A Tale of Two (Or is it Three?) Teams, Part II: Defense

It’s been a long, up and down season for the Warriors, even more so in the season’s 2nd half. I laid out the team’s rebounding struggles in a previous post, but their struggles on the boards have only been part of the problem.

This post is kind of hard to write, especially after tonight’s game, but Golden State’s defense has been as big of an issue, if not an even bigger one down the stretch of this season. Where they were once among the top 10 in the league defensively, allowing 103.7 points per possession, they’ve dropped to among the very worst in the league since January 2nd, allowing 107.6 per. This is quite the change, especially when you consider that prior to the 4-game stretch in which the Warriors allowed less than 80 points twice, they were allowing 108.9 over their last 32 games, which would rank them the 6th worst in the NBA. For the season, they’re now allowing 106 per100, which ranks them 17th in the league. Not all that impressive.

The Warriors last 4 games highlight an issue they’ve had all season: Consistency on the defensive end. In games against the Knicks, Pistons, Bulls, and Rockets the Warriors have allowed 63, 97, 113, and 78 points, respectively. Where this stretch really gets unexplainable is that the the two best offensive teams in that stretch were, in fact, New York and Houston. Both are in the top 10 in the league, whereas Detroit and Chicago both rank in the bottom 10.

But again, this has been an issue all-season. Some games, the Warriors’ defense shows up, and some games, it does not. The deeper we’ve gotten into the season, the truer this statement has become. A lot of things have influenced Golden State’s defensive decline, but the one that’s hardest to explain, as it is with the rebounding, is Andrew Bogut. The big man has played a bunch more minutes since the 2nd half of the season, but the defense has still been much worse. Compared to Andris Biedrins and rookie Festus Ezeli, you’d think even a limited Bogut would be a big defense upgrade, but that just hasn’t been the case until very recently.

Also like the rebounding struggles, it’s unfair to blame a less-than-100% Bogut for all of the Warriors problems defensively. The numbers aren’t there to support his impact, but he sure has LOOKED impressive on that end, while Biedrins and Ezeli have often looked lost. I think that can be explained, though. Specifically, the Warriors best players, Stephen Curry and David Lee, just haven’t been as good on that end as they once were. Bogut and others, like Klay Thompson, have done a lot to try to plug up defensive holes created by the Warriors more offensive inclined duo. Another problem has been teams knowing to expect better defense from a team that was at one point 13 games over .500.

Teams have done a great job exploiting the Warriors both inside and out, shooting their 2s closer to the basket as well as more often and significantly better from deep. According to nbawowy.com, since January 1st, the Warriors have allowed their opponent to shoot the ball, on average, a half-foot closer on 2-point attempts. That decrease has translated to a 2.2% increase in opponent FG%, which counts for about half of the change in the Warriors points allowed. The other half comes from 3-point land, where the Warriors are seeing teams shoot more often at a percentage more than 2-points higher (35.2 to 33.1) than they did in the season’s first half.

Best I can tell, the biggest reason for that has been the Warriors poor defensive rotations. Too much chasing the ball, rather than sticking to the defensive plan. There’s also been a lot of indecisiveness on the pick and roll, in whether to go over or under the screen, or when to switch. Their closeouts have been slow or non-existent at times as well. Overall, the commitment and concentration on the defensive end just hasn’t been there the way it was at the start of the season. All of this has allowed ball-handlers extra space to drive the lane and open passes to the perimeter as the Warriors swarm penetrating guards. The Rocket’s record night a few weeks ago highlights a lot of these issues:

Slowly, as Bogut has gotten healthier and the team has begun to realize some of the things they aren’t doing quite as well defensively, the Warriors have begun to improve on that end again. Since March 1st, they’re allowing just 100.9 points per 100 possessions. Though they’re only 5-5 this month, just 2 NBA teams can claim to have played better defense on the season than the Warriors have in their last 10 games: Indiana and Memphis. They’ve been a lot better.

But that doesn’t mean the Warriors have put it all behind them. Just the other night they allowed the Bulls to have one of their best offensive games of the season, in what was an embarrassing performance for the entire team. But recent signs are showing that they’ve responded to the criticism they’ve received. Hopefully, it’s a trend that can continue. It’s the only way the Warriors are going to have any chance at winning a playoff series this season. The kind of defense they had been playing just won’t cut it against the best teams in the West, especially for a team who’s offense hasn’t been very good recently either (which I’ll cover in Part 3). But Mark Jackson looks to have this team responding to adversity better, and much more like they were early in the season.

After a potentially crushing home defeat from the Chicago Bulls, and a very pedestrian 4-3 home-stand, the Warriors came to Houston on a mission. Fittingly, I can say this: “Mission Accomplished.” Not only did the Warriors finally get a win from a team they hadn’t beat all season, they did so after nearly falling apart in the 3rd quarter, and dishing out a 30-point blowout of their own to avenge the 31-point loss to Houston from early February. Most impressive in the win was the way the team shut down the Rockets 3rd-best offense in the opening and closing quarters, allowing just 10 and 18 points respectively.

If that type of defense, and the defense they played against the New York Knicks for 48 minutes, becomes a more regular occurrence for the Warriors, fans need not be worried about a late-season collapse that would keep the team out of the playoffs. With that kind of defense, in fact, a potential playoff run becomes a very real possibility. It all just depends on which team shows up.

All specific defensive numbers in this post were courtesy of Evan Zamir, and nbawowy.com. Great site, you should check it out.

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