After the Golden State Warriors’ deflating 132-118 loss to the Chicago Bulls — their 10th loss in 11 games against Eastern Conference teams this season — head coach Steve Kerr had some revealing statements about his team:
Steve Kerr breaks down what he's seeing from the Dubs' defense pic.twitter.com/66F3s6soJq— Warriors on NBCS (@NBCSWarriors) January 15, 2023
“I just think we’re having trouble just stacking together good decision after good decision... We always talk about stringing together three stops in a row, but you foul a three-point shooter here, you leave strong-side corner there... it’s just really hard to build any traction in a game defensively.”
The most telling part of that statement is Kerr pointing out specific defensive lapses: fouling a three-point shooter and helping one pass away off of the strong-side corner.
Considering what happened against the Bulls, I can’t help but think this was a veiled shot at a specific player who committed these exact lapses on defense.
Anthony Lamb has been a solid two-way-contract player for Kerr on offense, all things considered. In an offense that banks on connective playmaking to drive their system, Lamb knows how to be a bridge for the Warriors’ main engines.
He can be a handoff hub. He can screen for the Warriors’ movement shooters and pick-and-roll ball handlers. He’s a solid cutter who can take advantage of open space created from the pull of said shooters. He can bust out on the break off of a missed shot and go coast-to-coast. He even has the added benefit of being a play finisher, either through those cuts or from the outside, where he’s shooting nearly 41% on 3.5 attempts per game.
But as much of a good fit he’s been offensively, it’s his troubles as a defender that has somewhat canceled out some of the good stuff. Defensive decision-making hasn’t been Lamb’s strongest suit.
Case in point:
Lamb closes out a little too hard on Derrick Jones Jr. — a career 30.3% shooter — and sends him to the free-throw line for three shots. Not much needs to be explained why this decision wasn’t a particularly good one.
On Kerr’s comment about helping strong-side corner, there’s a reason why most NBA teams prefer not to do so. Naturally, help on drives from one side of the floor comes from the weak side (the side opposite of where the ball is). The low man is tasked with helping by rotating into the paint — the technical term being “trapping the box” — so that the ball handler is forced to make the long skip pass to the weak-side corner or wing.
Long skip passes are preferred by defenses simply because it gives rotating defenders more time to make controlled close outs and discourage open shots. That is why the man defending corner shooters from the strong-side (the side where the ball is) corner shouldn’t be the one helping.
But that’s exactly what Lamb forgets not to do on this possession:
Since Lamb helps off of Ayo Dosunmu on the Zach LaVine drive, all LaVine needs to do is to make the short pass to the corner for a quick three.
There was no need for Lamb to help on the drive. Look closely at Andrew Wiggins, who was in the process of rotating into the paint because — as the low man — it was his help to make:
While Lamb has consistently made overhelping mistakes like this throughout the season, he’s far from being the only culprit. Overhelping has been a major defensive issue for the Warriors. Their efforts to limit shots at the rim and wall off the paint have come at the expense of giving up looks from the perimeter.
Whether it’s the aforementioned strong-side corner problem:
Klay did everything he could to cover for JP's mistake of helping off the strong side corner. pic.twitter.com/Kph1DIOnf7— Joe Viray (@JoeVirayNBA) January 5, 2023
Or forced overhelp as a consequence of a breakdown at the point of attack:
The Warriors just haven’t been as sharp this season. They’ve largely failed to cross their t’s and dot their i’s on defense. The smallest of details can impact the game monumentally, and not paying attention to them has burned them to the highest degree.
Pick-and-roll coverage is just one example of such details. Piling on Lamb’s defensive mistakes may seem too unfair considering his standing as a two-way-contract player who scored 14 points on five shots, two of which were threes.
But patterns are patterns, and they have to be pointed out, especially since he’s seeing considerable time on the floor despite the nature of his contract. He’s been consistently unaware of help principles and ball-screen coverages this season:
Matched up with Alex Caruso, Lamb is screened by Nikola Vučević. Instead of fighting over the screen and sticking to Caruso, Lamb mistakenly thinks the coverage is “switch,” when it’s clearly supposed to be drop. This gives Caruso a window to pull up for the three.
Again, botched ball-screen coverages weren’t solely Lamb’s fault. Even someone who commits few mistakes on defense such as Wiggins were unusually lackadaisical and lethargic:
Vučević is a stretch big who mainly elects to pop instead of roll after setting a ball screen. He burned the Warriors inside and out to the tune of 43 points on 31 shots (5-of-10 on threes) and a 67.4 TS%.
The Warriors are naturally disadvantaged against stretch bigs who can score inside and from beyond the arc. Looney’s slow footspeed and natural inclination to drop into the paint make him vulnerable to pick-and-pops. Draymond Green can only do so much against taller players with touch inside. Switching ball screens and giving up a backline mismatch isn’t ideal and is avoided as much as possible.
Even so, Wiggins should not be adamant about chasing his man, drifting into the paint, and leaving Vučević wide open for a three. The correct play should’ve been a “veerback” switch to eliminate Vučević’s shooting window.
Granted, defense was far from the only problem. The Warriors committed 23 turnovers the Bulls translated into 31 points. Steph Curry (eight) and Green (six) combined for 14 of them. Their turnover rate of 21.3% surpassed even their own second-worst mark of 16.1% this season; only the Houston Rockets (17%) have a higher turnover rate.
But the defensive lapses are what stick out to me the most. There’s a reason the Warriors are 19th in defensive rating (113.7) this season — a far cry from their second-best mark last year.
As presently constructed, their defense simply hasn’t been championship-caliber.