The Golden State Warriors have started to look like themselves again over the past couple weeks, but their defensive struggles have persisted.
After their shootout with the Sacramento Kings set an NBA record for combined threes in a game earlier in the month, the Warriors dropped all the way to 18th in overall defence. Even when they faltered defensively towards the end of last season, they never fell this far.
Golden State has been an offensive juggernaut for some time now, but their franchise turned around in large part due to their improvement on the other side of the ball. Before bringing in Mark Jackson in 2011, the Warriors had a top-15 defence just twice in the previous 32 seasons. Jackson helped change the culture and by the time Steve Kerr took over in 2014, the Warriors were a dominant defensive unit, finishing with a top-five defence in each of his first three seasons.
In the two years since, that once pristine regular season defence has started to decay. It's hard to say whether that dip should be attributed to fatigue, apathy, an actual decline or all the above but it's clear that in the regular season, Golden State isn't the consistently dominant defence it once was.
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To be clear, it's not all doom and gloom. A few of the core issues the Warriors are dealing with can be corrected pretty easily with a more consistent defensive effort. After forcing at least 14.3 turnovers per game in each of the past four seasons, the Warriors are now turning opponents over just 13.4 times per game this season.
Similarly, they've fallen to 18th in deflections per game after being in the top ten both of the previous two seasons.
This hasn't been a consistent decline, though. Rather, the Warriors will still regularly have games where they look like the dominant defensive unit of old, only to no-show a couple nights later. Since the start of December, Golden State has allowed over 120 points five times and held opponents to under 110 points eight times. To be fair, that's at least partially due to the Warriors being susceptible to certain offensive styles, but it's also a sign pointing to selective defensive attentiveness.
The biggest concern right now is 3-point defence. Opponents are attempting 33.6 threes per game but incredibly, 30.3 of those attempts are either open (4-6 feet of space) or wide-open (6+ feet) .
The alarmist analysis would see the fifth-oldest team in the league struggling to get around screens to contest perimeter shots. Given the last team to beat the Warriors in the playoffs and the team who has since come the closest attempted the 43rd and second-most 3s per game in NBA history , the Warriors' inability to contest 3-pointers would be a potentially fatal weakness.
Or it could simply be yet another sign of regular season lethargy. 86.6 percent of attempted 3s against Golden State last regular season were open or wide-open - compared to 90.5 percent this season. That number dropped to 80.9 percent in the playoffs.
Correspondingly, the Warriors' tenth-best regular season 3-point defence (35.7 percent) improved all the way to the league's best in the postseason (31.3 percent).
On the other end of the spectrum, Golden State's interior defence has actually been their biggest strength. Draymond Green is still fantastic and, if healthy, will compete for another Defensive Player of the Year; but it's been the emergence of Kevon Looney that has helped calm a volatile center rotation.
Since Damian Jones's season-ending injury on Dec. 1, the Warriors have led the league in blocks and posted the seventh-best defensive rebound percentage . The question now is whether they can maintain those excellent numbers while integrating DeMarcus Cousins.
Cousins is a fantastic offensive weapon who will undoubtedly help the second unit offence when they're without Kevin Durant or Stephen Curry, but he throws a massive wrench into a frontcourt rotation finally finding its footing. He isn't a great rim protector and, while incredibly athletic, isn't a viable option to switch onto smaller guards.
The Warriors are famously turnover prone and give up the fifth-most points off turnovers per game , and Cousins will likely feed into those bad habits. Part of Looney's value to the Warriors is that he's mistake-free and while his highlights are few and far between, he doesn't detract from what makes Curry and Durant great.
The final concern - and one that Cousins might help alleviate - is the postseason defensive viability of the Warriors' bench beyond Looney and Andre Iguodala. Kerr almost always sticks with a deep rotation, preferring to have his stars rested for the final minutes of the game and final games of the season, but that puts a bigger burden on the bench.
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Shaun Livingston has been in and out of the lineup with injuries and has visibly slowed down over the past couple of seasons. Jordan Bell is still a promising defensive talent, but his second-year stagnation and inconsistent play have him playing fewer minutes than last year. Instead of having a solid defender in Patrick McCaw and ole reliable David West, the Warriors have two offensive-focused players in Jonas Jerebko and Alfonzo McKinnie.
The true X-Factor in everything the Warriors do defensively, though, remains Green. In short bursts, Green can cover for even the most porous perimeter defence and while just three percent of his minutes have come at center this season, those small lineups continue to be incredibly dangerous when utilized. With Green on the court this season, the Warriors still have an elite defensive rating of 102.1 .
Given their return to the league's top offence and the pending addition of one of this generation's most gifted big men, the defensive worries might be much ado about nothing; but, the cracks in their foundation were never going to come on offence. It's still going to take an incredible effort and some luck to beat the Warriors four times in seven, but their defensive weaknesses have made them far more vulnerable than they've been in quite some time.