-roll defense also helped bring the team’s big men into better rebounding range than before and shrink the weak side of the floor to help good positional rebounders like rookie forward Harrison Barnes and guard Jarrett Jack compete on the glass in ways they wouldn’t have been able to otherwise. That’s significant improvement, achieved simply by implementing a more contemporary defensive system. Jackson isn’t pushing the envelope — his team is just better suited to pull off this strategy.
And yet, as much as Jackson would love for his team to develop a defense-first identity, the unraveling of the offense likely isn’t a preferred trade-off. Golden State’s personnel suggests a much greater capacity for efficient scoring, and one can see a brutally effective four-man chemistry brewing between Curry, Lee, Landry and second-year guard Klay Thompson. Curry is incredibly creative in leveraging his scoring potential to create looks for others, and those three running mates are all quite clever in their work off the ball. A moment’s inattention on the part of a defender is all that’s needed for a quick Thompson curl or an open dive for either Lee or Landry, and Curry has done a remarkable job of setting up his teammates when they’ve found a stretch of unattended court space. The problem is that pairing Landry with that group bends the defense to the point of breaking, whereas replacing Landry with the offensively limited Ezeli has a similarly disruptive effect on the offense.
The difference in those lineups boils down to a game-long balance of offense-defense substitutions, though the divide between those extremes can hopefully be bridged by Bogut’s eventual return. We don’t yet know when Golden State might expect to see its first option at center back in action, but he could theoretically punch up the Warriors’ defensive rotations without burdening the offense with dead weight. To some, that might seem a lofty expectation given how much Bogut struggled earlier this season, but it’s a fair assumption in the context of his overall career. Even if we take into account some regression due to his rotten injury luck, Bogut is still a balanced, two-way player who — not unlike Golden State’s strategic improvements — can help to limit the exposure of the Warriors’ weaknesses.
That alone won’t turn this team into world-beaters, but negativity shouldn’t undermine the relative success of a franchise that could so easily have extended the tactical flaws and unbalanced performance of last year’s team. The Warriors may not even make the playoffs, but they’re building on their lowly standard by improving as the roster allows.
• I keep waiting for O.J. Mayo’s three-point shooting to dip back toward more reasonable levels, but he seems rather comfortable making an NBA-leading 52.3 percent on an impressive 5.7 attempts per game. The latter is good for 14th in the league, and yet the more Mayo seems to shoot the more he seems to stave off a regression to the mean. Dallas’ pace has done wonders in terms of freeing up Mayo for open attempts in transition, but there’s no way to quite explain how a good-not-great long-range shooter is suddenly setting the league on fire as a member of an inefficient offense.
• For the sake of completists, Anderson Varejao has now climbed atop the leaderboards in offensive rebounding percentage, defensive rebounding percentage, offensive rebounds per game, defensive rebounds per game, total offensive rebounds and total defensive rebounds.
• Since catching a wave of increased minutes in Scott Skiles’ tidal rotation (has anyone examined how lunar patterns might correlate with the minutes played across the Bucks’ roster?), Larry Sanders has averaged a whopping 5.3 blocks per game, despite playing 33 minutes or more just once over that stretch. That surge has earned Sanders a massive lead in block percentage, not to mention earned him a bit more renown for his shot-swatting prowess.
THOUGHTS FROM AROUND THE ASSOCIATION
1. Kobe Bryant’s cross-court reads
Bryant is so proficient and confident a scorer that he has virtually welcomed all defensive obstruction. A 7-foot center forces Bryant to double-clutch his layup? No problem. A long-armed wing closes off shooting and passing angles? Jab step and pump fake ad nauseum. An extra defender comes shuffling toward Bryant to execute a double team? Rise up and fade away.
It’s all very impressive from the perspective of evaluating Bryant’s repertoire, but equally annoying in that a heady basketball player has so often succumbed to the limitations created by his self-confidence. In previous seasons, Bryant still passed out of these scenarios just enough to make defenses think twice, but only this year has he really begun to see the entire floor and exploit the added pressure that opponents love to throw his way. The easy pass-out and open lob have long been in Bryant’s repertoire, but I’ve been particularly taken with how accurate his cross-court passes are when dishing over incoming double teams to shooters in the opposite corner. It’s a risky play, even under these circumstances. But Bryant’s passes are so quick, so preemptive and so on point that even the most instinctive defenders would have trouble picking them off.
2. The sliding pivot foot of Brook Lopez
No center in the NBA is averaging more points per game than Lopez, and much of his offensive work is done on the low block. It’s with both of those facts in mind that I’m baffled by how sloppy his footwork can be at times, and at how blatantly he gets away with shuffling his feet. The underlying problem could be a lack of lower-body strength, but whatever the cause, it’s remarkable that the Nets’ big man is able to get so much mileage with so flawed a base.
3. The funky intermediate game of Greivis Vasquez
The amount to which the Hornets lean on Vasquez to create offense could hardly be considered healthy, but that usage has allowed him to showcase a variety of weird mid-range shots. Vasquez isn’t much of a straight pull-up jump shooter, opting instead for odd scoops and shot-put hook shots that round out his in-between game. He’s ultimately a well-above-average 45.2 percent from 3-9 feet, per Hoopdata, though no one should champion Vasquez’s random sampler of runners as a source of stable offense. Think of them as a last resort — after attacking the paint in anticipation of getting to the rim or passing off to a cutter, Vasquez has a unique cache of uncommon techniques to fall back on. It’s a situation that’s all too common in New Orleans these days with both Eric Gordon and Anthony Davis still sidelined, and the entire offense’s operation dependent on Vasquez’s quirky game.
4. The last champion of the rip-through move
Now that the NBA has a clear officiating mandate with the patented “rip-through” move, we’ve seen its execution plummet around the league. Kevin Durant and Kevin Martin are still occasional practitioners (old habits and all), but casual use in the NBA has all but disappeared.
That said, Charlotte’s Byron Mullens has taken to using the move with incredible enthusiasm, so much so that he may well be the league leader in rip-drawn fouls this season. If you thought there was something ridiculous about players like Durant or Martin using the arms of defenders to create their own fouls, you’ll surely be tickled by the vision of Mullens windmilling his shot attempt into free contact.
5. Arron Afflalo as a volume scorer
This season is, by all statistical accounts, Afflalo’s most inefficient campaign in recent memory. Yet his 14 field-goal attempts per game (completed at a 45-percent clip) are nonetheless essential for the Magic, in the same way that Danny Granger’s volume shooting has proved so valuable to the success of the Pacers. It’s strange that Afflalo — who made his name in the NBA as a lockdown perimeter defender — has evolved into a buoying scorer, but now that he’s had a taste of high-usage basketball, I doubt that there’s any way for him to duck back into the more limited role that once defined his game. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but simply an evolution that should be noted.
Afflalo clearly didn’t put in the same defensive effort last season as he had in years passed, and his current offensive role in Orlando has only pulled him further away from the role-player mold. At 27, he’s not likely to suddenly develop into a top-flight scorer. But Afflalo is somehow growing into the stylistic opposite of what he once was.
6. Derek Fisher’s reimagining of floor spacing
For some reason, the Mavericks’ Fisher is under the impression that standing farther behind the three-point line — so far back that he completely erases his utility in a catch-and-shoot scenario — somehow adds to his team’s floor spacing. As much as I’d love to applaud the attempt at creativity, I can’t quite commend a limited, 38-year-old point guard for working against his single dimension of NBA appeal.
7. Kemba Walker announces his candidacy for the All-Pull-Up Jumper Team
It’s only his sophomore season, but Walker’s seamless transition from all-out sprint to perfectly vertical shooting form promises to cement his place among the league’s best pull-up jump shooters. Jason Terry, Beno Udrih, Russell Westbrook and Mike Dunleavy are all on the roster, but who else warrants inclusion? Leave your suggestions below.
8. The pick-and-pop geometry of LaMarcus Aldridge
The quick elbow jumper has long been Aldridge’s preferred outcome in any pick-and-roll scenario — a safe, consistent attempt for a player who has traditionally been very accurate from that range. Aldridge hasn’t had quite as much success on those jumpers this season, though hardly for lack of trying; Portland’s quasi-franchise player is lapping the league in mid-range looks, but isn’t making a high enough percentage to justify his persistence.
What changed? The Blazers certainly did, though one could argue that having rookie point guard Damian Lillard to work off of in pick-and-pop sets is far preferable to the bloated and flailing Raymond Felton of yesteryear. The bench is awful, but that’s also nothing new for Portland. And so we focus on Aldridge’s effort level, which seems to come and go as the Blazers struggle. Going through the motions at three-quarters speed certainly doesn’t help matters, but it also seems that Aldridge is taking a duller angle on his flare-out to his favorite mid-range spot. That shift could be insignificant, but in refusing to ever roll hard to the rim for variety’s sake, jogging through his pops to the elbow and giving the defender an easier angle to recover against, Aldridge appears to be making a staple of his game that much more inefficient.