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Warriors drop opener against Suns amid questions about coverages, personnel, and size

A look at the Warriors’ defense, the coverages they employed on Devin Booker, and the potential problems they’ll face this season.

Phoenix Suns v Golden State Warriors Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Devin Booker is a superstar worth all the attention in the world if you’re the defense.

In a flash, Booker can torch any defense in a matter of minutes. Booker scored 15 points in the first quarter against the Golden State Warriors in all sorts of actions, both on and off the ball. He finished the game with 32 points on 13-of-21 shooting (10-of-13 on twos, 3-of-8 on threes, 71.7 TS%), six rebounds, and eight assists.

Need him to run the point in ball-screen action? He’s shown the chops to make the correct decision almost every time, perhaps proving that the Phoenix-Suns-have-no-point-guard talk has zero ground to stand on. Need him to be off the ball in the corner and come off one or multiple away screens? His roots as a deadly shooter allows him to do so. Have him isolate and pick on a specific matchup? He’s developed the requisite handles and craft to break his man down at the point of attack.

Simply put, it may not matter what coverage you decide to play on Booker — he has an answer for every single one. Being able to beat most coverages is a mark of an offensive singularity; Booker is building a strong case to be described as such, knocking on the doors of other legendary offensive anomalies such as Steph Curry, Nikola Jokić, prime James Harden, etc.

But even if the quality of the opposition dictates the tenor of the defense’s coverage, it doesn’t mean that the defense has zero control over what happens in the half court. The number one measure — and the most obvious thing they can do to mitigate the potential damage — is having the proper personnel on the floor.

There’s no question that the Warriors are a small team — again. Their tallest player is Dario Šarić at 6’10”, followed by Kevon Looney and Trayce Jackson-Davis at 6’9” — all of whom are listed as power forwards/centers. Their rostered wings are the following:

  • Jonathan Kuminga (6’8”)
  • Andrew Wiggins (6’7”)
  • Klay Thompson (6’6”)
  • Moses Moody (6’6”)
  • Gary Payton II (6’3”)

Kuminga can be considered a big wing, arguably as a mobile modern four. Wiggins is more attuned toward scaling down the positional spectrum on defense. Moody’s long wingspan (7’1”) allows him to be an effective helper and occasional point-of-attack stopper despite the lack of athleticism and a few warts that need to be smoothened out.

Thompson, meanwhile, doesn’t have the footspeed anymore to survive against smaller and quicker guards, which compounds the need for him to scale up the positional spectrum and guard bigger wings and bona fide fours. Payton is an all-around defensive menace, but his relatively short stature places somewhat of a ceiling on his versatility.

Still, on paper, that list of wings isn’t a bad combination of players to have when it comes to shoring up against someone like Booker. The threat he provides on the floor requires plenty of defensive communication, proper rotations, near-perfect decision making, and most of all — the length to disrupt a half-court offense.

All of which were not present on this possession:

The Suns run simple ball-screen action for Booker, with Wiggins and Looney opting to double Booker around the screen. Booker finds Jusuf Nurkić on the short roll in a 4-on-3 situation — something the Warriors aren’t unfamiliar with on the offensive end of the floor.

Being outnumbered on the backline is already a tough thing to solve. What makes it much more tough for the Warriors above is who the backline help is:

  • Cory Joseph (6’3”) is on the strong-side corner and can’t help off of Grayson Allen.
  • Moody is ideal as the low man guarding the weak-side corner, using his length to disrupt any shots at the rim. But he’s not the low man in this instance — he’s the slot defender guarding Eric Gordon.
  • Instead, the low man is 6’3” Curry, who’s caught in no man’s land. He steps up against Nurkić, but only slightly so. He’s guarding someone considered a non-shooting threat in Josh Okogie, who does the smart thing as someone being left alone on the corner: he cuts into space and makes himself available for the pass.

Credit must be given to the Suns for having the proper alignment. By placing Okogie on the corner, the Warriors are then forced to have Curry be the all-important low man whose job on most defensive possessions is to be the next defender in rotation against rolls and paint penetration. Perhaps if Curry and Moody exchanged places, the outcome would’ve been different — but maybe the Warriors didn’t want Curry guarding Gordon, either.

Curry may have been a victim of an alignment counter and coverage rules, and that’s somewhat of an acceptable problem in a vacuum. In a macro long-term sense, however, it’s another consequence of a team that needs to make use of its available size whenever they can — and a team that has to compensate with connectedness, communication, and energy whenever they can’t.

Even so, both scenarios may present a problem anyway despite everything else being near perfect, with coverage rules being adhered to. When someone like Booker requires DEFCON-1 levels of attention, a defense must be pristine in its execution of what I like to call the defensive chain of responsibility.

To illustrate, take this possession:

Nassir Little is a career 33.5% three-point shooter who shot 36.7% last season with the Portland Trail Blazers — enough to keep defenses honest. Still, it wouldn’t be a terrible decision to help off of him to “tag” the roll man and help the roll defender whenever he employs a step-up coverage, which Šarić does above against Booker, which Kuminga chooses to do.

But the consequence of Kuminga pinching in to tag is giving up the open shot to Little. While Kuminga has the speed and length to bother shots on closeouts, Little makes it harder to do so by “shaking” (the technical term for lifting) from the corner to the wing to increase the closeout distance. Moody is limited in his ability to stunt due to him guarding Gordon on the slot, while it wasn’t necessary for Curry to rotate into the paint in this instance.

In short, all the coverage rules were followed, the personnel known, and the helper (Kuminga) was big and fast enough to rotate and recover. But it didn’t matter anyway.

Again, this is a concept the Warriors are highly familiar with — because they did something highly similar with Curry on the ball and Thompson spaced out on the weak side:

Curry’s threat as a pull-up shooter dictates rotations down the defensive chain, much like what happened with Booker: an aggressive ball-screen coverage is employed, the low man must rotate to cover the roll, and the corner man is then left open. The larger lesson to be learned is this: breakdowns — both the perceived and real kind — happen because of what occurs at the point of attack.

An example of such:

Let’s first take a look at what happened at the point of attack:

  • Ball-screen action with multiple rescreens and changing angles between Booker and Nurkić forces Kuminga to navigate constantly. Looney must keep on his toes to change direction himself, ready to contain Booker on a potential drive should he blow past. More importantly — he has to step up a notch higher than drop to prevent any pull-ups.
  • On the strong side, Curry can choose to stunt at Booker to help Kuminga, but it is a risky proposition considering Gordon is one pass away. Thompson also can’t help off the corner due to Kevin Durant.

With Looney stepping up high, Nurkić makes himself more of a roll threat. The next available help in the chain, then, is 6-foot Chris Paul, the low man guarding Josh Okogie on the weak-side corner.

Like Little, Okogie isn’t considered a spacing threat, He’s a career 29.1% shooter from beyond the arc; his career high was last season at 33.5%. Paul helping off to tag isn’t necessarily a bad decision — it adheres to coverage rules and is necessary to take away the immediate threat, which is Nurkić on the roll.

Booker anticipates the tag in advance and kicks out to Okogie with a skip pass. Paul does his best to recover, close out, and contest — but there’s little he can do as 6-foot guard against the 6’4” Okogie, who drills a big shot.

Ultimately, the possession that sealed the Warriors’ fate was a case of coverage confusion at the point of attack — without the requisite length in the backline to make up for it:

Payton and Looney both defend the ball-screen action between Booker and Nurkić. They contain the initial screen, but it’s on the rescreen where the confusion occurs. Looney steps up to switch and close Booker’s space, while Payton fights over the screen to recover on Booker. This leaves Nurkić open on the roll, with the backline help being a beat late.

Let’s look at the backline:

  • Thompson is the low man guarding Okogie “two-nining” (stepping in and out of the paint to reset the defensive three-seconds clock) to keep himself in help position.
  • Kuminga is guarding Durant on the wing.
  • Paul is guarding Gordon on the strong-side corner.

If the Warriors should’ve done anything differently in this possession, you could’ve named a couple of things. Maybe having Wiggins in instead of Paul was more prudent, in order to maximize backline length. Maybe Thompson and Kuminga should’ve exchanged assignments mid-possession in order to add help-side length and athleticism.

Quite simply, perhaps Payton and Looney should’ve been better at the point of attack.

But no matter the reason you point out, no matter who shoulders the blame, there’s one big elephant who’s currently not in the room. You may have noticed this, but there’s one name I’ve omitted so far in this discussion of coverages, size, and defensive chain of responsibility.

The Warriors may have not been sharp defensively tonight. They may have problems at the point of attack, size, and ability to win the possession battle.

But no honest discussion can be had without the full picture in hand. And Draymond Green is the missing piece that allows such discussions to happen. If the problems persist even while Green is present, then — and only then — will the real questions of this team’s ability to succeed this season become completely valid.

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