A narrative is quickly coming together around Zaza Pachulia and David West, the first two centers in the Golden State Warriors depth chart. That narrative is that these two big men are hopeless, overmatched, and the source of the Warriors defensive problems in the first three games.
This narrative is wrong.
It's wrong on a variety of levels, but a big part of the reason it's wrong is because it displays a misunderstanding of how Pachulia and West play defense, how they play differently than their predecessors Andrew Bogut and Festus Ezeli, and how much more "quietly" they play.
Before we begin looking at video, however, we need to acknowledge that the defense has been a problem. After three games, the Warriors DRTG is a woeful 111pts/100 possessions, good for a whopping 25th in the league. This is a huge drop-off from last year.
Given that the team replaced two excellent defenders with two less-good defenders, it's easy and understandable for a lot of the blame to land on the new faces. Understandable, however, but wrong. The talk about Pachulia's and West's defense has focused on the fact that they're both mediocre rim protectors. This is true. Nor is either of them particularly long or athletic. Thankfully, those are only a part of being a good NBA defender.
One hint that the problem is not the new big men comes from ranking the players by DRTG. Pachulia and West are the third- and fourth best players on the team in DRTG, after the (far superior) Durant and Draymond. To the extent that the Warriors' defense has been a dumpster fire (and it has) we should blame the players who have been on the court for lots of it: Steph Curry (DRTG 118), Klay Thompson (DRTG 116), and Andre Iguodala (DRTG 115). Those numbers are unacceptable.
Well, sure, you might say, that's just statistics. But if you watch the games, you'll see. Okay, let's look at some tape. Let's start by looking at a simple play from early in the third quarter against Phoenix.
This is a pretty boring play. After some initial motion (including a little bit of misdirection by the Suns) Tyson Chandler sets a pick for T.J. Warren. This pick is effective, and ties up that #35 guy for the Warriors (who doesn't really fight through the pick, but gets tied up in a way that conveniently stops Tyson from running to the rim if he were so inclined). Warren's plan here is simple. He tries to drive to the basket, and if the defender cuts him off, he pulls up for a jumper.
Now, I don't want to give too much credit here, because it's not like Warren drives hard off the pick, but notice how Pachulia handles it. He drops back enough to stop the drive, and then leaps forward to contest the shot.
If you remember the Warriors playoff series against Portland last year, you'll remember Damien Lillard getting this shot time and time again. The difference was that it wasn't contested. Bogut is too slow to come out that far to pick up the shooter, so he hangs back to protect the rim, conceding the open jumper. A big part of the reason why Lillard scored almost 32 points a game against us in the playoffs was because he had that shot, open, whenever he wanted it when Bogut was on the floor.
Pachulia actually plays this action better than Bogut does. He moves his feet and anticipates well enough that Warren never even seriously considers the drive. He's got nowhere to go. Instead, he pulls up for a jumper, and Pachulia is fast enough to get up and contest the shot.
Is he likely to block the shot? No. That's not the point. The point is that Warren hits shots at that range at about a 45% clip, but that includes catch-and-shoot and wide-open shots, so being both contested and off-the-dribble means he's going to hit this shot well below that number. Off the dribble and even mildly contested, this shot is simply not efficient enough to be dangerous unless it's coming from one of a few players (one of whom plays on our team). Now, sometimes that shot is going to go in (as a similar shot did on the very next play) but the idea is simply that the defense is conceding a contested 16-foot jumper, on which the offense will average less than .9 points per shot, and that's good enough to win (.9 pps, for an entire season, would be historically elite defense). This type of defense is boring. It happens 20 times a game, but by denying the lane and contesting the shot Zaza shaves a couple of points off the opponent's score over the course of 48 minutes. The Warriors will take this result all day.
Also worth noting: Chandler is a wily vet, and he flips the screen at the last second. At first he looks like he's going to set the screen to go right, and at the last second it goes left. Pachulia isn't fooled and he's right there to block the driving lane. Because Warren doesn't even consider driving, it looks like Pachulia didn't do anything - but he did the work to read the play and get into position and stop the drive before it started, and has the agility to block the drive will still getting forward to contest the shot.
Appreciating Pachulia's defense is going to be, in large part, about appreciating these boring plays. There's no highlight here. The name Zaza Pachulia doesn't appear on the stat sheet. The team gave up a contested jumper. Successful play. Get the board and go the other way.
Now let's look at one possession from David West.
There are actually two defensive stops here. The first is a simple screen-and-roll action. Devin Booker gets a screen from Alex Len and drives. This is the basic Scylla-and-Charbyds of the pick-and-roll: Booker only needs a step to get ahead of Klay Thompson, and if West slides over to help, Booker drops the ball off to a rolling Len.
This isn't A+ execution from Phoenix, but it's good enough to get a shot most of the time. But notice how West plays it. He drops back just enough to cause Booker to slow down, giving time to Thompson to recover, all while keeping an eye on Len so that he can cover him if Booker tries to drop the ball of. Like with Zaza on the previous play, West's anticipation and positioning is strong enough that Booker doesn't even really try to drive hard.
This looks so simple, but a lot of players, particular those with poor discipline (like a certain extremely athletic big man deep on the Warriors bench) charge up to make a play on Booker, giving up the easy leading dish to Len. The defense then has to rotate to cover Len (notice how Draymond is in position to do so), and good ball movement gets the offense an open shot. Trying to "make a play" is the wrong play here, so West plays up enough to make driving unappealing, without ever making Len seem like an option, and so Booker (wisely) passes out and they reset.
Boring basketball. Winning basketball.
But the play's not over. With 11 seconds on the shot clock, Booker could probably afford to take a little more time than he does, but he thinks he's got a lane. He drives right, getting half a step on Klay, and probably hoping that he'll either be able to turn the corner on Klay or that Shaun will help, conceding the corner jumper. Shaun wisely stays home.
Again, watch West. He drops back just enough to make the attempt to turn the corner unappealing. You can watch how Booker adjusts, once he's committed to going up with the ball, by swinging deeper under the basket. What probably would have been a difficult lay-up turns into a shot that Booker simply isn't willing to try. Under the basket, Booker then starts looking for a pass to Len, but notice how West has completely walled off that pass. There's nowhere for him to throw the ball and he tosses it aimlessly back for one of the easier steals of Iguodala's career.
The announcers at this point started talking about Iguodala's quick hands, but the bad pass happens because West is in a position that takes away not only any hope of getting around Klay, but also any chance of passing back to Len. Again, a less disciplined player would probably go directly for a steal or block, but this is pure veteran savvy: Booker has nowhere to go, so West just has to stop the easy pass, leaving Booker with no good options.
Boring basketball. Winning basketball. Ironically, right after this play happened a commentator in the game thread demanded that Kerr bench West.
Lastly I want to look at one more play.
Marquese Chriss gets the ball in the mid post. He bumps Zaza, turns and drives. It's easy to complain about how it appears that Zaza got beat, as Chriss gets around him. But notice where Chriss ends up. When he jumps to shoot, his right foot is actually under the backboard. Even though he's close to the hoop, he's in a terribly awkward shooting position. He's got no angle, is craning his neck back to see the basket, and Zaza gives ground to avoid fouling, while leaving Chriss unclear on which hand is the best to shoot with. Chriss is forced to try an extremely difficult shot made more difficult by the contact he creates banging backwards against Zaza to create room to shoot it
No, Pachulia isn't Bogut, who might simply inhale that shot. But that shot doesn't need to get blocked. That is an incredibly difficult shot to make with a man on your back, and while I'd like, say, LeBron James's chances from there, he's one of maybe ten players in the league who are comfortable shooting from under the basket like that. That is a low percentage shot, despite being close to the hoop, and Zaza avoids fouling and the shot is missed.
Unfortunately, this play also reveals a big part of the problem this team has been having. Zaza has done his job, made the shot difficult, and Chriss missed it. Unfortunately, the play's not over. Eric Bledsoe speeds past Ian Clark, and Leandro Barbosa does the same to Klay Thompson, and the net result is that Pachulia is trying to rebound one-on-three. (Pause the video at 10 seconds and this is obvious). In those circumstances, it's understandable that the play would end in a shooting foul.
But Pachulia did his job here. He forced a difficult shot, which resulted in a miss. He was let down by his teammates, for failed to block out their men, resulting in an easy pair of FTs. Blaming Pachulia here shows a clear misunderstanding of what went wrong on the play.
In the NBA, big men often take the defensive blame for the faults of their smaller teammates, and this is a great example. The stat sheet tells you that the tiny Barbosa grabbed a rebound over Pachulia, and that Pachulia fouled him. The reality is that bad team defense and bad communication put Pachulia in a situation where it would take an elite play to save the possession.
In this play, it's possible that Thompson and Clark were confused about their assignments because they had just switched. It seems more likely that they both fell asleep and decided to just watch. And that's been the biggest problem with the Warriors defense so far this season: lack of effort and intensity.
This has affected the entire team - including, at times, Pachulia and West. While Durant has had a couple of impressive blocks, it wasn't until the 4th quarter against the Suns that it felt like we started to see Draymond Green play like he knew he was Draymond Green - the guy who inhales clutch rebounds, blocks shots out of nowhere, makes plays when the team needs him. He - and the team - have started this season feeling like they're coasting on that end of the floor. It was easy to forget what Draymond Green intensity looks like until he showed it to us.
It's possible the team bought into their own hype a little bit. One things we saw last year was that the team had so much (justified) confidence in their ability to throw out the small-ball death squad and erase leads that they coasted at the beginning of games. They have an on-off switch, which is always dangerous, and the team is shooting just 26.7% on three-pointers, which is eliminating one of their big come-back weapons. (Last year, the team shot 41.6% on threes). Mix those two things, and the result is close games against mediocre teams, and losses against very good ones.
It feels like a cliche when Steve Kerr talks about "effort" after games, but it's true. Far more so than the play of Zaza Pachulia and David West, the team's overall lack of effort and communication has been the problem on defense so far this season. These guys aren't going to create highlight defensive plays. They are going to make the right play, consistently, time and time again.
It's boring basketball, but if everyone on the team does their job, it's winning basketball.