Ask any basketball enthusiast — from the casual partakers to the hardcore junkies — of their shortlist of the best defensive teams in the league, and they’ll give you differing answers.
The Boston Celtics’ unholy trinity of length, switchability, and rim protection is a blend that arguably no other team in the league can boast of having. There are very few weaknesses in their armor; one would have to thread a very fine needle in order to topple their foundation (as Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors were able to do).
The Miami Heat may not possess the same kind of bulletproof depth, but they are bolstered by an anchor whose versatility knows no bounds, and whose partner nearly equals him in terms of versatility while adding the highly valuable component of elite wing defense. Coupled with a culture and scheme that prides itself on effort and connectivity, whatever deficiencies beyond the top-heavy personnel are often made up for with team-wide intelligence and knowhow.
The Toronto Raptors may perhaps be the funkiest defensive unit in the league. A roster inundated with long-limbed wings — ranging from 6’6” to 6’9” in height — is a recipe for defensive chaos, a philosophy that Nick Nurse embraced last season. They would switch to stay out of rotation — but other times, they would rotate anyway. They would touch up to the level of the screen, or outright blitz and trap to the point of near-reckless abandon. They would not only play zone; they employed what felt like the entire spectrum of zone formations — from the aggressive 2-2-1 zone press, to the classic and conservative 2-3 zone. They would crowd passing lanes, force turnovers, protect the paint collectively to make up for the lack of a bona-fide rim protector, and even break the rules from time to time, such as helping one pass away from the strong-side corner.
Even other top-tier defensive teams such as the Memphis Grizzlies, the Phoenix Suns, and the Cleveland Cavaliers are given mentions — but the number two team in the league in terms of defensive efficiency last season seemed to be an afterthought, even after reaching the pinnacle.
To be fair, it’s quite easy for the Warriors offense to outshine the blue-collar efforts of its counterpart on the other end of the floor; they have the intricate beauty of the motion offense and, most of all, Curry and his titanic feats during the NBA Finals to thank for that. That doesn’t mean that this recent championship — and the three that preceded it — weren’t acquired through elite defense.
In fact, there is an argument that first and foremost, this dynasty was built on a foundation of defense, more so than it was offensively. Take note of the early dynasty years — from 2014 to 2016 — where the Warriors, in similar fashion to last year’s Raptors, used their corps of like-sized wings to switch virtually every screening action on and off the ball. I wouldn’t go as far as saying that those Warriors invented the concept of copious switching — but there’s no denying that they revolutionized it, to the point of inspiring league-wide imitation.
The 2022 Warriors don’t possess the same kind of switchability and personnel. They do occasionally switch, but not without purpose, and not without performing some sort of risk assessment. Not having the same kind of flexibility forces them to be more cerebral with their defensive approach — and in turn, it compels them to diversify their coverages more frequently.
Much was made of the Warriors’ decision to allow Curry to switch fully onto Jayson Tatum during the NBA Finals. In their minds, Tatum — while six inches taller than Curry — often opts for finesse rather than brute force, something the deceptively strong Curry would be able to handle.
On the other hand, they were more reluctant to switch Curry and Jordan Poole onto Luka Dončić, a superstar who makes full use of his physical attributes to pound his defenders into submission. Having faced previous rivals who were notorious for their mismatch hunting, Curry and the Warriors used their unlimited well of experience to prevent Dončić from getting the matchups he wanted.
BREAKDOWN— Joe Viray (@JoeVirayNBA) September 9, 2022
The Golden State Warriors prided themselves on defensive versatility and tailored schemes -- including an unyielding refusal to cede control of possessions to opponents.
That set them apart from others, who failed to make the correct adjustments.
Compare and contrast the Warriors’ Dončić-tailored schemes to that of the Suns, who confusingly gave up easy switches onto a 37-year-old Chris Paul, a diminutive and slight-of-frame Cameron Payne, and an overmatched Devin Booker. Therein lies the difference between a team that turned out to be pretenders, and a team with an established championship pedigree: the ability to diversify schemes, and the humility to know which schemes/matchups wouldn’t work.
Even while being relatively fine with Curry handling Tatum one-on-one, the Warriors didn’t perpetually leave their 6’2” superstar alone on an island. Whenever switches could be prevented, they would do so through a combination of clairvoyance and connectedness.
The Celtics tried practically everything to get Steph Curry switched onto Jayson Tatum: on-ball screens, off-ball wide downscreens, Tatum setting screens, etc.— Joe Viray (@JoeVirayNBA) August 28, 2022
They even tried baiting a switch w/ Spain PnR, counting on the Warriors countering it the traditional way. But...
Another method the Warriors would use to prevent Curry being unnecessarily involved in on-ball action would be through “pre-switching”, i.e., prescient off-ball switches where Curry would pass off his man — intending to set a screen for Tatum or Jaylen Brown to draw out a mismatch — to someone else (often Draymond Green).
Many details that happen during a defensive possession often go over several heads, but when slowed down to a more digestible speed, they can be appreciated.— Joe Viray (@JoeVirayNBA) August 26, 2022
A pre-switch between Draymond and Steph turns a possible mismatch into a shot the Warriors prefer to give up. pic.twitter.com/07hGE4bThY
Other times, switching was altogether fine, as long as there was proper help behind such switches (*cough* Suns *cough*) and the point-of-attack defender funneled his man appropriately. Curry may not be physically gifted as a defender, but his positional awareness and trust in the backline defense helped him survive otherwise unfavorable matchups.
When he has Brown on him in the possession below, he trusts Green to “trap the box”, or pre-rotate into the paint to contest the layup attempt:
Being an intelligent positional defender who is aware of the correct spots to be in, the appropriate rotations to make, and having the split-second decision-making skills to be effective despite his limitations have been hallmarks of Curry’s defensive renaissance. While Poole has more ground to cover in that department, being surrounded by Curry, Green, and an experienced veteran crew has given him an understanding of how to be a passable team defender.
Steph Curry and Jordan Poole are what many would consider the "weakest defensive links" in several 5-man lineups. But whatever deficiencies they may present -- size, experience, etc. -- are made up for by excellent team fundamentals and intelligence.— Joe Viray (@JoeVirayNBA) September 8, 2022
Being excellent in many facets — instead of being known for specialists in certain areas — may be what makes the Warriors the best of the best. But in a way, their jack-of-all-trades nature makes them less sexy than other more notable squads who stand out among the general NBA public.
However, name any of the aforementioned teams and their traits, and the Warriors can most certainly match them, or at the very least, approximate their capabilities.
The Celtics’ ability to wall off the paint? The Warriors can most certainly do that — 27% of their opponents’ shot attempts came at the rim, a league-leading mark when eliminating garbage time, and slightly edging out the Celtics in that category.
Whenever in synergistic harmony, the Warriors can genuinely employ any kind of coverage — whether conservative or highly aggressive — with little-to-no hope of it falling apart. When blitzing dangerous on-ball operators, no other team in the league can shore up 4-on-3 backline disadvantages better than they can.
More importantly, when locked in and focused, the Warriors can shut off the paint at will — even without the presence of bona-fide shot blockers. They managed to block off the paint in the possession below through sheer effort, communication, and timely rotations.
This possession was a Golden State Warriors masterclass in shoring up behind a blitz and surviving a momentary numbers disadvantage through short-roll tagging, scram switching (off-ball switch to relieve a mismatch), "trapping the box", and X-outs.— Joe Viray (@JoeVirayNBA) September 4, 2022
Defense wins championships. pic.twitter.com/1aH2MhKxH7
How about the Heat’s versatility, connectedness, and the presence of an elite anchor and wing defender?
Suffice to say, Bam Adebayo has Draymond Green to thank for making versatile and highly-switchable anchors en vogue. Green’s importance to the Warriors defense is evergreen; it was a fact unchanged during the playoffs, where the Warriors defense improved by 9 points per 100 possessions (9.3 points per 100 possessions in the half court) during his minutes on the floor.
Not much more needs to be said of the value Andrew Wiggins provided as the Warriors’ premier wing defender, who effectively guarded the likes of Dončić and Tatum. The Warriors defense improved by 5.6 points per 100 possessions (7.5 points per 100 possessions in the half court) during Wiggins’ playoff minutes.
How about the Raptors’ blend of funky schemes that seemed to change on a per-possession basis? The Warriors also had that in their repertoire — from unholstering a 1-2-2/3-2 zone as a change-of-pace tool (they had the 3rd-highest zone usage during the playoffs):
To even whipping out a box-and-one — something that they added to their schematic arsenal during the regular season — against the opposing team’s primary option:
Even while obvious signs of defensive excellence went largely ignored or brushed aside, such signs should’ve been considered harbingers of what was to happen. From the first day of the regular season up till the last day of calendar year 2021, the Warriors were, far and away, a dominant defensive team, with a defensive rating (DRTG) of 103.3 up till January 5, 2022 — the last game before Green would be sidelined for 31 games due to injury.
At one point, they were 8.8 points per 100 possessions stingier than league average — which was on pace to match the 2004 San Antonio Spurs’ record for the best relative DRTG since 1977.
Also consider the historical precedent of championship teams and their defense during the regular season. Since the 1999-2000 season, only two teams have won the title without being considered a top-10 regular season defense: 1) the 2001 Los Angeles Lakers, whose 104.8 DRTG ranked 21st, and are the only title team within the last 22 years possessing a DRTG that was worse than league average; 2) the 2018 Golden State Warriors, whose 107.6 DRTG (11th) dropped them just one spot short of the top 10 (and who flipped the switch by becoming the best defensive unit in the playoffs).
Other than those two squads, every team that has won titles were considered among the best of the best defensively; these 2022 Warriors (107.6 DRTG in non-garbage time, 2nd in the league) proved to be no different. While Curry and the offense were hailed and praised, the defense continued to do the often-underappreciated handyman’s work.
Preventing opponents from even touching the paint was the overarching schematic philosophy; versatility and IQ fueled the success of their schemes. But ultimately, what may be their greatest defensive attribute is their unyielding refusal to cede control of possessions to opponents — a trait that deserves significant praise and recognition.