It is said that defense wins championships — but to amend that statement in order to make it more specific, defensive scheme versatility wins championships.
But what exactly constitutes defensive scheme versatility? Simply put, it’s the ability to throw out different looks on a per-possession basis.
Teams at the NBA level can’t be fooled easily; they have the knowhow and personnel to throw out counter after counter against every defensive scheme out there.
Teams at the absolute top of the heap — the elite contenders who are rarely fooled and are even more capable than your average NBA team — feast when their opponents fail to give them different looks. One defensive scheme may momentarily stop them in their tracks, but it’ll only take a few possessions for them to diagnose the situation and adjust accordingly.
The Golden State Warriors pride themselves on being one of those elite teams who can adjust and punish defenses that don’t have that kind of versatility and acumen — but they themselves also know how to catch opposing offenses off guard. They rarely ever let opponents take control of the tempo and cadence of half-court possessions, keeping them constantly on the backfoot and rarely letting them become the aggressors.
The dance between an offense and defense is often a contest of who controls the puppet strings. It’s common to see an elite offense be the puppeteer; it’s much rarer to see a defense be the one stringing the offense along for the ride — something the Warriors were able to do on a consistent basis last season.
Their second-ranked defense was built on a solid foundation of scheme versatility. Not only could they play hard-nosed man-to-man defense; they could switch conditionally if the personnel warranted it. Not only could they throw out a zone; they could throw different looks such as a 1-2-2 matchup zone or a 3-2 zone. Not only were they brave enough to try out a box-and-1; they had the audacity to experiment with a triangle-and-2.
A lot of that was because their personnel afforded them that luxury. Gary Payton II was their elite perimeter stopper; Otto Porter Jr. was smart enough to be a capable cog in their team defense; Nemanja Bjelica, for all his lateral and vertical shortcomings, made up for it with sound positioning and good post defense.
Without them, the pressure of anchoring a defense falls on the Warriors’ main veteran crew. The five-man lineup of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Andrew Wiggins, Draymond Green, and Kevon Looney have outscored opponents by 36.3 points per 100 possessions in their 49 minutes on the floor this season — including limiting opponents to 99.1 points per 100 possessions.
Playing together for so long and knowing each other’s tendencies plays a huge role, but each of their individual skill sets complement each other seamlessly. Looney, for example, is empowered to play drop coverage because he knows that his partners in pick-and-roll defense are capable screen navigators:
Other times, Looney can switch against a smaller and quicker guard such as the Phoenix Suns’ Landry Shamet — not only because he’s deceptively sturdy with his perimeter defense, but because he trusts the help behind him.
The help in the instance below is Wiggins rotating to force a tough shot:
When a split-second moment of disadvantage occurs, the collective IQ of the veteran unit is enough to quickly close gaps that are created. There is arguably no better defender in the league than Green who can take such disadvantages and flip it on its head to generate stops — with help from a fellow plus-defender in Wiggins:
A successful half-court defense aims to minimize disadvantages, keep possessions stagnant, keep the ball in front for as much as possible, and flatten out an offense. Switching is often the scheme most employed to achieve all of the above — but that can only happen if the personnel is conducive to switching.
Top-tier shot makers will consistently find ways to create gold out of garbage; a top-tier defense consistently makes sure that the possibility of garbage is ever present:
The scheme versatility is there when the Warriors’ best combination of players — the ones who’ve done it all, experienced everything, and are capable of near-pristine execution — are on the floor. But whenever that combination is broken up and mixed with personnel that are limited for a variety of reasons, Steve Kerr’s list of options become glaringly smaller.
For example, take the backup center minutes behind Looney. James Wiseman’s current capabilities as a defensive center — a rim-protecting big who’s at his best when situated as close as possible to the rim — doesn’t allow Kerr to be as scheme-versatile as last season.
Wiseman still has ways to go to prove he’s a switch big. Sending him out on aggressive pick-and-roll coverages such as blitzing and hedging eliminates his presence in the paint, and he hasn’t proven to be capable of recovering in a timely manner to erase the backline disadvantage born out of aggressive coverages.
(And more often than not, Wiseman’s platoon-mates aren’t as seasoned as their veterans in terms of shoring up against a backline disadvantage.)
At this point, the best usage of him is as a drop-back center. Drop coverage is conservative in the sense that it prevents a defense from being put in rotation; with Wiseman in drop, Kerr simplifies his job as well as those around him. But there are certain caveats to playing drop.
The most crucial one: Wiseman’s pick-and-roll partner at the point of attack must be an excellent screen navigator. Thompson and Moses Moody are examples of players who can pair up with Wiseman in drop coverage because of their screen-navigation chops:
But when Wiseman is suddenly forced to process and do more as a drop-back big — mainly because his partner runs head-smack into screens, doesn’t possess the knowhow to “shoot the gap” and take shortcuts, or otherwise limited in that regard — he’s placed in situations he’s not equipped to deal with on a consistent basis:
As much as possible, the Warriors wouldn’t want Wiseman to be switched out on the perimeter and having to guard in space. But there will be unavoidable situations where a switch is inevitable, particularly when cross-matching in transition.
This is where the rest of the team is forced to show early help and rotate behind the Wiseman switch. If even one member fails to account for a rotation, the entire possession falls apart:
With Curry showing early help on the drive and Wiggins taking Jock Landale in the paint, the task of “splitting the difference” between the two weak-side offensive players falls on Jordan Poole’s shoulders — but he ball-watches and misses Mikal Bridges cutting baseline for the dunk.
While Poole put up good offensive numbers (17 points on 12 shots, 57/40/75 splits, 61.8 TS%), it was his effort on the other end that left a lot to be desired. Lack of awareness in terms of off-ball rotations, screen-navigation problems, late recoveries, and botched switches stuck out like a sore thumb:
Other than Poole’s glaring deficiencies as a defender, other scheme problems included the Warriors’ penchant for giving up the easy switch when it wasn’t warranted. Landale, in particular, feasted on switches against smaller defenders by taking them deep into the paint and using every bit of his 6’11” frame to punish mismatches:
These are early season problems that are by no means unsolvable, but Kerr is forced to be more creative with how his players mix and match in terms of defensive cohesion. We saw glimpses of him actively trying out combinations and seeing what worked and what didn’t — for example, bringing in Wiggins and Looney to stabilize the bench unit in the second quarter did wonders for the Warriors defense.
On the other hand, other combinations aren’t as successful, or they present a unique conundrum — for example, the Poole-Wiseman pairing is necessary for them to develop pick-and-roll cohesion, but at the cost of letting opponents exploit them in pick-and-roll defense.
These growing pains are necessary if the Warriors are to stick to their ambitious two-timeline plan. The clock isn’t ticking loudly yet — but it is ticking, nonetheless.