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Trapped in a box: How the Warriors’ base defensive schemes burned them vs. the Wizards

The Warriors’ risk vs. reward approach on defense did not work out well.

Golden State Warriors v Washington Wizards Photo by Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

If there’s a common theme to the Warriors defense this season, it’s that they are drilled to defend dribble penetration in a certain way.

It’s not anything groundbreaking. It’s common to send help from the weak side to intercept ball handlers who get close to the rim. The Warriors are faithful disciples of the “no-middle” concept — that is, they aim to prevent middle penetration from ball handlers.

It makes sense — ball handlers will have complete control of possessions if they manage to conquer the middle lane. They can opt to go all the way to the rim, or they can drop it off to a roamer in the dunker spot or kick out to an open man on the perimeter, which can trigger swing-swing sequences that place a tremendous amount of strain on defenses forced into rotation.

Deny them middle, and the reins are placed well within the grasp of the defense. Which is why the Warriors have been fond of using the “ICE” concept (sometimes called “Blue” or “Bluing” by other teams) to defend ball screens. “Icing” screens simply means the on-ball defender forces his man sideline by jumping out to deny the screen and funneling him toward the dropping roll-man defender.

This has been the Warriors’ base coverage this season — coupled with another concept called “trapping the box.” Trapping the box is a simply a fancy way of describing help rotation from the weak side as a way of defending dribble penetration.

In their game against the Washington Wizards, one particular possession stood out that combined both concepts (ICE and trapping the box). I want to zero in on that possession and point out a few things.

Here’s how it started out:

Klay Thompson is denying Ish Smith middle by jumping out to deny the screen — “ICE” — and forcing Smith sideline. Kevon Looney drops back and is ready to “catch” or contain the ball handler, all while keeping tabs on his own man (Daniel Gafford).

As the low man on the weak side, Gary Payton II is also crucial in this possession. He starts out “2.9-ning,” or staying in the paint just enough before stepping out to prevent a defensive 3-second technical from being called, before stepping back into the paint to reset the process.

Thompson funnels Smith toward Looney. Here’s what happens next:

Payton essentially parks himself within the paint and commits to full help position, “trapping the box” and providing extra help on the penetration.

The problem with that is there’s no need for Payton to trap the box and be that far off the corner. Looney has tabs on both Smith and Gafford — he can contest and stay vertical if Smith goes for a layup; if Smith decides to dump it off to Gafford, Looney is still in a position to get in front of Gafford and make it tough for him.

If either Smith or Gafford still score? The damage will be for two points — not ideal, but still preferable to three, provided that Looney doesn’t foul and send someone to the line.

But that wasn’t the case. Payton helps so far off the weak side that Smith sees Deni Avdija open in the corner and kicks it out. Payton tries to close out — but he is too far out and too small to affect the shot of the 6’9” Avdija.

Here’s the full sequence:

Denying middle and sending help from the weak-side has been the Warriors’ core defensive philosophy this season. Defense is a game of risk and reward — by taking away something, you risk giving away something else.

Despite the dearth of bona-fide rim protectors, the Warriors have allowed the least number of shots at the rim this season (27.2% opponent rim frequency per Cleaning The Glass). But in their effort to limit shots at the rim, the Warriors have given up plenty of perimeter shots — they are in the bottom half of the league in terms of corner threes allowed (22nd in opponent corner-three frequency).

To make things worse, not only do they give up a lot of corner-three attempts — opponents make them at a high rate. Warriors opponents shoot 40.6% on corner threes — the 5th-highest corner-three rate allowed by a team.

Case in point — this corner three given up by the Warriors:

As expected, Payton ICEs the screen and forces Smith sideline, with Looney dropping to contain. Draymond Green is the low man in this possession — he completely helps off the weak-side corner, not to trap the box and help against the penetration, but to seal off Gafford and eliminate a potential pocket pass.

That leaves Thompson as the man “splitting the difference” between the corner and the wing; wherever the ball is kicked out toward is where Thompson should be rotating and closing out to. But Thompson has his back toward the baseline pass — he doesn’t see Smith kick out to Avdija in the corner.

Result: another easy corner look for the Wizards.

The corner three above was one of 16 the Pelicans drilled against the Warriors. Some of those were of the tip-your-cap variety against decent to excellent defense. Rookie Corey Kispert had himself a game: 25 points on 6-of-9 shooting from beyond the arc, in what was a display of confidence the Warriors weren’t able to snuff out.

Kispert’s shot making was a sight to behold — and the Warriors compounded it through their overhelping issues. Another particular possession stood out that resulted in a Kispert three.

There are a couple of moving parts in the possession above, but the crucial one is the “45” cut (named because the cut is made at a 45-degree angle) from the slot by Tomáš Satoranský — his cut sucks in Damion Lee, while Kristaps Porziņģis popping out forces Andrew Wiggins to have to stunt toward him momentarily to give Looney time to recover.

The 45 cut sucking in Lee, combined with Wiggins having to momentarily sag off the wing to account for Porziņģis, leaves Kispert — lifting from the corner to the wing — open for the look.

The shot above — and the ones that preceded and followed it — have been a microcosm of the devolution of the Warriors defense. Defending on a string and being placed into rotation wasn’t always a huge problem for them — close-outs where sharp, holes were shut within a matter of seconds, and the rewards outweighed the potential risks.

But during this current stretch of adversity in calendar-year 2022 — during which the Warriors have fallen from being a transcendent defensive unit to a league-average one — their schemes have stayed the same, but the rewards have stopped coming in.