The first preseason matchup between the Golden State Warriors and the Los Angeles Lakers was a meeting between two of the league’s top defensive teams last season — and for the entire first quarter, it was looking like a pitched defensive battle between two teams who made life difficult for opposing offenses last season.
Make no mistake, most of each team’s difficulties with scoring in the first quarter was due to the usual preseason shenanigans. Rust, lack of chemistry, and a certain level of apathy resulted in turnovers galore.
Still, the defensive schemes employed by each team was still coherent enough to be appreciated. The Warriors — who finished 5th in defensive rating last season, which included an opponent effective field-goal percentage (eFG%) of 52.2%, 4th best in the league — employed their typical switch-everything scheme. The goal of such a scheme is simple: stagnation of motion and screening actions and forcing low-efficiency late-clock isolation possessions.
Such a scheme requires highly versatile defenders who are able to switch through a wide spectrum of assignments. The Warriors had that kind of personnel last season, buoyed by a deep wing corps that could defend the shiftiest of guards as well as hold their own against bigger and stronger behemoths.
The Warriors arguably do not have that kind of wing depth anymore. The departures of Kelly Oubre Jr. and Kent Bazemore may have an effect on their defensive efficiency this season. But if such a decline is miniscule compared to the possible trade-off that is a monumental increase in offensive efficiency, that might be a pill the Warriors are willing to swallow.
Even if the defensive wing depth isn’t as extensive, the Warriors’ switching still looks sharp, with ample rotations and help coming from where it is needed: from the low man on drives, stunts at the nail to slow down penetration at the point of attack, and the typical scramble sequences with timely “X-outs.”
This particular possession caught my eye:
The Lakers run elbow action out of “Horns,” with staggered screens for the weak-side corner man. Switching is the perfect counter to such a movement-heavy set; there are at least four countable switches above, but focus on the final switch that forces Kevon Looney onto Malik Monk.
As Warriors fans mostly know by now, Looney isn’t the typical mismatch fodder against guards out on the perimeter. His ability to stay disciplined and refusal to bite on jitterbug movement and herky-jerky fakes is what has made him a trusted commodity on switches, despite his apparent lack of footspeed and athleticism.
Even so, Looney trusts his backline defense — namely, Draymond Green — to rotate behind him should he fail to stop his man at the point of attack. He allows Monk to penetrate, funneling him toward Green, who is the “low man” in this instance.
Green, who is defending DeAndre Jordan, is a few steps ahead. He anticipates a lob being thrown once he shows signs of help. His step up serves as a sort of bait for Monk to commit to the lob; once that bridge is crossed, Green bats away the lob and forces the turnover — a perfect example of Green’s uncanny defensive IQ.
Curiously enough, the Warriors also experimented with a 2-3 zone. Steve Kerr delved into occasional zone configurations last season, a sort of change-of-pace tool to catch opponents off guard and to disrupt their offensive sets. In the Lakers’ case, their apparent dearth of perimeter shooting is kryptonite that enhances the effectivity of a zone.
It was enough to befuddle someone like Russell Westbrook, who committed 2 of his 6 turnovers while haphazardly trying to navigate the zone on back-to-back possessions.
Breaking a zone requires significant patience, and Westbrook’s impatience on the possessions above runs antithetical to the textbook swing-swing and middle-flash concepts that are part and parcel of approaching zone defenses.
The Warriors will have trouble against certain kind of personnel — namely, against taller roll-gravity threats who can haul in offensive boards and make Looney and Nemanja Bjelica look like molasses while trying to defend pick-and-rolls, especially on empty-side varieties.
The Warriors were among the worst defensive rebounding teams last season, with their defensive rebound percentage of 72.7% ranking 22nd in the league. Bereft of the services of a true big man in James Wiseman for the foreseeable future — with their tallest active player being a 6’10” power forward who provides little-to-no vertical equity — the rebounding problem will most likely compound itself as the season progresses.
Making opponents miss as a result of coercing inefficient shots is already a huge component of their defense. Shrewd positioning and gang rebounding will be crucial for them to take full advantage of such misses.
The continued preseason explosion of Jordan Poole
There’s nothing stopping Jordan Poole from achieving a breakout season, it seems.
After three preseason games, Poole is averaging 25.0 points, 3.0 rebounds, and 3.3 assists, on 52/44/90 shooting splits and 68.9% True Shooting (TS). Even if the games themselves are meaningless, the way Poole is showing the fruits of his off-season labor is certainly not devoid of meaning.
Against the Lakers, Poole displayed a little bit of everything. His shiftiness and ability to manipulate his defender, topped off by a nifty step-back three, placed poor Wayne Ellington in an untenable position.
Jordan Poole, my goodness pic.twitter.com/k4r5kbvmnV— Joe Viray (@JoeVirayNBA) October 9, 2021
Whereas Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson are the typical beneficiaries of the Warriors’ staple low-post split action, Poole’s improvement as a movement shooter adds another potential split-action weapon. Coupled with poor defending of an action that has become the Warriors’ signature offensive set — widely known enough to the point that teams should know when it’s coming — Poole drills a three off of a nice screen by Otto Porter Jr.
Poole’s floater game was also on point. Against drop defenses, he has shown the means to create shots within that in-between space in the pick-and-roll; he flashed glimpses of such a shot last season, where his 46.2% success rate on floaters placed him in the 69th percentile, per Synergy.
Making these floaters a consistent part of his attacking arsenal will place pick-and-roll defenders between a rock and a hard place.
Another reason for eschewing drop defense against Poole: his ability to carve out space for himself. Even if the point-of-attack defense is sharp, dropping bigs place the entire onus on on-ball defenders to navigate ball-screens and stay in front of Poole.
Talen Horton-Tucker did his best to recover back to Poole in the possession below (which is a good offensive set in and of itself: “Horns” flowing into “Pistol” action), but the dropping DeAndre Jordan didn’t help things by dropping so far back and taking himself out of the equation.
Poole’s stock is steadily growing with each preseason showing. We may no longer have to refer to him as a mere placeholder for Thompson, but rather acknowledging him as a legitimate burgeoning presence who will become a major contributor in the upcoming season.