Warriors can pick up scoring slack without Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson, but defensive losses will hurt the most
The Warriors' often elite defense took a major hit this offseason with the departure of four veteran stoppers
SAN FRANCISCO -- Forgive us if we weren't paying much attention to the defense.
For the last five seasons, the Golden State Warriors have consistently rolled out historically efficient, borderline revolutionary offensive attacks, topped by last season's unprecedented 115.9 rating which, according to Basketball Reference, eclipsed the Showtime Lakers of 1986-87 for the best offense in the NBA since the 1973-74 season.
So it's only natural that, when Klay Thompson tore his ACL, Kevin Durant went East to Brooklyn, Andre Iguodala was shipped to Memphis and Shaun Livingston retired, the first thing we thought about was how the losses would affect the trademark offense we'd grown accustomed to seeing. If you take a closer look, however, you'll see that the 2019-20 Golden State roster, with all its new pieces, is actually more equipped to pick up the offensive slack than make up for the significant changes on the defensive end.
Golden State coach Steve Kerr is the first to admit that the defensive scheme the Warriors have ridden to five straight Finals appearances was put in place by Mark Jackson in the years preceding Kerr's tenure. Following Jackson, Kerr's Warriors have put up two of the top 10 defensive ratings in the league since 1973-74, per Basketball Reference (2015-16 and 2016-17).
If the Warriors are going to duplicate, or even approximate that kind of defensive efficiency this season, however, they're going to have to do it in a much different way.
"When you look at the number of wing defenders we've lost, between Klay, Andre, Kevin, Shaun, it's most of our wing defensive core. So it's just a dramatically different roster," Kerr told reporters on media day. "So we have to take that into account, and my guess is we're going to experiment with a lot of different coverages and schemes, and that it will look different. I don't think we can just play the way we've played because we don't have the personnel to do so."
Replacing the prolific, efficient offensive production of Durant and Thompson, along with the high-IQ passing and ball-handling of Iguodala and Livingston, won't be easy either. But the Warriors appear much more potent on that end of the court thanks to the presence of arguably the best offensive player in the NBA in Stephen Curry, the team's assist leader and facilitator in Draymond Green and the addition of All-Star D'Angelo Russell.
Last season Warriors lineups with Curry and Green but without Durant and Thompson performed extremely well offensively (albeit in an extremely small sample size), according to NBA.com. With those two running the show along with Russell, who averaged 21.1 points and 7.0 assists last season on 37 percent 3-point shooting, we can assume that Golden State will figure out a way to put points on the board.
Stopping the other team from scoring, however, will be a more complicated issue. Green is one of the best and most versatile defenders in NBA history, but even his uber-confident brain admits he can't do it all himself. He was also characteristically honest about the quality of defenders the Warriors lost, versus the ones they brought in.
"We don't have as good a defenders as we had. I don't think that's any surprise," Green said at media day. "But at the same time, we've just got to find our identity. You know, before our identity was switching. That may not be our identity anymore. We've got to figure out and kind of toy with different things throughout the preseason and figure out what works the best for this group."
Aside from the basic defensive schemes and cohesion, the Warriors will also have to figure out who will guard the other team's best perimeter player -- a job taken on admirably by Thompson night in and night out in seasons past. Green is more than capable, but that takes him out of help position, where he has been invaluable as a quarterback with his communication and instincts. Curry is a smart, energetic defender with quick hands, but isn't physically equipped to take on that task -- especially given the load he'll carry on offense.
Russell rates out as an average defender, according to Synergy Sports Technology, but has surprisingly good numbers as an isolation defender. If you look into the video, however, you see a lot of plays where Russell gets blown by, only to be bailed out by a help defender (usually Nets center Jarrett Allen), or plays where the offensive player simply misses an open shot.
With Russell unlikely to be an option, that leaves wings like Alfonzo McKinnie, Glenn Robinson III and Alec Burks, along with Jacob Evans and Jordan Poole (guards with little and no NBA experience, respectively) to lock down the other team's best perimeter player. That was an assignment taken on at one point or another by the length and versatility of Durant, Thompson, Iguodala and Livingston, none of which will be with the team until Thompson returns following the All-Star break.
For what it's worth, Robinson feels he has the skill set to take on that kind of defensive responsibility after a lost season with the Detroit Pistons.
"I'm very excited to have that opportunity to step up and guard some elite-level guys," Robinson said at media day. "I've got Draymond behind me, and the way that he talks, knowing him for a couple years now, I'm excited to kind of strap up on the defensive end."
Of course, as always, the Warriors' defensive success will not come down to one player. Golden State constantly refers to their defensive approach as "five guys on a string," and they could choose to funnel ball-handlers into Green, Kevon Looney and (when healthy) Willie Cauley-Stein in the middle. But there's no denying that the Warriors, whose defense has been nearly as elite as their offense over the last five years, have suffered some major losses on that end of the court -- losses that will require a considerable adjustment period.
"As far as how does the dust settle, when does it settle, I think that's a question that we have, too, internally. I don't know the answer to that," Warriors president Bob Myers said at media day. "I mean, I do know this: We believe that things take time to evolve, and we're prepared, especially with a younger roster, to allow that to happen, and that's the mindset that we have from a coaching staff, from a front office staff, is let's see how things are going before we make any blanket decisions or judgment on any of it. But we're excited. I mean, look, we're excited about the youth. We're excited about the unknown. In years past we've had a lot of known, which has been fantastic, but this is different."
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