Compare it to their first six games of last season, where their defensive rating of 98.7 helped them to a blazing 5-1 start. So far during this young season – operative word being “young” – the Warriors haven’t exactly looked like world beaters on defense, something that’s been part and parcel of every single championship run they’ve made.
Different personnel can partly be attributed to that. No longer do they have such an elite defensive playmaker in Gary Payton II, who was an absolute cheat code at the point of attack as well as a highly versatile defender who could excel in any scheme. Otto Porter Jr. was a sturdy and intelligent team defender who had excellent positioning and awareness.
The Warriors losing them to greener pastures was indeed debilitating, but I’m not sure if that can account for the most glaring of the Warriors’ defensive miscues. Having to juggle contention and development is an unprecedented task; progress isn’t linear in the NBA, and the Warriors’ youth movement will have their ups and downs, especially in terms of learning how to play consistent NBA-level defense.
But some of the mistakes the Warriors have committed this season haven’t come only from their young guys; some of the more eye-popping mistakes have been made by the Warriors’ sturdy veteran mainstays.
A defensive rating of 114.3 against the Charlotte Hornets – a team without LaMelo Ball, Terry Rozier, and Cody Martin – shouldn’t be acceptable against a middling offense (113.0 offensive rating prior to game, 15th in the league). Tip-your-cap situations aside, the smallest of details are being missed, leading to the biggest breakdowns atypical of what should be a championship-level defense.
There are plenty of moments to go over and dissect, but I can pinpoint three breakdowns – all of which occurred during overtime – that were due to the Warriors failing to cross their “t’s” and dot their “i’s.” The first one comes with approximately three minutes left on the clock.
The Hornets run “21 Dribble” which is a staple of the 21-series/Pistol offense. Kelly Oubre Jr. sets the wing ball screen, after which he receives a flare screen from PJ Washington and receives the ball back.
It’s soon after Oubre receives the ball that the Warriors commit a costly mistake:
Anticipating a switch, Washington slips the flare screen for Oubre – after all, the best way to beat a switch is to slip the screen. One would normally expect that the combination of Draymond Green and Andrew Wiggins would have enough knowhow and IQ to anticipate a slip and touch Washington on the roll.
However, Wiggins uncharacteristically misses the slip and lets Washington stroll to the rim. Cook it up to a rare miscue from an otherwise sturdy defender.
The second breakdown happened approximately a minute later. The Hornets set double-sided ball screens for Dennis Smith Jr., who chooses to go right and use Washington’s screen. With Wiggins being Washington’s defender, that’s an easy switch on the ball for him to make.
However, the costly mistake happens on what should’ve been an easy switch on the other side of the ball:
Jalen McDaniels – the other screening option – opts to stay beyond the arc to make himself available for a three. Green switches onto Washington and points toward McDaniels, signaling to Steph Curry that he should switch out onto the perimeter – but Curry fails to get the message and coughs up a wide-open shot.
The third and final costly mistake happened with less than a minute to go in overtime. But before we go there, a bit of context should be applied using what happened earlier in the game during the fourth quarter. Take note of this possession when taking into account the final mistake that happens:
The Hornets run a sideline out-of-bounds play (SLOB) that involves a quick handoff into a ball screen. With Klay Thompson guarding Gordon Hayward, he switches onto Washington, who takes him deep in the paint for a turnaround bank shot. Thompson normally survives such mismatches, but he wasn’t able to account for the size discrepancy in this instance.
Steve Kerr calls a timeout – and perhaps some of the messaging during the huddle was to prevent being switched into mismatches as much as possible.
Which takes us to the costly mistake itself:
The Hornets run double-drag action, clearly intending to force another Thompson switch onto Washington and feed him down low after seeing what happened earlier. However, the mindset Thompson has on this possession clearly was to not give up the easy switch.
The problem with that mindset is that no one else on the Warriors is on the same page. Green switches on the ball; Curry switches onto Hayward (another potential mismatch the Hornets can go to); Wiggins and Poole both stay home on the corners.
Thompson, on the other hand, is left in no-man’s land – and Washington is left all alone for the finish.
It’s a mistake that can be fairly criticized on schematic grounds. It’s a breakdown that rarely happens to Thompson – he has shown that he’s better than this as a defender. He can perform beyond that single costly mistake. Perhaps his legs haven’t fully recovered underneath him – understandable considering his lack of off-season reps in practice and scrimmages.
The problem is more than just Thompson himself. This “Poole Party” lineup of Curry, Jordan Poole, Thompson, Wiggins, and Green has some concerning defensive pitfalls. At 37 minutes, it’s second only to the starting crew in terms of time on the floor – yet it has underachieved offensively and has let opponents score way too easily (117.2 defensive rating).
The difference in supporting personnel does play a role – but some of the veterans aren’t doing what they’re supposed to do on the defensive end. Early season malaise may be playing a part, and it’s still too early to conclude that there is a legitimate problem. But eventually, the bad habits have to be eliminated before it’s too late to change them.