Can the Golden State Warriors Win With Defense?
The Golden State Warriors are 6-2, their best start since the 2010-11 season. They're sitting comfortably atop the Pacific Division and have the offensive weapons to make a deep playoff run. However, if they're truly to contend for a title this year, it will be their team defense that tips the scales.
Contrary to popular belief, the Warriors won 51 games last season with a league average offense and a stellar defense. This year has been no different.
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Defensive rating is the number of points a team allows for every 100 opponent possessions. As it stands, the Warriors rank second in the league, but they're posting a stellar 93.9 defensive rating in wins and a league average 106.1 rating in losses.
The Warriors have held up well against a slate of very efficient offenses. Six of the team's first seven opponents rank in the top 15 in offensive rating. Only the Spurs (last year's champs) rank outside the NBA's top half, but that can be partially attributed to their knack for resting key players at times during the regular season.
What makes the Warriors such a stout defensive unit?
It starts with the big Aussie in the middle. Andrew Bogut was on the wrong end of one of the most controversial Warrior trades in the last ten years. When the new owner Joe Lacob and general manager Bob Myers flipped fan favorite (and advanced metric pariah) Monta Ellis to Milwaukee for the oft-injured center from Melbourne, people in the bay area were highly displeased. Bogut only played 32 games that first season for the Warriors. But the impact was immediately apparent. The team had finally acquired a defensive-minded big with the capacity to function in a complex offensive system.
This year, Bogut has been a revelation. He's averaging 10.8 rebounds, 2.1 blocks, and 0.9 steals per game. To boot, opponents are shooting just 44% in shots at the rim when he's on the floor. The Warriors are only giving up 10 made field goals at the rim per game, fifth fewest in the league. That's all while Bogut plays without a traditional power forward beside him.
At every position beside power forward, Golden State is flush with long, athletic defenders. Steph Curry is 6'3" and his back-up, Shaun Livingston, is 6'7". Klay Thompson is a full-bodied 6'7" two guard with tremendous lateral quickness and on-ball instincts. Andre Iguodala is a 6'6" long-armed freak of nature who was named to the leagues All-Defensive team for the second time last season. Harrison Barnes may disappear for stretches offensively, but at 6'8" and blessed with unique athletic ability, he's capable of defending multiple positions.
This brings us to third-year pro Draymond Green. The league's ultimate utility player. He defends all five positions, spreads the floor offensively and never backs down from a fight. Green is a heady player who has improved dramatically each season since his freshman year at Michigan State. His numbers hardly tell the story of his impact. He's averaging 14.0 points, 7.3 boards, 3.1 assists, 1.4 blocks, and 1.0 steal per game. But his defensive rating is 96, and his nERD is 4.9, slotting him in as the 49th most valuable player in the league, pretty good for a former second round pick making a paltry $915,000 this season.
Warriors coach Steve Kerr was never a good defensive player. When Spurs coach Gregg Poppovich was asked about Kerr's playing career before the Spurs Warriors game on Tuesday, he responded, "He couldn't play a lick of D, so it's surprising he's working them so hard on the defensive end. He has no clue."
But Kerr won five titles playing alongside some of the best defensive players of all time - Scottie Pippen, Michael Jordan, Dennis Rodman, Tim Duncan and Bruce Bowen. He says that if you want to contend for a title in the NBA, you have to depend on your defense to force three straight stops down the stretch. That's what those teams did time after time.
Against the Spurs on Tuesday, the Warriors forced three straight stops just once in the second half. Heck, they only forced three turnovers through three quarters. If this team is to contend for a title this year, it has to show up on the defensive end every night, especially against the reigning champs.