Often lost in the discussion of championship-winning NBA teams is one crucial truth: It’s darn-near impossible to win a title if you don’t have an elite defense.
“Defense wins championships” is perhaps the most overused cliche in professional sports. But overused doesn’t necessarily equate to untrue — in this particular case, it has been proven to be a fact throughout the past two decades.
Look no further than last year’s iteration of the Warriors. Lost in the transcendent defensive performance of the Boston Celtics was the fact that the Warriors weren’t far off behind them — and at one point were themselves on track to become a transcendent defense.
Before Draymond Green went down with a back injury that kept him out of a huge chunk of early 2022, the Warriors had a defensive rating that was 8.8 points per 100 possessions better than league average, which was on track to match the 2004 San Antonio Spurs’ record for the best relative defensive rating since 1977.
Even while wracked with injuries, COVID protocols, and the natural dog-days regression that is part and parcel of a long NBA season, the Warriors still managed to finish last season as the second-stingiest team, just behind the Celtics. It was apropos that the best and second-best defenses met in the Finals — and that whoever would come out of it would be the team that locked the other down.
The two best defenses don’t always meet in the Finals, but you can count on one hand the teams who didn’t finish as a top-10 defense that have won a title in the past 20 years. The 2018 Warriors finished 11th in defensive rating and still managed to win the title — mostly because they still had Steph Curry and Kevin Durant, but also because they flipped the switch and became the best defensive unit of the 2018 playoffs.
The other team that managed to win the title despite not finishing as a top-10 defense: the 2001 Los Angeles Lakers, a team who was only 21st in defensive rating during the regular season. However, just like the 2018 Warriors, these Lakers had an all-time offensive duo in Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant. Again, just like the Warriors, they also managed to flip the switch and became the best defensive unit in the 2001 playoffs.
Deciding to flip the switch from a mediocre defense to the absolute best in the playoffs doesn’t always work; history’s proven that it’s been the exception and not the norm. For this current iteration of the Warriors — whose 112.7 points per 100 possessions places them 16th in the league — it feels as if flipping the switch is even more of a far-fetched possibility.
Not with the kind of personnel that now occupies their roster. The departures of Gary Payton II and Otto Porter Jr. stung when they were initially announced, and it continues to sting with every missed rotation, every blow by, and the apparent lack of defensive versatility that was their calling card last season.
In their place are veteran signings in Donte DiVincenzo and JaMychal Green. DiVincenzo is by no means on the same level of perimeter defense as Payton II, but he has been solid — which is all you can ask of someone expected to fill the shoes of one of the best defensive playmakers in the league. Green, on the other hand, hasn’t lived up to expectations, and is a far cry from the value Porter Jr. provided as a spacer, connector, and intelligent team defender.
The rest of the roster beyond the Foundational Six are filled with youth — some that are ready to contribute, and others that need more work. In terms of defensive contributions, Jonathan Kuminga has shown plenty of flashes as a point-of-attack defender and one-on-one lockdown specialist.
Compare and contrast: When Green is drawn out toward the perimeter, he has trouble trying to keep his man in front. His feet are often out of position, mostly through a mixture of poor fundamentals and slow feet. He often gets blown by whenever his front foot gets too far out ahead of him, resulting in blow-bys, layups, and fouls as a result of Green having to be handsy.
Green just doesn’t provide the same kind of positional versatility as his predecessors could. Switching him onto smaller players runs the risk of slow closeouts and layups. He’s not a particularly remarkable drop-back big. Putting him at the level of the screen results in forced overhelp from the weak side — which, on some level, is by design.
Any sort of overhelp or breakdown occurring at the backline typically is a product of an initial breakdown that occurs at the point of attack. Green’s limited ability to be a stabilizing big in the pick-and-roll defeats the purpose of the Warriors staying out of rotation. It forces “natural” overhelp — and also the kind of overhelp that treads into the territory of unnecessary.
Overhelping has been a natural consequence of the Warriors’ desire to limit opponents’ attempts at the rim. That has reflected in their league-best opponent rim rate of 25.5%, per Cleaning the Glass. They’ve sacrificed in other areas: letting opponents shoot plenty of mid-range shots (29th in opponent mid-range rate) and giving up looks from the outside (22nd in opponent three-point-attempt rate).
As aforementioned, overhelping and being put in rotation almost always is a result of poor point-of-attack defense — something that Payton II and, to a lesser degree, Porter Jr. were able to provide. Kuminga has been more of a natural successor to Payton II and Porter Jr.
Not only does he possess the athleticism and tenacity that were trademarks of Payton II’s perimeter defense — Kuminga’s much taller, has a longer wingspan, and has the strength to match up better against bigger opponents, which gives him the kind of defensive versatility the Warriors have built their brand upon.
Smaller guards find themselves surprised when guarded by Kuminga, who not only can match them in terms of footspeed but can also cut off driving angles using his lateral movement and length.
That is the kind of point-of-attack defense that can prevent the Warriors from being put in rotation — and the kind that can also douse the flames of the opposing team’s best wing scorer.
If needed, Kuminga can switch up the positional spectrum and guard bigger frontcourt players. He’s by no means a full-time frontcourt defender — bigger forwards and centers will always have the upper hand because of the natural size discrepancy — but being able to survive and make it difficult for them goes a long way toward positional versatility.
Kuminga’s exploits in man-to-man defense gives him enough of a case to become a rotation mainstay — but another notch in his favor may be his role as a crucial component of the Warriors’ 1-2-2 zone.
The team has upped their zone usage this season compared to last season: from 4.7 zone possessions per game (5.0% percent of their defensive possessions) to 6.6 zone possessions per game (6.6% of their defensive possessions), per Synergy.
The difference has come from the kind of zone they’ve been using. Initially, the Warriors favored a vanilla 2-3 zone that became more of a reactive measure instead of the proactive 1-2-2 that acted as a change-of-pace tool to throw opponents off last season.
A 2-3 also was a compensatory measure for many of the Warriors’ roster problems: lack of capable point-of-attack operators, dearth of athleticism, and the overall absence of defensive versatility.
With Kuminga seeing more time on the floor and Steve Kerr realizing he can deploy him as a point-of-attack specialist, we’ve been seeing the 1-2-2 zone make a comeback. Instead of zones being stopgap measures to help slow the bleeding, they are now becoming more of an aggressive defensive measure to throw opponents off.
And Kuminga — placed at the top of the 1-2-2 — has been at the forefront of its recent success:
The Warriors flipping a switch in the manner they did in the past may be out of the question — not with the kind of personnel on their roster and not without having to make the appropriate changes in the form of mid-season transactions. They may be one or two moves away from returning to the brand of defensive and positional versatility that drove their success last season and in their previous championship seasons.
However, the one move they are able to make right now is simple: providing Kuminga more burn, giving him an increased role, and empowering him in the process. The flashes are already there; it’s time to turn those stints into consistent — and hopefully productive — rotation minutes.