Extra Pass: Golden State Warriors defending at historically high level

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BOSTON – Game-planning for the Golden State last season, the Phoenix Suns wrote “Finesse” on their whiteboard.

“Be physical with them, and they tend to back away,” said Jermaine O’Neal, who played for Phoenix last year.

Now a Warrior, O’Neal didn’t hesitate to share the observation of their defense with his new teammates.

“I told guys. I said, ‘The perception of our team has been finesse a finesse, soft team,’” O’Neal said.

But that’s not how O’Neal saw his new team. That’s not how these Warriors see themselves. And that’s not how reality sees them, either.

Quite the opposite, in fact.

Golden State ranks third in the NBA in points allowed per 100 possessions (101.7). This is absolutely a team winning with defense, a marked change from the Warrior Way culled during two stints and 11 years under Don Nelson.

Does anyone realize it, though?

“I bet, if you ran a poll of 10,000 people today and said, ‘Where does Golden State rank defensively?’” O’Neal said, “I guarantee you it would probably be only like three or four, maybe five, out of 10,000.”

Old perceptions die hard.

Whether cultural or coincidence, this is just seventh time in the last 30 years the Warriors’ defensive rating relative to league average has been better than their offensive equivalent. Considering the Warriors have also played faster than league average 32 of the last 33 years, they spent decades – most of them before we commonly used per-possession rather than per-game measures – building a reputation as an offense-before-defense team.

With Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson bombing from long distance at historic rates, these Warriors aesthetically resemble Nelson’s. But Golden State actually ranks higher in defensive rating (third) than 3-point percentage (eighth).

And make no mistake. They view themselves as defense-first team now.

“We’re going to stick to the way we guard things and make teams beat us the way that they have to beat us,” forward Draymond Green said. “They’re going to beat us on our terms. They’re not going to be us on their terms. If they beat us on our terms, we can live with that. But we make teams beat us, when we’re at our best defensively, they have to beat us on our terms.”

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The Warriors allow 4.4 fewer points than the NBA average per 100 possessions, their best relative defensive rating since moving to Oakland in 1971. It’s their second-best mark in franchise history, behind only the 1963-64 team that featured a man named Chamberlain.

How far Golden State has come in such a short period of time is even more remarkable.

Two years ago, Mark Jackson’s first as head coach, the Warriors allowed 4.5 points more per 100 possessions than league average. Last season, they dipped to 0.3 under. And now, at 4.4 below, they’re on pace to complete one of the best two-year turnaround ever.

That two-year improvement in relative defensive rating (-8.9 points) would rank top five all-time. Half the rest of the teams completing that group – the 1999 San Antonio Spurs and 2007-08 Boston Celtics – won a championship.*

*The other two: 1999 Philadelphia 76ers and 2009-10 Milwaukee Bucks

It’s not necessarily that making such large defensive strides builds a sure-fire winner – though, it doesn’t hurt – but it’s indicative of a team headed in the right direction overall.

How has Golden State gotten on this path?

“Personnel one,” said Stephen Curry, the Warriors’ best and longest-tenured player.

Personnel

Golden State traded for an injured Andrew Bogut in 2012, and he played just 32 games last season.

But when healthy, Bogut is an elite defender, and the Warriors showed their faith in him with a three-year, $36 million extension before this season began.

Prior to that, Golden State added another elite defender, signing-and-trading for Andre Iguodala on a four-year, $48 million contract this summer.

In the previous three years, Iguodala has finished ninth, seventh and eighth in Defensive Player of the Year voting. Bogut peaked at sixth in 2011.

Simply, defending well requires good defensive players, and Iguodala and Bogut are excellent defensive players. After Mark Jackson talked about instilling a defense-first culture when he became the Warriors’ head coach in 2011, they put their money where their mouth is.

Iguodala definitely boosted the Warriors’ defensive talent, but he didn’t necessarily change their mindset. That had already been done. He said he realized in training camp, the way players were already competing, this team had the potential to excel defensively

“You know if we kind of just took the same mindset – just stopping the guy in front of you – and put it in a team concept, we’d be good,” Iguodala said.

Team concept

Even with renowned defensive assistant Michael Malone now the Sacramento Kings’ head coach, Golden State has continued the pick-and-roll system it implemented last season. Generally, the player guarding the ball handler forces him inside the arc. The big sags below the screen, yielding a mid-range jumper but preventing a drive or roll to the paint.

“It doesn’t change from game to game,” Curry said. “We understand what our identity is as a defensive team, and regardless of who we’re playing, we’re going to stick to the plan.

“There’s only so many options you have at how to guard a pick-and-roll. It’s just the teams that bring the effort every single night, bring the communication, they’re rewarded.”

Golden State has certainly been rewarded.

The Warriors force opponents to take 48 percent of their shots inside the 3-point arc but outside the restricted area, a low-efficiency range for most teams. Only the Pacers and Spurs have induced more such shots.

Golden State also allows the second-smallest share of opponents’ shots as corner 3s (4.8 percent). Only the Trail Blazers (4.1) allow fewer of those high-percentage looks.

This is one area where Iguodala has really accelerated the Warriors’ growth.

Last year, a middling 6.5 percent of Golden State’s opponents’ shots were corner 3s. That number was a similar 6.3 percent when Harrison Barnes played with the Warriors’ current other starters – Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, David Lee and Andrew Bogut.

That lineup with Barnes this year has improved to allowing 5.0 percent of opponents’ shots to come from the corner 3. But with Igudoala, it’s a minuscule 3.8 percent.

Iguodala is just that much more adept at freelancing to cause turnovers and still closing out on shooters in the corner.

“They kind of lean on me as far as letting me do what I know I can do, but also not getting burnt,” Iguodala said.

Part of the buy-in stems from how much these players believe in their offensive potential, even though Golden State ranks just 14th in points per possession. As they describe it, they know points will come as long as the focus on the end of the floor that matters most.

“We have a great coaching staff who preaches defense and don’t know about shots you take and don’t care about turnovers,” Green said. “We can offset the turnovers. We can offset some bad shots.”

The David Lee Effect

If one player symbolizes the Warriors’ defensive revival, it’s David Lee.

Lee, whom Kirk Goldsberry famously at last year’s Sloan Conference as “The Golden Gate,” has demonstrated impressive defensive improvement.

From 2007-08 to 2011-12, Golden State ranked last in the NBA in defensive-rebounding percentage. Though their defense was also suspect in other areas, even the possessions they guarded well turned demoralizing when opponents all-too-frequently got second chances.

“It’s a tough way to try to play defense,” said Lee, who played for the Warriors during the final two years of their five-year run of last-place defensive rebounding.

After posting a career low defensive-rebounding percentage in 2011-12 (19.9), Lee upped that to 24.5 last season to help the Golden State lead the NBA in defensive-rebounding percentage.

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Lee’s defensive rebounding has fallen off a bit this season, likely because Bogut – ranked fourth in the NBA in defensive-rebounding percentage – is stealing some. The Warriors still rank a robust fifth in defensive rebounding this season.

If Lee’s defensive rebounding has suffered, his defense has improved in other areas.

Goldsberry’s critique centered around a stat he created that showed opponents hit 61 percent of their close shots when Lee defended within five feet of the basket.

In a similar stat – measuring opponents’ field-goal percentage when the defender is “within five feet of the basket and within five feet of the offensive player attempting the shot” – Lee rates even better this year.

He holds opponents to 48.1 percent – better than Dwight Howard, Tim Duncan and DeAndre Jordan.

“As I’ve gotten some criticism for it in the past, I’ve tried to get better and better at it,” Lee said. “I think this year, I’ve finally kind of broken through.”

LeBron James game-time decision for Cavaliers-Celtics opener

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INDEPENDENCE, Ohio (AP) — LeBron James may miss Cleveland’s opener Tuesday night against Boston because of a sprained left ankle.

James injured his ankle in practice on Sept. 27 and played in just one exhibition game. He participated in the team’s morning shootaround, and a team spokesman said it will be a game-time decision whether he faces the Celtics. James is officially listed as questionable.

James took some outside shots but did very little lateral movement when the media was permitted to watch the Cavs work out.

It’s hard to imagine James missing the first opener of his career and a chance to play against former teammate Kyrie Irving, who was traded this summer to Boston after telling Cleveland owner Dan Gilbert that he wanted out. James and Irving had a sometimes rocky relationship during three seasons together, but they made it to three straight NBA Finals and won the title in 2016.

 

Why did Kyrie Irving request trade from Cavaliers? ‘I will never pinpoint anything, because that’s not what real grownups do’

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Kyrie Irving said he requested a trade from the Cavaliers because he wanted to be happy and maximize his potential.

But why did he feel that couldn’t happen in Cleveland?

Irving hasn’t come close to directly answering that question, saying things like, “My intent, like I said, was for my best intentions.” Returning to Cleveland with the Celtics, Irving was again pressed to explain.

Irving, via MassLive:

Going forward, I kind of wanted to put that to rest in terms of everyone figuring out or trying to figure out and dive in and continue to dive into a narrative that they have no idea about and that probably will never, ever be divulged, because it’s not important. This was literally just a decision I wanted to make solely based on my happiness and pushing my career forward. I don’t want to pinpoint anything. I will never pinpoint anything, because that’s not what real grownups do. They continue to move on with their life and and continue to progress, and that’s what I’m going to continue to do.

Perhaps, Irving is just following Dwyane Wade‘s advice and taking the high road. But that won’t ease our collective curiosity. Fans will continue to speculate about why Irving wanted out, and reporters will continue to dig into it. Reporting and speculation have both centered on LeBron James.

If Irving eventually wants to set the record straight – and he doesn’t sound interested, lending credence to the theory he wanted to leave LeBron behind – everyone will be all ears.

Cavaliers to honor Kyrie Irving with video during tonight’s game

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Kyrie Irving requested a trade from the Cavaliers, stated no regard for LeBron James‘ feelings about it and slighted Cleveland as a sports city.

Yet, when Irving returns with the Celtics for tonight’s regular-season opener, the Cavs will honor him.

Joe Vardon of Cleveland.com:

The Cavaliers intend to honor Kyrie Irving on Tuesday night with a video tribute during Cleveland’s season-opening tilt against Irving’s Boston Celtics.

According to a team source, the video is a “thank you” to Irving intended to show appreciation for all he accomplished in six seasons here.

Irving had a fantastic six-year run with the Cavaliers, and he hit the biggest shot in franchise history to end Cleveland’s title drought in 2016.

But he’s now a sports villain there (not to be mistaken for a bad person). Let the fans enjoy unconditionally booing him for a night. There will be time to honor him when the wounds of his exit aren’t so fresh.

If I were the Cavs, this would be the video I’d show to commemorate Irving’s return:

LeBron James: I think Dan Gilbert’s letter was racial

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LeBron James left a job for a more appealing one in 2010. His previous employer, Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert, infamously published a letter that called LeBron’s decision a “cowardly betrayal,” “shameful display of selfishness and betrayal,” “shocking act of disloyalty” and “heartless and callous action.” Most ridiculously, Gilbert wrote, “Some people think they should go to heaven but NOT have to die to get there.” Perhaps most hurtfully, Gilbert added LeBron’s choice “sends the exact opposite lesson of what we would want our children to learn. And ‘who’ we would want them to grow-up to become.”

Remember, LeBron completed his contract with Gilbert’s Cavs then signed with the Heat. Gilbert’s reaction was beyond over the top.

It was also probably rooted in racial attitudes that persist since a time rich white men held complete control over the lives of young black men.

LeBron, via Mark Anthony Green of GQ:

Did you feel like Dan Gilbert’s letter was racial?

“Um, I did. I did. It was another conversation I had to have with my kids. It was unfortunate, because I believed in my heart that I had gave that city and that owner, at that point in time, everything that I had. Unfortunately, I felt like, at that point in time, as an organization, we could not bring in enough talent to help us get to what my vision was. A lot of people say they want to win, but they really don’t know how hard it takes, or a lot of people don’t have the vision. So, you know, I don’t really like to go back on that letter, but it pops in my head a few times here, a few times there. I mean, it’s just human nature. I think that had a lot to do with race at that time, too, and that was another opportunity for me to kind of just sit back and say, ‘Okay, well, how can we get better? How can we get better? How can I get better?’ And if it happens again, then you’re able to have an even more positive outlook on it. It wasn’t the notion of I wanted to do it my way. It was the notion of I’m gonna play this game, and I’m gonna prepare myself so damn hard that when I decide to do something off the court, I want to be able to do it because I’ve paid my dues.”

We’ve obviously come a long way since slavery, but the racism used to justify that evil practice lingers. In 2017, few want to be racist. Many more do racist things. Racism is basked into our society, and it will require thoughtful recognition of it to eradicate it.

Gilbert’s letter contained racial undertones, Gilbert attempting to assert a control of LeBron he didn’t rightfully possess. If Gilbert considered how his letter fit into historical context, maybe he wouldn’t have written it. Whether or not Gilbert intended to be racist matters only so much. He danced in racist tones to vilify LeBron.

Now, maybe Gilbert has progressed. He apologized to LeBron for the letter (while trying to woo LeBron back to Cleveland in 2014) and said he’s learning more about the level of racism in this country.

But there’s still an apparent lingering distrust by LeBron toward Gilbert, and LeBron saying he still sometimes thinks about the letter only enhances that. That could matter as LeBron heads toward free agency.