When Mark Jackson took over as head coach of the Golden State Warriors he inherited a team that was offensively gifted and defensively challenged. The 2010-11 Warriors ranked seventh in the NBA scoring 103.4 points per game but were 27th allowing 105.7 points per game. Jackson made it known that his goal was to create a defensive identity for the Warriors, but the personnel said otherwise. In Jackson’s first year the same defensive issues persisted as Golden State ranked 28th in the league allowing 101.2 points per game. The Warriors struggles on the defensive end seemed incurable. They couldn’t rebound the ball on either end as they were last in the league in defensive rebounding percentage (69.1%) and 29th in offensive rebounding percentage (22.9%). Their defensive rating was a dismal 109.1, placing them 27th in the NBA. The lack of a presence in the paint (especially after Andris Biedrins was injured) was painfully obvious and the perimeter defense was mediocre at best with the combination of Stephen Curry, Monta Ellis, and Klay Thompson.
Near last year’s trade deadline the Warriors sent Monta Ellis, Ekpe Udoh, and Kwame Brown to the Milwaukee Bucks for an injured Andrew Bogut and Stephen Jackson. They immediately flipped Jackson to the Spurs in exchange for a first-round pick. These trades, which had a negative impact in the short term on the court, created cap room and roster room for Jackson and the Warriors front office to restructure the team for the next season. Golden State finished the year a disappointing 23-43, but had three draft picks (7th, 30th, and 35th) and cap room to build a new core that would provide defensive balance to the offensively gifted veteran David Lee and young stars Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson.
It appears, at least early on, that the Warriors hit on all three picks. Harrison Barnes, selected seventh overall, gives the Warriors a freakish athlete on the wing to compliment the sharp-shooting backcourt of Thompson and Curry. Offensively, Barnes gives the Warriors another scoring threat. His size allows him to take smaller threes into the post with great success (shooting 55.6% on post-ups), and he shoots the ball well enough from long-distance (32.6% from three) to help space the floor. Defensively, Barnes gives the Warriors length and speed on the wing. He has struggled against spot-ups allowing opponents to shoot 48.5%, but has been able to bother players on pick-and-rolls (36.4%) and in isolation sets (28.6%). Barnes is also a solid rebounder averaging 4.7 rpg and has a 15.8 DRB%.
Golden State used the 30th pick they got in the Stephen Jackson trade to select Festus Ezeli. Ezeli gives the Warriors much needed depth at center, and he has been extremely valuable with Bogut missing extended time with yet another injury. Ezeli’s offensive game is relatively non-existent (3.2 ppg and 46% true shooting percentage) and he has a terrible tendency to turn the ball over by bringing the ball down on catches (18.9% turnover rate). However, Ezeli is a competent post defender and rebounds the ball extremely well at both ends of the floor (13.8 ORB% and 14.5 DRB%). With all of the offensive fire-power around him, Ezeli’s deficiencies at that end don’t inhibit the Warriors offense and he happily (and effectively) plays within his role as a defender and rebounder.
Their 35th overall pick got them Draymond Green, who has quickly emerged as their defensive stopper on the wing. He is a poor offensive player and shoots just 28.2% from the field and a pitiful 18.2% from three-point range (34.5 TS%), but Green’s value is on the defensive end. Green is a very physical wing defender and is very good at contesting jump shots without fouling (fouls on just 4% of opponents’ shots). Opponents are shooting just 35.7% from the field against Green and even worse on spot-ups (28.1%) and isolation (33.3%). Green’s minutes were limited early, but Jackson has seen his value on the defensive end and routinely puts Green on the opposition’s best wing player late in games (guarded LeBron down the stretch in the win at Miami).
Along with a successful draft, the Warriors looked to free agency to fill out their roster. They picked up a pair of Hornets cast-offs in Carl Landry and Jarrett Jack to round out their bench, and they have paid immediate dividends. Landry has provided a boost off the bench at power forward and has given the Warriors depth behind David Lee. Landry’s rebounding has been crucial for the Warriors as he is tied with Ezeli for tops on the team with a 13.8 ORB% (good for 11th in the NBA) and has a respectable 15.8 DRB%. Offensively, he has excelled shooting 54.6% from the field (63.1 TS%). The Warriors have used him both as a post-scoring option when Lee goes to the bench, but they have also been very successful with both Landry and Lee on the floor in a small lineup that has incredible floor spacing and, along with Barnes, Thompson, and Curry, has five legitimate scoring options.
Jack has given the Warriors a quality back-up point guard that can score (10 ppg) and facilitate (4.6 apg) on the offensive end, while locking down opposing guards. Jack’s defense has him ranked 25th in the NBA allowing just 0.7 PPP and opponents are shooting just 24.6% from the field. His productivity has allowed Jackson to have a lot of flexibility with his backcourt rotations. At times he’ll play alongside Curry to give the Warriors another ball-handling option that allows Curry to work off the ball for open shots, and Jack takes a lot of pressure off Curry on the defensive end by taking on the opposing team’s best guard.
The focus on defense by the new role players has had an impact on the defensive effort from the Warriors stars as well as freeing them up to be dominant offensively. With Ellis gone, Curry has stepped up into the role of primary scorer averaging 20 ppg and has grown as a point guard averaging 6.5 apg and just three turnovers per game. Defensively, he continues to be one of the best thieves in the NBA with 1.7 steals per game (15th in the NBA) and he has become an average on-ball defender allowing 0.92 PPP and opponents to shoot 41.5% from the field against him. Curry’s defensive rating last year was a sub-par 108, but early this season he has cut that down to 105.
David Lee is averaging a double-double with 18.8 ppg and 11.2 rpg (5th in the league). His 24.0 DRB% is 15th in the league and his defensive rating is 102, the lowest on the team of players averaging 10 minutes or more per game. Comparatively, Lee struggled to a 109 defensive rating last season. Lee limits opponents to shooting 36.9% from the field and has been extremely effective against pick-and-rolls (22.6%) and spot-ups (35.4%).
With the retooled roster, the Warriors have fared much better on the defensive end ranking 18th in the league in points per game allowed at 98.8, and have improved their defensive rating to 104.3, good for 14th in the league. Their rebounding has improved drastically as the Warriors have gone from being one of the worst rebounding teams in the NBA to one of the best. Golden State is first in the league with a 75.1 DRB% and ranks 10th with a 28.3 ORB% . They have done so without sacrificing much on the offensive end as they are 11th in the NBA at 99.7 ppg, and have a 105.3 offensive rating (12th in the league).
The commitment to the defensive end has been the key factor in the Warriors hot start to the season. Their most recent win came on the road over the reigning NBA champs, the Miami Heat, and exemplified the new-found defensive strengths of the Warriors. Golden State limited the high-powered Miami offense to 95 points on 47.5% shooting (quite the feat considering Miami shot 58.2% against Atlanta the night before). The Warriors forced 18 turnovers, scoring 19 points off of those turnovers, and out-rebounded the Heat 40-38 (7-6 offensive).
For years Golden State has been labeled an exciting team that lacked the defensive chops to succeed against the top teams in the league. They are rapidly changing that perception this season and have proven themselves, at least early on, to be legitimate threats to any team. The victory Wednesday night moved the Warriors to 15-7 on the season, and 5-0 on their current seven-game East Coast road-trip, where they have defeated the Nets and Heat. The Warriors did a great job in the offseason collecting a group of role players that fit their needs defensively and that complement the great offensive players already on the roster. Mark Jackson has shown that, with the right collection of players, the Warriors can become a team that plays well on both ends of the floor and can compete with the best in the NBA, even without star center Andrew Bogut. The Warriors are starting to make believers out of many around the NBA (including me), and if they can maintain their focus on the defensive end they have a chance to make some noise in the Western Conference.
(Stats courtesy of basketball-reference.com and mysynergysports.com)
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