There were plenty of moments during the Golden State Warriors’ win over the New Orleans Pelicans that could’ve acted as an inflection point toward a lost season.
A struggling offense that couldn’t generate advantages whatsoever. A faltering defense that failed to get a consistent string of stops.
And probably the most crucial one of all: Draymond Green committing a flagrant foul on Brandon Ingram during the second quarter, getting assessed a technical foul, and almost getting another infraction on a charge call that would’ve sent him to the showers early.
No matter what anyone thinks of Green — brash, loud, overly emotional, etc. — he’s absolutely paramount to the Warriors’ success. If Steph Curry is the oil that keeps the offensive gears move without a hitch, Green is the keystone that prevents the entire defensive foundation from crumbling to the ground.
Both of them are one-of-one — generational, crucial, and irreplaceable.
Curry is lauded for all of the above simply because offense is the side of the floor that speaks louder, catches more eyes, and ultimately puts the butts on the seats. Defense is yeoman’s work — underwatched, underanalyzed, and underappreciated.
But the evidence is there for everyone to see. The eye test stands out, but the numbers have absolutely been there to back it up.
You don’t even have to look at this game against the Pelicans to realize how much Green has been holding up the Warriors’ defense this season. The Warriors have been 9.8 points per 100 possessions better on defense during the 4,553 possessions of him on the floor this season, per Cleaning The Glass
With Green on the floor, the Warriors are posting a 110.6 defensive rating — better than every team in the league save for the Milwaukee Bucks. With Green on the bench, the Warriors are posting a 120.5 defensive rating, worse than every team in the league save for the San Antonio Spurs.
(All of the marks above are with garbage time eliminated, per Cleaning The Glass)
Every bit of those on/off numbers carry significant weight, especially for the team’s defense after the All-Star break. The Warriors are posting the following defensive numbers in 19 games after the ASB:
- 10th in overall defense (114.0 defensive rating)
- Ninth in half-court defense (97.7 defensive rating)
- 13th in transition defense (125.4 defensive rating)
Those numbers aren’t terrible — technically above average — but still quite far from the championship-caliber defense that has been a trademark of the dynasty. Plenty of questions about the point-of-attack personnel, early help/overhelping, and being on the unfortunate end of variance have all played a part in the marks above not being as high as they would want it to be.
They’ve been on the fringes of a top-10 defense after the ASB simply because of Green’s presence. Situational awareness, the ability to close gaps in an instant, and — perhaps the most important of all — an uncanny ability to come up with a counter to a counter.
Case in point:
There’s a bit going on above, so let’s list them one by one:
- Green sags back into the paint with Jonas Valančiūnas handling the ball, obviously not worried about Valančiūnas’ jump shooting (remember: if a defender is guarding the ball-handler, the defensive three-second clock doesn’t apply — a rule that Green is well aware of).
- To counter, the Pelicans attempt to run handoff action for Ingram. Klay Thompson switches onto him, then tries to navigate around the handoff with Green dropping back. But Green realizes the danger of Ingram pulling up around the screen and promptly jumps out to switch onto Ingram.
- Thompson falls behind on the supposed switch onto Valančiūnas — which is where Jonathan Kuminga comes in:
With Ingram picking up his dribble, Green puts pressure on the ball and forces the turnover.
Green didn’t do his damage alone. Kuminga was his partner in crime on defense, while also linking with him on this absolute dime of a lob after Thompson draws two defenders around a screen:
That was the eye-catcher, but it was the defensive film that especially stood out.
Kuminga’s emergence as a defensive weapon has been an absolute joy to watch this season, one of the few bright spots in a season that’s struggled to find a consistent string of them. His wing defense has been much needed in a roster that is sorely lacking in wing depth.
With no Andrew Wiggins due to a personal matter and no Andre Iguodala because of a fractured wrist, Kuminga has given the Warriors much-needed length, agility, and athleticism on the wings. That’s quite a rare blend that doesn’t readily grow on trees.
Consider the team fortunate that Kuminga’s development is coming along at a brisk pace. When you can count on a 20-year-old to do this against the opposing team’s primary scorer, you know you have a stud on your hands:
With Valančiūnas looking for someone to pass to — preferably Ingram on the handoff — Kuminga gets physical without fouling and hounds Ingram all throughout. This excellent ball denial puts pressure on Valančiūnas to make a pass, but Green being in front of his face isn’t making it any easier. The turnover is forced when Donte DiVincenzo jumps the passing lane and steals the pass to CJ McCollum.
That wasn’t the only time Kuminga denied Ingram from laying a single molecule on the ball. This work of ball-denial art — complete with top-locking, physicality, and laterality — was a sight to behold:
Kuminga provides a lot of cover for a team that has a concerning lack of size across the board. Switching has been well within his wheelhouse, but if there’s a need for him to fight over screens to prevent an undersized teammate from being matched up against a lengthy 6’8” scorer, he can do that too.
Link him up with Green on defense and they can shut off an entire half-court possession all by themselves:
That’s exceptional tenacity and verve from Kuminga to fight over every screen — on and off the ball — to stick to Ingram and ultimately force him to pass out to Larry Nance Jr. in the corner, who attempts less than one three per game and makes them at a below-league-average rate.
Not to be upstaged by his young partner in crime, Green himself made a couple of plays on defense that spoke to his status as one of the modern game’s all-time defenders — if not its greatest.
This is nothing new for Green:
Normally, helping off the strong-side corner and being one pass away from getting burned by a corner three isn’t advisable, but Green happens to be the one defender in the league who can get away with it. Having the close-out speed and length to block shots in rapid fashion allows that kind of leeway; Green wants defenses to think they’re punishing his mistake, before realizing that he’s corralled them into a position where he’s making all the stops.
When teams try to attack Green because he’s one foul away from being permanently benched, it only serves to funnel their offense toward the one man who can single-handedly shut it down. In a sense, five fouls for Green is fool’s gold for the other team:
And then, there’s the knowhow in terms of defending all sorts of actions. When the Pelicans go to “Spain” pick-and-roll (a typical pick-and-roll with the added element of a backscreen for the roll man), the Warriors execute a clean triple switch to keep the action contained and flattened out:
Green jumps out on the switch toward McCollum, who opts to attack Green in isolation — an unwise idea that leads to a stop and transition dunk for Kuminga on the other end.
After torching the Warriors in the first half with 63 points and a 121.2 offensive rating, the Pelicans were limited to only 46 points and a 95.8 offensive rating. The Green-Kuminga duo played 25 minutes together, during which the Warriors posted an even stingier 94.1 defensive rating.
When the Warriors are locked in and playing exquisite offense, there’s arguably no other team that is more entertaining and joyful to watch. But it’s on the other end of the floor where the bones are being made and the hard work is being put in.
There’s nothing quite like Green — paired with a wing defender who can provide equal amounts of terror — imposing his will upon opposing offenses and shutting off their proverbial faucet.