The Warriors are a defensive juggernaut

November, 7, 2013
11/07/13
10:28
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Strauss By Ethan Sherwood Strauss
ESPN.com
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Go ahead, laugh at the headline. It sounds ridiculous on its face, given that the last time Golden State finished better than 10th in defensive rating was 35 seasons ago. One could argue that Jimmy Carter’s presidency bookmarks the latest instance of a “good” Warriors defense.

Maybe it's not the past that makes you laugh. Maybe it’s that All-Star David Lee and superstar Stephen Curry have suffered noted defensive struggles. Maybe it’s that the Warriors recently played a hyped, nationally televised game wherein the Clippers scored 126 points.

It all hides what’s probably the greatest collection of defensive talent out West. Through five games, the Warriors rank behind only Indiana in defensive efficiency. Their rating would probably be better if not for a slew of comically sloppy turnovers that became Blake Griffin dunks last Thursday. It’s just five games, yes. But don’t be shocked if this trend holds over the entire 82-game slate.

It starts with Andre Iguodala and Andrew Bogut, both elite defensive players at their respective positions. Building a bad defense that involves Bogut and Iguodala would probably take more effort than building a good one. So long as both are healthy, the Warriors' defense should be healthy.

Iguodala shores up the exterior and Bogut protects the rim. The shooting guard works in the shadows and margins of the Warriors' perimeter D. A fan might not notice how he’s shading an offensive player a certain direction, or how he’s swiveling through a screen. Defense is a percentage battle, and Iguodala is looking to play the probabilities over time. Over the course of 40-plus minutes, process trumps results for him. Such efforts rarely get widespread praise, but they do result in team success. The last time an Iguodala squad performed better on defense with Iguodala off the court was 2006-07.

In contrast to Iguodala’s style, Bogut is a pronounced defensive presence. Your eye is drawn to the rim, where the Golden State center often blows up the play with no regard for human foul trouble. He’s a confrontational defender, occasionally prone to latching one mitt on a driving player as the other hand chops at the ball like an overhead smash. Bogut is healthy again (for now), looking svelte compared to last season and, frankly, appearing to be the dominant defender Milwaukee never would have traded back in 2010.

On the perimeter, Klay Thompson mirrors some of Bogut’s aggression. Though Thompson sometimes suffers lapses in concentration off the ball, he’s a physical, dogged man-to-man defender. Both he and Iguodala can guard anyone from point guards to small forwards. Their skill and versatility spares Curry a lot of tough matchups and a lot of foul trouble.

Marreese Speights aside, the bench is stacked with plus defensive players. It’s nearly the only thing Jermaine O’Neal can do well at this juncture of his career. Defensively, Harrison Barnes looks like the next Iguodala, only taller. Draymond Green is a large and mobile wing. Toney Douglas gave Stephen Curry fits before finally joining the Warriors. Kent Bazemore is an athletic shooting guard whose wingspan stretches wider than Kevin Love’s.

Given the Warriors' embarrassment of defensive riches, defining the team defense by citing the shortcomings of Stephen Curry and David Lee doesn’t make a lot of sense. It’d be analogous to defining their thrilling “Splash Brothers” offensive attack by Bogut’s hopeful hook shots or Iguodala’s midrange misses.

Also, Lee's and Curry’s deficiencies will likely be mitigated by help from their teammates and by time in this particular defensive system. Lee’s inability to hedge high on screens used to kill the Keith Smart Warriors. Mark Jackson’s system eases the pain by calling on Lee to sink back from screens as Curry chases his man around the obstruction. Neither player is anything special at corralling offensive attackers, but the style shift has delivered results.

The change helped vault Golden State from 27th in defensive efficiency in 2011-12 to 13th last season. This happened largely without an injured Bogut’s help and before Iguodala arrived in Oakland.

These are not Don Nelson’s Warriors. It’s comforting to believe that team cultures have continuity across generations, but times do eventually change -- even for a franchise as stubborn as old Nellie was.

It’s a bit confusing because these Warriors are running up and down the court, launching 3s and thrilling fans. You’d assume a devil’s bargain where such an offense can’t come with a strong defensive foundation. You’d be wrong, though. If the Warriors aren’t good defensively this season, it should come as a shock. For once.

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