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Gary Payton II was what the ailing Warriors defense exactly needed — until he wasn’t

Save for Draymond Green, Payton has been the Warriors’ most impactful defender

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Golden State Warriors Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

To have an idea of how impactful Gary Payton II has been as a defender this season, let’s start with one specific all-in-one metric.

Dunks & Threes’ Defensive Estimated Plus-Minus (D-EPM) has Payton at a plus-3.8 as a defender — second overall. The only person who has him beat on that list? None other than his teammate, Draymond Green, who is a commanding plus-4.9.

Modern NBA defense is no longer just a one-on-one endeavor. While it’s still an important skill to have as a defender, you need to be able to do more than just pound the floor and get stops against someone isolating on you. With offenses getting more and more complicated and intricate, there must also be a need for defenders to diversify their skill sets.

Which is exactly why Payton and Green — extremely versatile defenders who can thrive within any setup or scheme — have been two of the league’s best at preventing opponents from scoring.

But the fact of the matter is that Green has missed 21 straight games, leaving the Warriors with one remaining scheme-versatile defensive terror who can greatly change the tenor and calculus of a game just by being on the floor.

Which is probably why Steve Kerr opted to start Payton against the Denver Nuggets, given that the Warriors defense was stumbling into the All-Star break. While they are still the league’s best defensive team based purely on overall defensive rating (104.6), most of that was established in the first half of the season — one that saw a Defensive-Player-of-the-Year-worthy effort from Green that trickled down to the rest of the roster.

But a peep at the Warriors’ previous five games going into the Nuggets game provides a glimpse into the real defensive identity of this team without their best defender: a 115.0 defensive rating, good for 18th over that five-game stretch.

Payton being inserted into the starting lineup was an instant injection of what the doctor ordered. The on-ball/point-of-attack juice is there — he can navigate around screens and recover in a timely fashion should he fall behind, while also being able to switch late and peel back toward rolling bigs who not only tower over him, but have a massive strength advantage.

Payton on the possession above is forced to peel back and switch onto Nikola Jokić, who then takes him all the way to the left block. The entry pass by Bones Hyland is terrible, but some of that was forced by Payton putting pressure on Jokić’s lower base and making it difficult for him to get into proper position, which may have played a part into Hyland putting too much juice into his pass.

Speaking of switching onto Jokić, Payton finds himself having to guard the reigning MVP again on the possession below.

Incredible point-of-attack defense by Payton on Will Barton forces the Nuggets to resort to a ball screen to get Payton off of Barton and switched onto Jokić, who isolates against the much-smaller man on the high post. Despite the obvious advantages, Jokić commits the mistake of dribbling carelessly around the league’s leader in steals per 36 minutes, per Basketball Reference.

Payton has a preternatural sense for knowing where his assignment will take the ball, and subsequently uses his quick hands to nudge the ball loose.

He has also mastered how to “bait” opponents into committing turnovers simply through knowledge of offensive tendencies. Sagging off and helping away from a spot on the same side as where the ball is located (the “strong side”) is often considered a no-no.

But Payton turns something that is generally considered a defensive taboo into an excellent method of producing deflections and turnovers.

Aaron Gordon’s swing pass to Monte Morris in the corner triggers the double from Payton. Normally, this wouldn’t be considered a good decision, considering the fact that Payton is leaving Gordon open on the wing to trap the corner.

But Payton anticipates Morris passing back toward the open Gordon. Payton puts his hands up and deflects the pass, which forces a turnover.

That wasn’t the only instance of Payton anticipating the offense’s next move and adjusting accordingly.

The Nuggets are fond of handoff action with Jokić as the passing hub. In the possession below, they run empty-corner screen-and-roll action that is preceded by a “45” cut. Empty-corner actions are difficult to defend without anyone from the strong side to “tag” the roller, which puts the onus on the weak-side low man to rotate and intercept the roller.

Payton is one step ahead:

Instead of following his man to the weak-side corner, Payton lets Otto Porter Jr. take care of the corner and switches onto Jokić. With help from a recovering Jonathan Kuminga, Payton meets Jokić at the summit and blocks his shot.

Payton’s reputation as a passing-lane menace has been well documented — but it has often been the reason behind why his impact goes beyond the flashy steals and the eye-popping blocks. In some cases, he can be impactful just by being on a specific part of the floor, even without being directly involved in the stop itself.

Which was the case on this possession:

To help you explain what I meant by Payton having a profound impact on the stop above without being directly involved, let’s break it down further.

Jokić is often on the lookout for spacers and cutters, especially on the weak side. The attention he draws — his own version of “gravity” — often generates plenty of lanes that his teammates can use for cuts; helping off the weak-side as the low man or weak-side zoner “splitting the difference” doesn’t escape Jokić’s attention — a small step toward him is often followed by a skip pass to the corner or wing.

But by placing Payton within that precarious weak-side real estate as the man “splitting the difference,” it makes even the most confident of passers hesitant to kick out toward that side of the floor.

Payton cutting off the weak-side option leads to a 24-second violation — and he technically didn’t have to do anything other than to “exist” on the weak side and be on the floor.

Which brings us to a huge reason behind the Warriors ultimately losing to the Nuggets.

Payton was not on the floor during the final six-second possession of the game, one that ended on a Morris buzzer-beater three that gave the Warriors their fourth loss in five games.

Watch Stephen Curry on this possession:

A dirty little (non) secret about Curry’s off-ball defense is his tendency to help off of his assignment in the most unfortunate of times. He helps off of Morris above to shadow and soft-double Jokić — which was an unnecessary decision, considering the circumstances.

Giving up an open three-point look while leading by two points is a mistake, one that Curry himself admitted to after the game. In such a situation, you live with Jokić making a hook shot over Looney and sending it to overtime; instead, the Warriors are entering the All-Star break with zero momentum.

One wonders what would’ve happened if it was Payton instead of Curry in that position. Would he have helped off so recklessly? Would he have stuck to Morris throughout the possession? Would his presence on that side of the floor have completely eliminated that option, with Jokić opting to do it all by himself?

Payton clocked in 25 minutes of work, during which he put up 12 points, 4 rebounds, 6 steals, and 1 block. The Warriors outscored the Nuggets by 13 points during his minutes — a team high. No other Warrior had a positive plus-minus.

It’s far from the only reason the Warriors, who were up by as much as 16 with 5:48 left in the third quarter, lost the plot against the Nuggets — but another six seconds of work for Payton would’ve gone a long way into making sure the Warriors didn’t stumble and fall their way into another defeat.