Ok, I started believing it was possible when the defensive black hole that was Monta Ellis was flipped for defensive shining beacon that was Andrew Bogut. Still, there were plenty of doubts: could one man transform a pile of pillows into a solid wall? Could his presence alone bewitch rebounds to drop into the outstretched arms of his hapless comrades? Because really, one would have to be a miracle worker to get the likes of David Lee, Stephen Curry, and Klay Thompson to be effective on the defensive end.
And then two shoes dropped at the same time: Brandon Rush was lost for the season, and Bogut was lost seemingly every other game (and then unforeseeably longer). So, there you go: the team's best perimeter defender was gone, and the team's best all around big man defender was missing in action. What we had left was what we had last year, plus some rookies, plus a couple of new guys whose reputations were not exactly built on their defensive prowess, to put it kindly.
And then a funny thing happened: they played some games. And the defense looked... ok? Better than expected? Good enough? Actually... pretty good? And another thing happened: they're kinda rebounding the hell out of the ball?
How they're accomplishing this is surprising, because it really seems to be about collective effort, toughness, and scheme. Better decisions are being made. Faster rotations. They're just making it tougher for the opponent to score at will. Even Lee, who is still terrible, has been able to, on occasion, mitigate his terribleness and make a positive impact. It's basically what coaches have been promising every year, only this time there's some discernible progress. I'm not proclaiming greatness here — they're only just above league average according to their DRTG (points allowed per possession), they foul too much, and they aren't turning the other team over very often. But I'm sorry: the words "above average" or even "just average" have seemed unattainable for years. I'll take it, and hope for more when Bogut's back in the building.
Team rebounding has been even better — far better than "just above league average". This team is ranked third in the NBA in DRB% (the percentage of available defensive rebounds a player/team grabs), and again, without their starting center/best player. Lee is rebounding at a high level while the rest of the team is as well, temporarily derailing the going theory that his rebounds are empty. Klay Thompson started out showing some better effort on the glass. Carl Landry is rebounding better than usual.
And then of course there are the rookies. Harrison Barnes has flashed potential as a premier rebounder at his position. Festus Ezeli has flashed potential as a great post defender, showing discipline, smarts, and an understanding of how to use his body. Both of those guys are starting, and at worst are playing neutral on the defensive end. And Draymond Green has also come in and shown to be of value defensively, adding size and versatility on the wings.
So yes, I was — and continue to be — surprised. I'm surprised that there's a level of competence defensively, and a blossoming level of excellence in the rebounding department, that they've actually been able to rely upon to stay in games. I was skeptical even before the team's two best defenders were tabled, going with the conventional wisdom that the key to victory for the 2013 Golden State Warriors was non-stop perimeter carpet-bombing. I thought the defense and rebounding could improve, but not to a level of reliability.
I'm still not sure of the identity of this team. I thought the identity would be definitively offensive, but the offense has pretty well stunk so that's not yet convincing. And I'm not ready to claim that their defense is good enough to form the core of the team's identity. But resilience and toughness? Maybe. Getting closer. And I just didn't think that the defense and rebounding would be good enough to warrant that question.