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The Warriors' Small Ball Death Squad: ESPN analyst Antonio Davis on the NBA's most lethal lineup

Since their 2015 Finals win over the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Warriors have been relying on a certain five-man unit to destroy opponents late in games. I spoke with former NBA All-Star Antonio Davis about what makes this lineup, and the entire team, so unstoppable.

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

In what has become Golden State Warriors lore, head coach Steve Kerr made the gutsy decision in the 2015 NBA Finals to swap Andrew Bogut for Andre Iguodala in the starting lineup.

Down two games to one against the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Warriors' offense simply could not find consistent ways to punish the Cavs for double-teaming Steph Curry in the pick-and-roll.  We all were a bit frightened with how the Warriors would fare with a lineup that had Harrison Barnes, at 6'8", as its tallest player, especially against the mountainous Timofey Mozgov and the ultra-athletic Tristan Thompson.

The rest, as they say, is history.

On offense, this new lineup opened up the lane for drives because of its speed and shooting ability. On the opposite end, the Warriors continued their suffocating defense, even on the bigs, and grabbed just enough rebounds to keep LeBron James and the Cavs at bay. After the adjustment, the Warriors won their next three straight to claim their first Larry O'Brien trophy in 40 years.

In the beginning of this 2015-2016 season, the Warriors have continued to destroy its opponents, jumping out to a 15-0 record and a +14.4 point differential.  Through these 15 games, nothing has epitomized the team's dominance more than this small-ball lineup, now widely-known as the Small Ball Death Squad.

The SBDS lineup of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, Harrison Barnes, and Draymond Green has been unstoppable so far this season. In 56 minutes so far, they've maintained an Offensive Rating of 160.9 and a Defensive Rating of 90.0.  Their True Shooting Percentage is 83.8%, and it's outscored their opponents by 81 points.

How does this lineup obliterate its opponents so terrifically?

I asked former All-Star and current ESPN analyst Antonio Davis about the SBDS's dominance during an interview last week. He argued that, above all, the SBDS has all the intangibles:

Man, it's such a pleasure to watch, the resilience they have, the camaraderie they have, the discipline they have, just to see them play the right way.

Davis valued the players' ability to play in their scheme above the scheme itself:

No matter what happens, the Warriors aren't going to get out of character, they're not going to do things that they're not in there to do.They're going to trust that whatever they're doing is right.

Let's take a look at what the SBDS's scheme and execution entails on both the offensive and defensive end.

The Offense:

When watching the SBDS play on offense, two immediate strengths jump off the page: they're all quick in the open floor, and all can punish defenses from three-point territory. Since no other teams can put big men faster than Harrison Barnes and Draymond Green on the floor, opponents aren't able to set up the defensive matchups they want before the Warriors begin their offensive attack. Because everybody on the SBDS can bring the ball up the court after a turnover or rebound, and the Splash Brothers can easily find open threes in transition, the SBDS puts pressure on the defense as soon as it gets the ball.

Once the defense is set, the SBDS relies on off-ball movement and the Steph-Draymond pick and roll as the crux of its offense. In both cases, the three point threat from all five players punishes even the smallest defensive miscommunication: any slow switches or rotations yields open shots.

But none of the success is possible without strict adherence to SBDS system: without precise execution, the small-ball system could become turnover-prone and too hurried for its own good.  Lost in the shuffle is the remarkable teamwork of the unit: Steph, Draymond, and Andre are elite passers at their positions, while Klay and Harrison are both fundamentally sound.  The unselfish ping-pong passing along the perimeter to find the open shooter has been clinical this season, and as easy as it sounds, most teams in the NBA aren't able to put similarly disciplined passers on the floor.

One wrinkle the Warriors have recently added into the SBDS system is the Draymond Green post-up.  When defenses switch smalls onto Draymond off screens, Draymond has been able leverage post position into points.  His strength enables him to bulldoze his way to the rim, and because of his great awareness, he moves the ball efficiently when help defense comes.

Antonio Davis loves himself some Draymond:

Draymond, to me, I give him a lot of credit. If you can find me another guy that does what he does, I'd love to see it.

The Defense

Whereas the benefits on the offensive end are immediately clear, the SBDS's defense has a few weaknesses at first glance. With Draymond Green and Harrison Barnes seriously undersized at their positions, how would the SBDS fare guarding the interior and grabbing rebounds? After all, with this lineup, the Warrior's best rebounder and shot blocker, Andrew Bogut, is on the bench.

The answer lies in the Warrior's defensive versatility. Draymond Green is well-known for his ability to guard seven-footers, but Harrison Barnes, otherwise your prototypical 3-D wing, has quietly demonstrated tremendous ability to guard power forwards and some centers.  The length of Andre Iguodala and Klay Thompson makes them both elite stoppers, while Stephen Curry has proved himself to be at least average as a defender.

The SBDS's defensive scheme relies on the individual defensive prowess of its players to implement a simple idea: switch everything.  Switching on every pick and roll forces the offense to exploit mismatches, but the simple reality is, against the SBDS, there rarely are any mismatches to exploit. Davis recognized the ability of the players to guard multiple positions as key:

Having the versatility in the wings is the glue. There's not many teams that have 3-4 guys that are versatile at so many positions.

The NBA's conventional approach to punish switching on pick and rolls, and the SBDS in general, is to post up the smaller defenders once they switch onto bigs.  Despite the individual prowess of the SBDS, the size disadvantage is sometimes too much to handle one-on-one. But the Warriors do a better job than anybody at doubling the post at the right time, and making the appropriate switches once the ball starts moving.  Unlike their opponents, who can't scramble well enough to defend the open man after double teams, the SBDS is quick and disciplined enough to rotate correctly.  On the defensive boards, the SBDS is at its weakest, but even so, the threat of the dangerous fast break keeps offenses from crashing the boards too hard.

Closing Remarks

I asked Davis whether he thought the Warrior's small ball scheme could be harnessed by copycat teams around the league. He replied:

I think that what Golden State has is unique. I think that other teams will try to duplicate it, to play small-ball, we saw it with Cleveland in the Finals last year, which I thought was a huge mistake.

We're already seeing teams "go small" in attempts to rejuvenate their offense and quicken the pace.  But they can't expect the scheme change to fix everything: "going small" can often mean sitting your best players. For the Warriors, the reason for the SBDS's dominance is as much their execution of the scheme as the scheme itself.  Rarely will we ever see such individually-skilled players with such versatility and attention to detail. Davis, as an undersized big man himself, loved what he was seeing from the Warriors lineup:

What we're witnessing here is a change in the way the game's being played. The more skill you have, regardless of size and physical attributes, you can win...I'm rooting for them.

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