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How the Clippers cornered a stumbling Warriors defense

The league’s best defense hasn’t looked sharp.

Golden State Warriors v LA Clippers Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Can you guess who has been the NBA’s best defense in 2022?

It’s not the Golden State Warriors; their 104.4 defensive rating this season is still the league’s best, but that has mostly been on the back of a hot start to the season, one that included Draymond Green marshaling a defensive identity built on connectedness and scheme versatility.

But without Green, the Warriors defense has suffered a noticeable decline. They were able to hold on for a while after Green was sidelined with a back issue, but the foundation upon which their defense was built can only be held by tape and glue for so long. Eventually, without the backbone that permanently holds it all together, it is bound to crumble.

A 101.6 defensive rating during calendar-year 2021 — nine points stingier than league average — is a far cry from their 108.4 defensive rating in calendar-year 2022, and only 2.2 points better than league average.

The Warriors are still 15-9 in 2022, but that has mostly been on the back of their defense; their 111.0 offensive rating — ranked 18th in 2022 — has been mediocre. But their defense can only do so much before succumbing to a combination of fatigue, lack of essential personnel, and opponents scouting its weak points.

Two noticeable weak points have been rebounding and rim protection. Peep at the shift in their rebounding metrics from 2021 to 2022, per NBA.com:

  • From Oct. 19 to Dec. 31: 74.6 DREB% (3rd), 52.1 REB% (2nd)
  • From Jan. 1 to Feb. 14: 72.2 DREB% (17th), 50.0 REB% (14th)

By using a prevention-is-better-than-the-cure approach, the Warriors have been the league’s best team at preventing shots at the rim — they still allow the least amount of shots at the rim overall (opponent rim frequency of 27.1%, per Cleaning The Glass).

But separating the 2021 metrics from the 2022 metrics paints a more stark picture of how their rim protection has declined:

  • From Oct. 19 to Dec. 31: opponent rim frequency of 26.1% (1st)
  • From Jan. 1 to Feb. 14: opponent rim frequency of 28.4% (5th)

While that is a smaller shift compared to their rebounding numbers, the important thing to note is that the shift is trending downward. Simply put, the Warriors are allowing more and more shots at the rim — and they’re failing to prevent the one outcome (shots at the rim) that they don’t have the cure (shot blocking) for.

And the problems have mostly started at the point of attack.

Whereas their point-of-attack defense has mostly been sharp and impenetrable this season, opponents as of late have been more adept at zeroing in on the weakest link and exploiting their lack of passable on-ball defense.

If opponents aren’t able to generate a direct lane to the rim, they proceed to place the Warriors’ backline defense into compromised positions. Defending on a string hasn’t been a huge point of concern for the Warriors — but the sharpness and connectedness that have been their hallmarks have looked more disjointed as of late.

The scheme versatility has also disappeared. The better the competition, the more they are capable of adjusting to the Warriors’ adjustments. When presented with the test of how to defend certain schemes and certain matchups, the Warriors have been choosing the wrong answers and are failing the exam.

Again, almost every defensive possession starts at the point of attack. Modern NBA defense is a chain of responsibility, and the first one responsible for keeping things controlled is the player guarding the ball handler.

If you want to look at how the Warriors’ defenders have been failing to contain ball handlers, look no further than how the Los Angeles Clippers blew by easily against the Warriors at the point of attack.

The Clippers used a combination of intentionally targeting the weakest links (e.g., forcing Jordan Poole to switch onto ball handlers and making Stephen Curry defend at the point of attack) and taking advantage of momentary lapses and miscommunication (e.g., Klay Thompson forcing Reggie Jackson left, but with no one to funnel to because of Nemanja Bjelica drifting to Jackson’s right) to score easy points at the rim.

But a knowledge of the Warriors’ base schemes also allowed the Clippers to tailor their attacks accordingly. Knowing that the Warriors prefer to “Ice” side pick-and-rolls — that is, preventing middle penetration through denial of the screen and forcing the ball handler sideline and toward the dropping big — the Clippers used such knowledge to their advantage.

Andrew Wiggins forces Jackson sideline by attaching himself to Jackson’s inner hip, thus preventing Jackson from using Ivica Zubac’s screen. But watch Jackson snake his way inside and all the way to the cup — with a little help from a sneaky seal by Zubac on Kevon Looney to clear the lane.

Breaking down at the point of attack allowed easy shots at the rim, which fed into the Warriors’ difficulty when they had to defend in rotation. As a result of desperately trying to prevent shots at the rim, the Warriors’ backline defense was stretched to its limits.

Consequently, the Warriors being put into rotation opened the corners for the Clippers, whose 41.5% clip on corner threes is the second-best mark in the league, per Cleaning The Glass.

The Warriors played sound defense that adhered to schemes and basic principles — such as the low man tagging rollers and momentarily leaving their assignments on the weak-side corner — on some of the possessions above. If I were to nitpick those possessions, the recoveries by the low men on some of those corner threes were a tad late — but other than that, tip your hat off to the Clippers’ corner shooters for drilling those shots.

But the Clippers were well aware of the Warriors’ penchant for committing too much help. They’ve often treaded that thin line between timely help and overhelp — and the Clippers were more than happy to push them over that line.

Again, it all starts at the point of attack — let your man blow by you, and the backline defense has to compensate by scrambling and collapsing. Once the backline defense commits to stopping shots in the paint, it leaves them vulnerable in other areas.

The Warriors backline defense was compromised in ways other than just getting beat at the point of attack. Their choice of using aggressive coverages against Jackson around ball screens exposed their lack of backline size and lack of competent help defense.

Jackson’s 33.2% on threes on seven attempts per game is slightly below league average, but he can get hot when left open — which is perhaps why, after making two threes, the Warriors switched from a mostly drop scheme to blitzing and hedging.

The Warriors panicked by committing to aggressively getting the ball out of Jackson’s hands, and it allowed him to feed Zubac on the short roll, who feasted on the small and outnumbered Warriors backline.

While he may not be the be-all-end-all solution to all of these defensive predicaments the Warriors have been experiencing, Green being there to organize the defense and be the ultimate help defender will go a long way toward not only plugging the holes, but preventing them from being created in the first place.

The on/off numbers aren’t too drastic — the Warriors defense is *only* three points per 100 possessions stingier during Green’s 1,018 minutes on the floor this season — but the intangibles and intelligence he brings are sorely missed.

Green is projected to return sometime after the All-Star break — and the Warriors have one game left before they temporarily go their separate ways: against the Denver Nuggets and the behemoth that is Nikola Jokić, who presents a whole slew of problems against a small and fatigued defense.

Until their best defender returns, there is no respite to be had for the Warriors.