What exactly is ailing the Golden State Warriors’ defense?
You can point to a lot of things: lack of attention to detail in terms of schemes, switching, rotations, etc. You can point to the change in personnel from last season to this current iteration that is more top heavy. You can even point to a general lack of energy and willingness to get up for games.
Whatever the case, this hasn’t been the ideal start for a team a few months removed from a title run. The Warriors haven’t been great on both ends — their offense is middling (111.4 offensive rating, 20th) and their defense has been far from championship level (115.2 defensive rating, 23rd).
Their troubles on both ends feed off of each other. The inability to put the ball in the hoop results in less opportunities to set up a proper half-court defense. While the Warriors have been one of the sturdiest transition defenses in the league so far according to the metrics (112.7 transition DRTG, third), part of that may be attributed to variance — i.e., opponents are missing some of the open shots they’re getting in transition and as a result, are bailing out the Warriors.
Letting opponents score — whether through live ball situations or after fouling and sending them to the line — allows them to set up their half-court defense in turn. Slowing the Warriors down to a battle of half-court possessions has always been a tried-and-tested formula to have a chance at beating them.
Even if the Warriors have capable half-court creators in Stephen Curry, Jordan Poole, and Andrew Wiggins, what if their shots don’t fall? Or if they do, what if they take as much, if not more, than they give?
More specifically, what kind of shots are they taking from opponents? Is their defensive shot profile unfavorable, and if so, has that been the cause of their troubles on defense?
A closer look at their opponents’ rim frequency shows that it’s much more complicated than meets the eye (or in this case, the numbers).
Opponents’ shots at the rim
The importance of preventing your opponents from getting two feet into the paint and putting pressure at the rim remains a crucial aspect of modern NBA defense. As much as possible, you wouldn’t want to be put in rotation; being put in rotation means an opening or two is created, and more energy is expended trying to plug those holes.
Per Cleaning The Glass, the Warriors were the best at limiting opponents’ looks at the rim last season. Rim deterrence from the likes of Draymond Green and Kevon Looney played a huge part, but other factors — such as solid point-of-attack defense and excellent screen navigation — played equally important roles.
In seven games, the Warriors’ ability to prevent opponents from getting to the rim seems to have carried over, at least when you look at the numbers:
A huge component of the Warriors’ defense has been their no-middle philosophy — that is, preventing ball handlers from gaining control of the middle lane.
The concept of “ICE-ing” ball screens — denying a ball handler from using a ball screen and forcing them against the sideline — requires two things; 1) a capable point-of-attack defender who can jump out and deny/navigate screens, and 2) a big who can serve as a competent funnel, able to navigate the middle ground between the ball handler and the roll man.
Moses Moody has shown strides as a dependable point-of-attack operator who can also navigate his way around screens. He can make it difficult for ball handlers to go middle — instead, they are pressured against the sideline (virtually an inanimate extra defender) into the waiting hands of Looney:
Opponents don’t get to the rim that often against the Warriors — but when they do, they have a success rate of 66%, which places the Warriors at a middling 17th in the league, per Cleaning The Glass.
A significant part of their opponents’ success at the rim comes during fastbreak situations — either when the Warriors turn the ball over (their 15.2 TOV% is 24th in the league), or when they miss shots and are forced to set their defense hastily in transition.
Some, however, are due to miscommunication and improper cross-matching. Take this example from their loss against the Detroit Pistons:
By virtue of Curry being behind the play, the Warriors are already at a 5-on-4 disadvantage. Green points toward the wing signaling for someone to take Bojan Bogdanović, but nobody heeds his command. Instead of stopping the ball and Jaden Ivey, Green is instead compelled to pick up Bogdanović — leaving a backpedaling James Wiseman to deal with Ivey’s blazing-fast athleticism.
Opponents’ mid-range shots
The modern line of thinking in today’s analytics-infused world is that the shot a defense would most prefer opponents to take is a long two-point jumper. That notion holds true against most opponents — save for the highest tier of mid-range shooters.
As a consequence of the Warriors running shooters off the line and protecting the rim, they’ve given up plenty of mid-range shots so far this season.
The bad news behind the Warriors giving up mid-range looks is that opponents have been making them at an unusually high rate. Only the San Antonio Spurs are coughing up a higher field-goal percentage in the mid-range than the Warriors.
Partly why the Warriors have been okay with playing drop coverage on some possessions has been their confidence in their personnel’s ability to navigate over screens. Making opponents step inside the arc and force tough long twos over great contests is not only schematically feasible — it’s playing the numbers game.
But the concerning number isn’t just the amount of “long” mid-range jumpers (14 feet or more away from the rim but inside the arc) they’ve given up — it’s the amount of “short” mid-range jumpers (floater range) that opponents have made against them: a blistering 50% success rate on floater-range shots, dead last in the league.
Some of it can be credited to better shot making over decent-to-good contests. Others are a consequence of giving clean looks to players who have the touch to drill such floaters at a respectable rate — often a consequence of drop coverage.
Will the relatively small-sample size of unfavorable variance eventually correct itself as the season progresses? Perhaps — but it shouldn’t make them complacent in defending these shots.
Opponents’ three-point shots
In their efforts to prevent as many rim attempts as possible last season, the Warriors suffered the natural consequence of giving up plenty of looks from beyond the arc. Opponents especially feasted on pick-and-roll possessions where the low man on the weak side would usually “tag” or cheat toward the paint to cover potential passes to the roller, leaving the weak-side corner open for a catch-and-shoot three or a swing-swing sequence against a defense in rotation.
So far, they’ve been marginally better at preventing looks from beyond the arc. As opposed to last season — where they were ranked among the bottom half in terms of opponent three-point frequency — they’ve been closer to league average this season.
While they still allow plenty of threes from above the break, they’ve allowed fewer shots from the corners this season — still not at an elite level, but considerably closer to league average.
They’ve been among the top teams in the league in overall opponent three-point accuracy; opponents are shooting 33.9% from beyond the arc overall. Even if the Warriors are allowing plenty of above-the-break threes, most of those haven’t been falling for opponents (32.0%).
However, it’s on the corners where the Warriors have had persistent trouble trying to stop opponents:
Continuing the theme of miscommunication and scheme confusion, some corner threes have been highly preventable. Take this possession against the Pistons, for example:
The Pistons run a HORNS set with an “Exit” screen element for Saddiq Bey, with Bogdanović as the pin-in/exit screener. Jordan Poole chases Bey around the screen instead of switching out onto the popping Bogdanović — something that Green wanted Poole to do, as evident by him pointing toward the corner.
Seeing that Poole didn’t get the memo, Green is forced to make the long close out, but that’s too much space and distance to cover for Green to affect the shot.
Other corner threes have come as a result of the aforementioned low-man tags and early help/cheats:
Of course, some of the shots they’ve given up have been due to the numbers game — in other words, they let opponents who typically don’t shoot well from the outside shoot. To their credit (and to the Warriors’ chagrin) they’ve been able to deliver while being left open.
For example: Isaiah Stewart is a career 31% shooter from beyond the arc. He averages less than a shot attempt per game on threes for his career. Prior to the game against the Warriors, he sported a 22.2% clip on threes on a career-high 4.5 attempts per game.
Percentages and trends that didn’t apply to him against the Warriors, as evidenced by these two crucial shots:
If a phrase can be attributed to the Warriors’ overall shot profile, it’s this: decent, but not overly elite or overly undesirable. For the large part, they’ve been able to force opponents to take the shots they want them to take — but variance hasn’t exactly favored them.
That doesn’t excuse them, however, from the lack of energy, force, and attention to detail in terms of rotations, switches, communication, and other aspects of defense they’ve previously excelled in. Point-of-attack defense can be better; screen navigation from certain players leaves much to be desired; mistakes that weren’t being made before are costing them dearly.
Even more glaring has been their fouling. Their opponents have a free throw rate of 25.1 — 26th in the league, per Cleaning The Glass. They are coughing up 26.8 free throws per 100 possessions — fifth highest allowed in the league.
The season is young, but now is the time to address these problems before they become irredeemable habits.