Damian Lillard offered an honest assessment of the Golden State Warriors' defense leading up to the Portland Trail Blazers' game against the super-team on Tuesday. While he called the Warriors a "championship-level team," he said they are "just not the same" when it comes to protecting the paint because of the absence of center Andrew Bogut, via CSNNW's Jason Quick:
"It's not the same,'' Lillard said of the Warriors' defense. "They are a great offensive team and I think they will still be a good defensive team, but it's different than when (Andrew) Bogut is not back there. It's just not the same.''
"Watching their game against New Orleans, watching their game against Phoenix -- both teams attacked the paint a lot,'' Lillard said. "They were attacking rim, attacking the rim, and it kept both teams in the game, so we have to do the same thing.''
"I feel confident in my ability to attack whoever, but in a lot of those plays, Draymond likes to help from the weakside ... and I saw him sprinting to (Mason Plumlee) to deny, which meant nobody was in the paint. I was taking advantage of that.
"It's different when you don't have a guy like Andrew Bogut in that paint. He controlled that paint really well for them on the backside of that defense, so (in that preseason game) I felt good about getting to the rim.''
In fairness to the Warriors, it's a little early to be making sweeping conclusions about how this team is going to look all season. They've played three games, and in the first one, against the San Antonio Spurs, the defense was indeed a total disaster -- the Spurs scored 125.9 points per 100 possessions, and Golden State couldn't keep them out of the paint. The second and third games, however, weren't nearly as bad -- the Warriors allowed 100.8 and 98 points per 100 possessions in wins against the New Orleans Pelicans and Phoenix Suns, respectively. For reference, Golden State gave up 100.9 points per 100 possessions last season, the fourth-best defensive rating in the league.
That said, Lillard hit on something important. Without Bogut (and Festus Ezeli), the Warriors are a less intimidating defensive team. Bogut was not only one of the smartest team defenders in the NBA, he was a physical force and a shot blocker. Here's how he described how he measures his success on the defensive end to ESPN's Ethan Sherwood Strauss a couple of years ago:
Q: So how do you judge yourself if you don't have stats?
I just know, you know, you get into a situation, I know when guys get into the paint and willingly drive into the paint all four quarters, I kind of know that I'm not doing my job. Try to set the tone early in the first quarter, block some shots, and you notice in the second, third, fourth quarter, guys start veering in and out along the baseline, coming out along the baseline. That's how I know I'm doing a good job.
Q: Is that the best feeling to you when you see the effect of that intimidation?
Yeah. It is. It just means I'm doing my job as a big fella. When guys come into the paint and get easy layups, they keep coming into the paint. There's a reason for that. They like what they see. I've had games like that, when I've come to help late. Then they get shots and they feel comfortable, and it's hard to stop NBA guys. I haven't really had many of those this year.
There's value not just in blocking and altering shots, but dissuading players from driving. Lillard is saying that Golden State doesn't have that with Zaza Pachulia in Bogut's place. That has a lot to do with why the Warriors are allowing 52 points in the paint per game so far this season, which is the third-highest number in the league. (It drops to fifth-highest when you adjust for pace.)
The question, then, is what should Golden State do about this problem? The short answer is nothing. It can't just find another Bogut, so it will have to make do with the roster it has. Pachulia has to play the type of heady defense he's known for, Draymond Green and Kevin Durant will have to protect the rim as best they can and the Warriors will have to make up for their relative lack of fearsome interior defenders with versatility and speed. Or they can just try giving JaVale McGee more minutes.
The good news: Their Death Lineup with Green at center allowed only 95 points per possession last season, and a couple of other small lineups had outrageously good point differentials even though the defense was a bit worse than average. If and when Golden State finds its rhythm on offense, this will be less of an issue.