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Warriors flash the collective might — and promise — of their frontcourt depth

The Warriors’ bigs were crucial in their come-from-behind win against the Jazz.

NBA: Utah Jazz at Golden State Warriors John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports

Draymond Green continues to be severely underrated by certain sections of NBA fandom — and that is truly a shame.

It’s understandable that people without any vested interest in the Golden State Warriors can’t fully appreciate someone of Green’s stature. What’s been baffling is how even some Warriors fans continue to underrate his contributions to a dynasty that has brought them four championships in eight years.

Green’s mercurial nature can rub people the wrong way. He is passionate, loud, and demonstrative. His emotions tread a thin line; the balancing act between measured passion and excessive expression can often be a tiring act.

But if you were to ask Warriors fans: Has the team benefited more from his passion and his never-ending drive to prove doubters wrong rather than be negatively affected?

I’m pretty confident the answer to that is a resounding yes.

Especially when you consider the gargantuan defensive feats he has accomplished throughout the years — some of which have occurred during this tumultuous season.

That is Green plugging holes, scrambling, rotating to discourage drives, and forcing swing-swing passes, capped with a close-out block — completely thriving in his comfort zone as a virtual free safety.

It takes otherworldly audacity and a ton of confidence to navigate from spot to spot without worrying about leaving someone open. It takes an equal amount of audacity and confidence for opposing players to go straight at him and challenge him at the rim.

All-time defenders aren’t immune to audacious challenges. They won’t be able to turn back every layup. Occasionally, they’ll even be on the receiving end of poster dunks and highlight reels. But what separates the all-timers from the rest of the field is their ability to minimize such occasions to just a hand-countable few.

The rest of those challenges all look something like this:

Green’s awareness and intelligence as a defender is second to none. Even while his physical prime is on its downhill trajectory, his mind continues to be sharp; his knowledge of schemes, personnel, and positioning are still at a stratospheric high.

That fact manifested itself against the Utah Jazz in the fourth quarter, where Green once again showed why he is this generation’s greatest defender — if not the greatest defender of all time:

Most defenders have no chance of stopping a virtual 2-on-1 — but Green is not like most defenders. He steps up to challenge the drive, knowing that Jared Vanderbilt is itching at the thought of cutting behind him and dunking on his head.

What Vanderbilt doesn’t know is that is exactly what Green wants him to do. Green’s step-up baits the pass to the cutting Vanderbilt; a quick flip of the hip and Green catches Vanderbilt up top.

Vanderbilt hasn’t been alone when it comes to Green discouraging or outright sending away challenges at the rim. Opponents shoot just 48.3% at the rim against Green this season — the best among 46 players who have played at least 20 games, average at least 20 minutes per game, and contest a minimum of four shots at the rim per game.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise, but the Warriors have been immensely better on defense with Green on the floor this season. Their 109.5 defensive rating with him on the floor is the equivalent of second-best in the league when eliminating garbage time, per Cleaning the Glass.

With Green on the bench, the Warriors sport a 119.0 defensive rating — equivalent to the second-worst defense in the league. This 9.6-points-per-100 possession difference on defense is second among 19 players with at least 780 minutes played this season, per Cleaning the Glass.

Much like his running partner in Stephen Curry, Green has often been misconstrued as a mere cog in a machinery that isn’t of his own making. Curry has been described as a “system” player on offense, while Green is often downplayed as someone who has benefited from a scheme replete with switchable wings and a high collective IQ.

But to (incorrectly) assess Curry as an offensive system player and Green as a defensive system player are classic examples of missing the forest for the trees. Kerr adopted his motion offense and scheme-versatile defense for good reason: to build around and maximize the talents of the two elite personnel he was given.

While Kerr has developed a bit of a reputation as a coach who stubbornly sticks to his guns, he has shown a propensity to change things up if things aren’t working. Funky lineup combinations and rotations have been a hallmark of his highly experimental tenure, but Kerr is willing to do the simple changes that are needed.

For example: Kevon Looney — overmatched against the Jazz’s corps of stretch bigs and disadvantaged against the taller and lengthier Mason Plumlee in their game against the Charlotte Hornets — didn’t see many minutes and was benched during the closing stages of the last two games.

Looney is a sturdy and dependable center, but his shortcomings were there for everyone to see. His lack of athleticism and vertical pop has trouble against shot blockers, while recovering and closing out toward opposing stretch bigs are made difficult because of slow feet. Kerr made the executive decision to go small during clutch situations, rendering Looney as a mere spectator.

But Looney wasn’t a complete non-factor. He hauled in 12 rebounds against the Jazz, including an offensive board that led to huge three from a Warriors frontcourt rookie:

Patrick Baldwin Jr. had perhaps his best game as an NBA player against the Jazz. In nearly 13 minutes of action, he scored 11 points on 7 shots, including a 3-of-5 clip from beyond the arc.

What enticed the Warriors to pick Baldwin Jr. in the late stages of the first round was shown for everyone to see. It’s hard to pass up on the combination of size, length, and shooting chops. He is a potential matchup nightmare for the rest of the league — ironically, someone who could very well run the Looney’s of the world off the floor because of his ability to stretch the floorpa.

When the Warriors run their classic low-post split action, Baldwin Jr. acting as a weak-side spacer adds additional poison that defenses may have to live with:

Not since Kevin Durant (or Otto Porter Jr., although I would consider him more of a small-ball four) has there been a legitimate stretch four who can set ball screens and pop/flare out to make himself available for a shot. Even a split second of falling behind on pick-and-pops can get Baldwin Jr. all the time and space he needs to get off his shot — one that is damn-near impossible to affect, let alone block, because of its abnormally high release point.

Baldwin Jr. is shooting 44.8% on threes this season, albeit on only 29 total attempts. Extrapolation to per-75 possessions isn’t entirely representative with such a small sample size, but Baldwin jr. is taking nearly 13 threes per 75 possessions.

Baldwin Jr. may never approach Curry-levels of volume, but to shoot nearly 45% on a limited number of shots is a promising indicator of his shooting ability once he does manage to earn a more solidified place in the rotation. Whether that happens this season, next year, or a few years from now remains to be seen — and may be highly contingent on his ability to defend.

Even the embattled James Wiseman — showing signs of life after a stint with the Santa Cruz Warriors in the G League — had flashes of improvement against the Jazz.

From multiple efforts on the offensive boards:

To a small bit of screening ingenuity — turning a typical ball screen into a flat screen — to free up Jordan Poole for a midrange jumper against drop coverage:

To knowing exactly what to do as a roll-man defender in “Spain” pick-and-roll: dropping back to give himself space while the on-ball defender and backscreener’s defender switch:

This win against the Jazz was the quintessential representation of the Warriors’ frontcourt depth — both in its present state and the potential it could achieve if its developmental projects continue to progress toward a promising track.

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