Draymond Green — fresh from a 16-game absence due to suspension and a ramp-up period toward game shape — had interesting things to say after the Golden State Warriors’ defeat to a Memphis Grizzlies team without Ja Morant, Desmond Bane, and Marcus Smart.
“It starts with one-on-one defense. If you take pride in one-on-one defense, then the team defense will automatically get better. Worry about trap-the-box and the helpside and all that stuff but if you don’t take pride in one-on-one defense, every guy — a shell or trap-the-box, none of that stuff matters. Until we take that pride, it will be the same old story.
“Communication is a part of it, but you don’t take pride in one-on-one defense, communication don’t matter. Because guys are just downhill and you’re reacting to everything. You can communicate when you’re not reacting to everything, but if every time you look up you’re like ‘Oh s**t!’.... If every time you look up, someone’s driving — and again, that’s (player) one through seventeen — there’s no help for straight line drives. I don’t care how great of a defender you are, if you give up straight line drives, you can’t catch up. It’s just not going to happen. You’re always going to be a man down at that point.”
Green hammering down the point of taking pride in one-on-one defense — otherwise known as defense at the point of attack — seems apropos, given how the Warriors were burned by the Grizzlies from the perimeter: 20-of-54 from three-point range, a significant number of which were on open or wide-open shots.
Despite all the troubles on defense this season, a quirky stat about the Warriors is that they are actually allowing the lowest rate of rim attempts from opponents this season. Per Cleaning The Glass, opponents attempt 26.1% of their total shot diet within the restricted area; the team ranked below the Warriors (Miami Heat) give up 3.3 percentage points more.
I was curious to see if there was any correlation between the Warriors’ need to wall off the paint/protect the rim and the number of shots they’re willing to give up from the perimeter as a result. Per Cleaning The Glass, Warriors’ opponents attempt 37.4% of their total shots from three-point range — 21st in the league.
When filtering for opponent three-point shots considered “open” (nearest defender 4-6 feet away) and “wide open” (nearest defender more than six feet away), the Warriors have given up a total of 1,241 of them this season, per the NBA’s tracking data. That is 11th most in the league — which isn’t bad, nor is it great.
Still, on a team that has a plethora of problems defensively — lack of size, lateral quickness, athleticism, and overall versatility — the open shots being given up feel like they speak much louder than what the actual numbers suggest. And as Green alluded to above, it almost always starts at the point of attack.
One problem that has stood out is the Warriors’ transition defense, or lack thereof. When they miss shots or turn the ball over, they are often forced into unfavorable crossmatches — a small against a big, or a big against a small. The former seems to occur with more frequency; when there’s a mismatch on the defensive end, someone else is compelled to sink into the paint to show help.
Which opens up the perimeter to trailers and spot-up shooters:
The example above: a turnover leading to the Warriors having to scramble back and set their defense in a hasty manner. Which leads to Steph Curry getting crossmatched onto Xavier Tillman. Kevon Looney — instinctually compelled to drop back into the paint, especially with Curry having to deal with a larger human being nearby — misses Jaren Jackson Jr. on the trail, leaving him open to pull up for a three.
Communication was also alluded to as an issue, but Green did say that it didn’t matter if one-on-one defense wasn’t good enough. But there were a couple of possessions against the Grizzlies where communication was sorely needed.
An example was on the concept of gap help, or “nail” help (the nail being the area approximating the middle of the free-throw line). Nail help against middle drives — especially if drivers have a favorable one-on-one matchup — is a basic defensive concept that most teams in the NBA make use of.
But committing to any sort of gap help is overkill if the one-on-one matchup isn’t a mismatch — in other words, if single coverage is theoretically good enough to prevent penetration. The Warriors have had a penchant for overhelping in all sorts of situations; helping one pass away to help at the nail — when it’s not needed — was one such situation prevalent against the Grizzlies:
A breakdown at the point of attack is almost always the culprit for most of the Warriors’ problems on defense this season. Again, as Green alluded to above, when things break down up front, the entirety of the defense becomes compromised. Rotations are late, closeouts are soft, and the overall effort to defend on a string fails because the proverbial string either snaps or isn’t there from the beginning:
It also doesn’t help when the Warriors have been on their heels going back in transition, as mentioned earlier. They gave up 181.3 points per 100 transition plays against the Grizzlies — which would blow away the worst transition defense in the league this season by a country mile, per Cleaning The Glass.
Out of those transition possessions, 228.6 points per 100 transition plays were from steals alone — which speaks to the high correlation and high causation between their turnover habit (they committed 19 against the Grizzlies, who scored 30 points off of them) and poor transition defense:
In a general sense, Green is correct. As long as the Warriors don’t take pride in their individual defense at the point of attack, the entire team will suffer as a result. The criticism of their poor effort in that sense is justified.
But just how much of it is also due to a lack of versatile defenders? Granted, no one expected Andrew Wiggins to decline this much as a defender. But beyond him, no one else has the profile to contain ballhandlers up front. Gary Payton II’s injury-prone nature has made him unreliable, while Green — still an elite communicator with high IQ — can’t do everything by himself.
This may be a problem that can only be solved by personnel changes — or even a culture change. If they decide to go that route, the effects won’t be felt this season; they only have themselves to blame for falling into that rabbit hole.