By: Jared Williams
The Warriors have officially graduated (with honors) from the School of Almost Contenders to the Academy of Title Favorites. Writers far smarter than I have told the stories of the prerequisites passed to get here: the franchise changing superstar, the shrewd head coach, the supporting cast with a bench squad capable of making the playoffs in the East. Yet, in all the delirium over splashdown at Oracle, Mo and even Mo Buckets, and Harrison Barnes reminding us why we fell in love with him during the 2013 playoffs, the prerequisite most important to gaining admission into the Academy of Title Favorites seems to be flying under the radar -defense.
The Warriors are 1st in the NBA in Defensive Efficiency. To contextualize this, 9 of the last 10 NBA champions have ranked in the top 7 in Defensive Efficiency. How have the Warriors become a defensive juggernaut? The answer begins with examining the rival of defense, offense, and its recent evolution.
Over the last decade NBA teams have begun phasing out stagnant pick and roll dominated offensive sets -excluding Byron Scott’s Lakers of course- in favor of two philosophies made famous by basketball’s whiz kids: Gregg Popovich’s “space and pace” and Daryl Morey’s “threes and layups only”. The product of this is an NBA landscape where offenses are fluid, spread out, and perimeter oriented -think of the world beating Atlanta Hawks or look no further than the Warriors’ best offense in the league. While some offensive elements are being comprehensively eliminated -the deep two point shot for example-, others are merely being modified. For instance, screens haven’t disappeared; screens are just taking place off the ball so the offense’s flow isn’t interrupted. What this new era of offense means for defenses has been difficult to decipher, yet it seems the Warriors have begun cracking the code.
The solution: a defense that is essentially position-less on the wings -specifically, shooting guard through power forward (yes, power forwards are increasingly becoming wings in this new-age NBA). How position-less the Warriors get depends on the lineup and is limited to SG through PF because contrary to Mark Jackson’s anti (Bogut) rim protection beliefs, a lane fortifying center is imperative for a top flight defense, and point guards simply can’t guard power forwards. But for large swaths of games the league’s best defensive team is defying NBA conventions in its flexibility.
Thanks to their mafia of 6 wing defenders, the Warriors are precisely calibrated for this. Led by Draymond Jamal Green, the group has a minimum height of 6’6”, an average wingspan of 6’11.25”, and demonstrate that viewing defense within the prism of positions is an outdated approach. The rest of the position-less defenders include, Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes, Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston, and new member Justin Holiday. Even yesterday the Warriors signed James Michael McAdoo, an athletic 6’9” forward with a 7’2” wingspan. On a nightly basis these wings are proving that the perfect counter to motion offense is interchangeable defenders capable of switching whenever.
-Defenders can switch screens without conceding a mismatch. For decades the offensive counter to defenses switching screens has been isolating and exploiting mismatches deriving from the switch. Lineups with interchangeable defenders allow the Warriors to enjoy the perks of switching (the Warriors are 4th in the NBA in steals per game) without enduring any of its repercussions.
-In an increasingly fast paced league, Warriors players get caught out of position in transition defense less often. Instead of searching for “their guy” to guard, they simply guard the closest guy. This is only possible because Warriors wings are always playing with 2 or 3 teammates capable of defending their guy.
-If opponents indeed post-up one of the Warriors’ wings, the length of the other defenders enables them to disrupt the post-up (typically by swiping at the post player) while concurrently being able to recover to their shooter if the ball is kicked out. Remember, the average wingspan of this crew is 6’11.25”.
Think about it like this: the Warriors have 6 players with the footwork to keep pace with guards, the height of small forwards, and the wingspan of centers.
While footwork, height, and length make this defensive style possible, the continuity of this team’s roster over past seasons is the reason the style gets executed. Switching can be a fickle strategy in basketball. Without supreme communication and trust, switching is unsuccessful and comes off as lazy -i.e. the Cleveland Cavaliers. With a core in their 3rd campaign together, the Warriors have developed that trust and communication -the style works.
In a Western Conference that’s as predictable as a rock-paper-scissors match, position-less defense provides the Warriors a distinct advantage. This style of defense may also spark a revolution in how NBA teams defend, but let’s not get overly ambitious. I just want the Western Conference.