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.”

Doc Rivers said Clippers knew Thunder wanted to breakup Westbrook/George combo

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Oklahoma City looked like a small market success story — they had Russell Westbrook (he stayed and re-signed for the max) and rolled the dice on Paul George, and then he stayed. It was a top-heavy roster (Stephen Adams makes a lot of money, too) but one that won 49 games… and then got bounced in the first round of the playoffs by Portland.

That playoff loss seemed to show a ceiling for the Westbrook/George Thunder and had the franchise doing some soul searching.

However, in the wake of George forcing his way to the Clippers in a trade, rumors bubbled up that teams thought the Thunder wanted out of their expensive, non-contending team. Clippers coach Doc Rivers confirmed they knew that, speaking to Arash Markazi of the Los Angeles Times.

“We showed [Leonard] everybody else and he didn’t want to hear it. He just stayed on Paul George, so after the meeting we sat down and I said, ‘We got to get Paul George. I don’t know how we are going to do it, but we have to do it.’ We did know that Oklahoma City wanted to break their team up, so that helped, but we didn’t know if we could get him.”

Turns out they could get him, but the price was high — one the Clippers saw as worth it, but steep nonetheless. For the Thunder, that high price is the foundation of a rebuild.

How did the Thunder get there?

After Damian Lillard sank his “shot for Seattle” that sent the Thunder home for the summer, it seems all the soul-searching in OKC had them thinking about breaking it all up earlier rather than later. If they really felt this is as far as they could go with Westbrook and George — and it would have been tough to put a much better team around them due to cap limitations, either way this was a team that needed a lot of things to go right to get out of the first round — then it made sense to move on if the right deal came along.

Fans in Oklahoma City have never had to sit through an NBA rebuild, the team that showed up from Seattle may have won only 29 games that first season but had Kevin Durant and Westbrook and was already a team on the rise. After that, the team has never won fewer than 45 games, had one Finals trip and years of contention. There’s going to be some ugly basketball in OKC for a few years, we will see how that market reacts.

League executives reportedly think Clippers are better than Lakers, but by how much?

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LeBron James and Anthony Davis is the best two-man duo on the NBA.

If this were a classic game of NBA Jam, everyone would pick them to win it all.

However, NBA basketball remains a 5-on-5 sport where rotation players, depth, and fit all matter. A lot. Especially for contenders.

In that context, the Lakers’ Staples Center roommates — the Clippers — are better poised to win it all. The Clippers have Patrick Beverley, Lou Williams, Montrezl Harrell, JaMychal Green, and a team that was both tough to play against and made the playoffs before Kawhi Leonard and Paul George showed up.

Don’t take my word for it, Ethan Straus of The Athletic polled some NBA executives about the Lakers and Clippers and got this response:

Everyone agrees that it exists, but to varying degrees. In league circles, Lakers skepticism has burbled about for some time, before and after Anthony Davis awkwardly made his way to Los Angeles. Questions of fit and chemistry persist, and many are noting just how many games LeBron James has played up to this point. Like the Warriors, the Lakers are also lacking in perimeter defense, in a league where it seems to matter more than ever….

Shoulder injuries are unpredictable and George will be out for a lengthy stretch. Given that Kawhi Leonard already only plays so many games, the Clippers might struggle to keep pace in the standings. As one executive put it re: the Los Angeles gap, “There is a big gap in likelihood of winning the title. Not sure about reg season wins.”

What makes the Clippers the favorite going into the season is not simply Leonard and George, it’s that they have two of the elite two-way wings in the NBA, and those kinds of players at that position have a great track record of playoff success. The Clippers should be a strong defensive unit that can throw a lot of different looks and players at teams, but also one that can score efficiently. Then they bring Williams and Harrell off the bench for a jolt of energy and scoring. Doc Rivers knows how to coach and meld a team. There’s a lot to like.

There are a lot of questions with the Clippers, there are just far more with the Lakers — nobody really trusts their role players to all fit well, there’s coaching staff turnover, and then there’s the question of whether LeBron’s injury last season was a one-off fluke or the start of a trend for the 35-year-old.

The Los Angeles squads are not alone, every contender this season has some serious questions to answer. It’s what makes this season so fascinating and different from recent ones.

Klay Thompson on Trump: “I didn’t appreciate the language he used with Bahamians”

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Klay Thompson has said it before and is saying it again:

He’s pissed at what President Donald Trump said and did in the wake of the destruction hurricane Dorian brought to the 700-island nation of the Bahamas, where at least 51 people died (that number is likely very low, with more than 1,300 people still listed as missing).

Thompson has deep ties to the Bahamas. His father Mychal — a former No. 1 NBA draft pick who was a member of the Showtime Lakers — was born there. The Thompson family has long had a special relationship with the island, with Klay having spent a lot of time there in his youth. Klay felt the need to defend the Bahamas after the Trump Administration did not grant “Temporary Protected Status” to the people fleeing the destruction on the island so they could come work and live in the USA until it was safe to return.

Thompson spoke to Mark Medina of the USA Today.

“I didn’t appreciate the language he used with Bahamians,” Thompson told USA TODAY Sports. “They’re gang members and criminals? I’ve known Bahamians my whole life. Yes, there are criminals in Nassau. But there are criminals worldwide. When you lose everything, your home, your loved ones and thousands are dead, and then you generalize a whole population, I thought it was very very ill advised and bad timing. That language really (ticked) me off.”

Trump, while not granting “temporary protected status” to the people of the Bahamas fleeing the destruction from Dorian, said “I don’t want to allow people that weren’t supposed to be in the Bahamas to come into the United States, including some very bad people and some very bad gang members and some very, very bad drug dealers.”

“He’s wrong about the gang affiliations over there,” Mychal said. “There are people over there that are good people. Hard-working people. So he was wrong with that statement. I don’t think (other) Americans have misconceptions about Bahamians. We don’t have gang problems and that type of hard problems in the Bahamas. We have people who are in need and in poverty. But for the most part, Bahamians are great people and help each other out in times of need. That’s what they’re doing right now.”

Klay and Mychal, through their family foundation and a golf fundraiser with proceeds going to Bahamas relief, think they will donate about $1 million to the relief effort.

It’s going to take billions of dollars and many years for the Bahamas to return anywhere near its former self. The Thompson family is raising money, but more importantly, is raising awareness. It’s the start of a long, long process.

Thompson himself continues his recovery from a torn ACL suffered during the NBA Finals, an injury that will keep him out for much, and potentially all, of next season.

Clippers reportedly plan on playing Kawhi Leonard more than Raptors did last season

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Kawhi Leonard was the poster child for load management last season.

The Raptors essentially let him set his own schedule in a return from the quadricep tendon issue that cost him the previous season (and, ultimately, helped ruin his relationship with the Spurs). Leonard played in just 60 regular season game — and it worked. He was a force in the playoffs, leading Toronto to its first-ever title and winning Finals MVP again.

So the Clippers are going to follow that same script, right? Nope. Expect to see more Leonard, according to Dan Woike of the Los Angeles Times.

There are likely a couple of reasons for this. One is that Leonard may be feeling a little healthier and that he can take on more now. With a deep Clippers roster (especially once Paul George returns from his shoulder surgeries) it’s also possible the Clippers can limit Leonard’s in-game minutes, he averaged 34 a game when he played, which was top 20 in the league.

The bigger factor is the West is so deep with good teams the Clippers simply can’t have him sit as much and still get a good seed. Toronto could let Leonard rest and still won 58 games and had the two seed. That’s not how the West — with the Lakers, Rockets, Jazz, Nuggets, Trail Blazers, and Warriors — is going to go. The Clippers are going to need Leonard to win games most nights, and they certainly want to get a top-four seed and be home to start the postseason.

Leonard may play more early in the season and get more rest on the back half, once George returns to form and takes over some of the load on the wing. But he’s going to play.

The Clippers simply need him.