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Examining the Warriors’ open-three problem on defense

They gave up 22 threes against the Kings — part of a larger trend and concern they’ve been having on defense.

Sacramento Kings v Golden State Warriors Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Parsing through the list of the teams who give up the most “wide-open” three-point looks — defined by the official NBA stats page as shots where the closest defender to the shooter is more than six feet away — you would think that the Golden State Warriors would be high up on that list.

Here’s the list of the culprits:

  1. Los Angeles Lakers: 985
  2. Utah Jazz: 961
  3. Boston Celtics: 937
  4. San Antonio Spurs: 932
  5. Chicago Bulls: 909
  6. Memphis Grizzlies: 888
  7. New Orleans Pelicans: 877
  8. Dallas Mavericks: 861
  9. Oklahoma City Thunder: 859
  10. Atlanta Hawks: 859

The Warriors aren’t even close to being the most egregious offenders when it comes to giving up wide-open perimeter looks — they’re 13th on the list, with a total of 819 wide-open looks from three attempted by opponents this season. Not good, but not bad either.

How about wide-open three-point makes given up to opponents, you ask? They’ve coughed up a total of 295, only 20th. In terms of percentage: an even 36%, which is actually the fourth lowest mark out of 30 teams.

In terms of the rate of total three-point looks they’ve given up that were considered wide-open, the Warriors (22.2%) are ninth highest — which isn’t good, but again, not the most egregious offenders in the league.

But it also sparks the conversation of rate and frequency — i.e., how many three-point looks are they giving up as a percentage of total shot attempts?

Per Cleaning The Glass, 37.7% of opponents’ shot attempts have come from beyond the arc — eighth highest in the league. When separated between above-the-break threes (28.5%, fifth highest) and corner threes (9.2%, 14th lowest), the Warriors have been doing a decent job shifting those three-point looks away from the more-valuable corner looks and toward the more-preferred above-the-break (ATB) attempts.

But again — if those ATB looks are wide-open, it won’t really make much difference to distinguish between the two kinds of threes. NBA-caliber shooters will readily convert if given enough time and space, no matter where they are on the floor.

What accounts for the Warriors’ struggles in defending the three-point line? If this latest game against the Sacramento Kings (who finished the night with a scorching 22-of-48 clip on threes — 45.8%) were of any indication, the wide-open looks they do give up are due to a variety of reasons.

The first reason — and quite glaringly the most frustrating one due to how preventable it is — is simply a failure to not dot i’s and cross t’s. The Warriors’ problems with matching up in transition, especially off of made shots, gave De’Aaron Fox a couple of open looks that simply did not need to be open:

I get playing the drive against Fox, who has proven to be a force in the paint. But he’s 39% three-point shooter on 8.1 attempts per game — which means he needs to be played closer than how the Warriors played him on the three possessions above. If Fox decides to penetrate, the faith in the backline defense shoring up and helping *should* be there.

Which also brings us to the point of point-of-attack defense — and how troubled the Warriors have been all season long in terms of containment, blow-bys, and being put in rotation.

Coverage dictates a majority of how a backline defense responds — and how offenses account for the chosen coverage. The Warriors have felt like they’ve shuffled through a ton of off-ball and ballscreen coverages in an effort to find answers, without really establishing a base coverage and therefore not being able to establish their overarching identity on that end.

Watch these two clips below — differing coverages, but common problems emerging:

The first instance: Kevon Looney stepping up to the level of the screen against Kevin Huerter, which opens the pocket pass to Domantas Sabonis. Dario Šarić is compelled to step up and cover Sabonis due to the compromising situation Looney has put himself in — but it opens the corner pass to Harrison Barnes (who finished with 39 points on 7-of-12 shooting on threes), who drills the three against a futile closeout attempt.

The second instance: another screen for Huerter, but with Draymond Green hedging/trapping, which leaves the backline defense in a precarious position. No one marks Barnes on the weak-side corner, with Steph Curry preoccupied by Keegan Murray’s cut and clear-out. Green attempts to recover, but that is far too long of a distance for him to cover, even for a defensive player of his caliber.

Barnes — a 39.9% shooter from beyond the arc heading into this matchup — got most of the open looks generated from a tilted defense. Some were on matchup and coverage quirks, such as the one below:

A particular instance of Barnes — the four in the clip above — being matched up with his positional counterpart in Šarić, who is not used to playing the role of screen navigator on defense. A quick Sabonis handoff to Barnes forces Šarić to chase; he chooses to duck under the screen with Looney in drop coverage, which is a curious choice given Barnes’ success rate on threes this season.

Communication — always a crucial aspect on defense, especially in the NBA — has often lacked this season. Messages that need to be delivered aren’t; other times, the messaging is there, but it gets lost somewhere along the way.

Another huge Barnes three late in the game was a result of the latter. Watch Green attempt to communicate to Jonathan Kuminga, who doesn’t get the memo — and the Warriors end up paying as a result:

When Brandin Podziemski comes over to double Fox, Green gestures toward Kuminga, telling him to stay low and close to Barnes. The reason: Kessler Edwards on the wing, who is a lesser perimeter threat compared to Barnes.

Kuminga, however, doesn’t get the message and closes out on Edwards when the ball is passed to him. This leaves Green — who was both in help position against a potential Fox drive and also keeping himself in position to close out on a potential Trey Lyles three — in a precarious spot, forced to close out long against Barnes, who drills the three after being a delivered a quick swing pass.

The operative word when it comes to the Warriors’ three-point defense this season seems to be “lack” — a lack of communication, lack of connectivity, lack of detail, lack of force, lack of doing one’s work early, and lack of presence. Opponents don’t seem intimidated at all by the Warriors’ defense, often taking advantage of the lack of all of the above that have been prevalent this season.

Zeroing in on the lack of detail and doing one’s work early, a couple of possessions below perfectly captured those problems. Interestingly enough, Curry was the culprit on both of them:

The one above: a simple matter of Curry not playing Huerter tightly one pass away on the strong-side corner, often considered a cardinal sin in the NBA.

This one below: a matter of Curry not doing his work early by not forcing Keegan Murray away from the screen and having to play the role of screen navigator:

Other times, the matchup problem emerged due to a failure to win the possession battle. Chaotic possessions where the Warriors weren’t in control of matchups — due to having to run back in transition frantically, not hauling in the defensive rebounds, or turning the ball over — were indirect symptoms of their overall three-point maladies on defense.

Not being able to haul in the rebound above causes the Cory Joseph matchup against Lyles, a clear mismatch. Kuminga is then forced to lurk nearby as potential help — which leaves Huerter open on the wing, an easy decision for Lyles to make. Kuminga closes out, but is too sunk in to have an effect on the shot.

A final word on the three-point-defense problem: The Warriors are actually the team with the lowest opponent rim rate in the league — 25.5% of opponents’ shot attempts this season have come from within four feet of the basket, per Cleaning The Glass. The team in second place (Minnesota Timberwolves) have an opponent rim rate that is 3.9% higher.

That seems like it should be an indicator of an elite defense, but given the film and the rate of opponents’ three-point looks, that might be an indicator of something more concerning: their troubles in terms of containment at the point-of-attack are causing them to scramble and sink inside in an effort to prevent shots at the rim; in turn, they are giving up comfortable looks from beyond the arc.

At 19-23, the question then becomes this: Is it a problem fixable by a mid-season change in personnel and/or approach? Or is it too much of an ingrained problem, a structural flaw that can only be properly addressed after a season that is on the verge of being lost?

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