People have likened this early start by the Golden State Warriors to the 2020-21 season, where the team fell one win short of an outright playoff berth despite a 15-5 record to close out the regular season.
You can’t blame them for the comparisons. Stephen Curry had perhaps his best individual season save for his unanimous-MVP campaign, a carry job of a year where the burden of the team’s success often fell solely on his shoulders.
Through the first 15 games of that ill-fated campaign, Curry put up incredible numbers: 28.2 points, 4.8 rebounds, and 6.1 assists on 55/37/94 splits (2P/3P/FT) and a 61.3 TS%. It was only enough, however, for the Warriors to sport an 8-7 record.
At that point, the Warriors were a bottom-10 offense, a middle-of-the-pack defense, and 21st in net rating. Out of the gates, the difficulties of having to integrate a highly inexperienced no. 2 draft pick — coupled with having players who didn’t mesh well with Curry and the Warriors’ intricate offense — got them in a place where they were only one win over .500.
Fast forward two seasons later, and the comparisons — while understandable considering the struggles of this team — couldn’t be any more different.
Let’s start with Curry himself. In 15 Warriors games (14 of which he played in), he is putting up unfathomable numbers for a 6’2” guard: 32.8 points, 6.8 rebounds, and 6.1 assists on 64/45/94 splits (2P/3P/FT) and a 70.1 TS%.
For a guard who averages nearly 12 attempts from beyond the arc and doesn’t rely on a heavy diet of paint points, a true shooting percentage of 70 percent is unheard of. Curry’s season is well on track to not only match his 2020-21 season — it’s on pace to smash it to smithereens.
And yet, the team is currently sporting a 6-9 record — a noticeable drop off from their situation two years prior.
When eliminating garbage time, the Warriors are ninth in offensive rating this season — including a half-court offensive rating that is the third-best in the league, per Cleaning The Glass. Most of that is from Curry himself, but offense mostly hasn’t been a problem in the aggregate.
It’s on the other end of the floor — where the Warriors are currently 23rd in non-garbage-time efficiency — where the glaring weaknesses have emerged.
Even while the 2020-21 iteration of the team were a middle-of-the-pack defense during their first 15 games, their personnel served as ballasts that prevented them from falling lower in the defensive-rating pecking order. For all their shortcomings in terms of being offensive complements to Curry, Kelly Oubre and Kent Bazemore were lengthy operators who fit within the Warriors’ defensive ethos of versatile wing defense, one that allowed them to throw out small switchable lineups.
Offensive struggles aside, having a defensively attuned roster eventually helped them to finish as a top-five defense in 2020-21.
Playing small and fast on both ends has always been the Warriors’ dynastic trademark. But “small” is a bit of a misnomer when you consider the personnel necessary for them to throw out viable downsized lineups — the presence of lengthy wings between 6’5” to 6’8” is paramount to their versatility on defense. Without it, such lineups will only be exploited by opponents with size and heft.
For example, take this possession against the Phoenix Suns:
In an effort to get the ball out of Devin Booker’s hands, the Warriors throw out a double team as soon as he crosses the half-court mark. But the problem doesn’t just lie within that inherent strategy.
Jordan Poole and Klay Thompson are both eliminated from the backside activity since they’re the doubling party. This leaves Curry, Draymond Green, and Andrew Wiggins with the task of having to shore up a backline numbers disadvantage.
But the problem emerges when Curry finds himself switched onto Deandre Ayton deep in the paint, due to Green having to account for Mikal Bridges on the perimeter. This forces Wiggins to help off and double, leaving Poole at the top of the key having to “split the difference” between the slot (Torrey Craig) and the wing (Cam Payne). Craig takes the opportunity to cut behind Poole’s back, receive the pass, and score — a consequence of the dearth of backside length and awareness.
It’s difficult to execute, but one would think that better “bumping off” or “scram switching” would prevent a situation like the one above. But that requires not only the proper knowhow and intelligence — it requires the personnel to capably handle Ayton on such switches.
Small lineups shouldn’t only be speedy — they need to be lengthy and intelligent. The length factor is a requirement whenever switching freely up and down the positional spectrum; intelligence is a requirement when it comes to minute details such as close-out control, knowing the opposing personnel, and being in the correct positions to make the correct decisions.
When Steve Kerr whipped out a lineup of Poole, Donte DiVincenzo, Wiggins, Anthony Lamb, and JaMychal Green, it had the kind of switchable versatility that made such a small lineup feasible:
But the pitfalls of playing a relatively vertically challenged lineup are still there. The Warriors are the seventh-worst team in the league at the rate of opponents’ misses they haul in (69.7 DREB%). They allow the ninth-most second-chance points in the league. Without the proper effort to crash the defensive boards and complete the stop, making opponents miss becomes a futile endeavor.
The Suns hauled in eight offensive boards and were able to translate them into 16 second-chance points. None was perhaps more frustrating than what happened on this possession:
DiVincenzo plays eight seconds of brilliant individual defense and forces the stop — only for the rest of his teammates to fail in hauling in the defensive rebound, which gives the Suns an extra possession that leads to a Booker jumper.
Some possessions resurfaced a problem that has always plagued the Warriors defensively: overhelping, especially off of the weak-side corner.
However, one must understand that overhelping isn’t necessarily the fault of the helper. The trigger almost always happens at the point of attack, or whenever some sort of dribble penetration is achieved.
When the Suns go to a typical “HORNS Out” set (when one elbow player sets another screen for the other elbow player to leak “out” toward the wing), an advantage situation is created, and help is therefore necessary:
Bridges feels Curry fall behind on the “Out” screen and opts to drive inside, instead of flaring out toward the wing. Green is then forced to “trap the box” — i.e., help on dribble penetration by rotating toward the paint.
This leaves Craig open on the weak-side corner. Kevon Looney does his best to “X-out” toward the corner, but his limited footspeed accomplishes little against a comfortable set shot from the corner.
Lastly, what felt like one of the more questionable tactical decisions on defense was the decision to assign Thompson to Booker for the majority of the first half. Thompson — whose struggles on the offensive end so far this season (15.1 points on 39/33/81 splits and 47.1 TS%, 10 points below league average) have been front and center — largely wasn’t effective at making life difficult for his counterpart.
Prior to this season, there was a notion that Thompson — by virtue of age and injuries — wouldn’t be able to defend smaller scoring guards because of the decline in lateral movement. That has largely proven to be true so far this season in terms of on-ball defense.
Thompson may no longer be a 2-guard defensively, or even a 3 defending nimble wings. At this point of his career, he may be most effective guarding bigger wings and bona-fide 4s — less mobile and more stationary, with no requirement other than the strength to match, something that Thompson possesses.
That may be an uncomfortable truth the team and Thompson may have to swallow, but whether he’s willing to accept that and make the proper adjustments remains to be seen.
Another uncomfortable truth: This Warriors roster doesn’t have the same kind of defensive depth — especially on the wings — that they had in years prior. The loss of Otto Porter Jr. and Gary Payton II stings; the lack of wings in the defensive mold of Oubre and Bazemore also sticks out.
This is a top-heavy roster on both ends of the floor, defense included. The starting unit is holding opponents to 104.8 points per 100 possessions in non-garbage time — equivalent to the best defense in the league. Their 92.2 points per 100 possessions allowed in the half court is equivalent to third in the league.
All other lineup combinations haven’t been as stingy — far from it, to be quite frank: 116.0 points per 100 possessions allowed, equivalent to the fourth-worst defense in the league; 99.4 points per 100 possessions allowed in the half court, equivalent to third worst in the league.
Lineup combinations have been hard to come by. But Kerr is handicapped by the options he’s presented with beyond his starting five. Other than the struggles of Thompson, the inherent flaw of this current roster — due to an oversight in its construction — is sending their defense reeling and is wasting the efforts of its generational superstar.