The Golden State Warriors were satisfied with their run to the Western Conference semifinals last year. But now that defensive anchor Andrew Bogut is at full strength, they could be poised to chase down a championship.
Ironically, it won't be their ability to run and gun that gets them there. Instead, the Dubs will rely on slowing opponents down with what could be one of the NBA's very best defenses.
And Bogut will be the most important figure in that effort.
A New Identity
Golden State made major strides in stinginess last year, posting a defensive rating that jumped from No. 26 in the NBA in 2011-12 to No. 13 in 2012-13, per ESPN.
For his part, Bogut is confident that the team's defense is capable of taking another step forward—into elite territory.
In a media session after his Sept. 13 workout at Warriors headquarters, I asked him whether Golden State's defense could improve enough to rank in the league's top five—alongside teams like the Indiana Pacers and Chicago Bulls.
I think we can. The No. 1 thing with defensive teams is that everyone has to buy in. First and foremost, we are a high-scoring team and that's a strength. The reason why we were successful last season wasn't because we were a high-scoring team; we got stops when we needed to get stops, and that wasn't a trademark of the Warriors for the last 20 years. So we're very adamant that that's a focus of what wins games for us.
If Bogut is right, the Warriors are in for one heck of a season. But before we get to the discussion of Golden State's potential championship pursuit, now seems like a good time to sit back and absorb the following incredible reality: The Warriors have become a defense-first outfit.
That's a remarkable thing for a franchise that, for years, had been best known for its ability to score points. Part of that identity is attributable to the team's recent history under Don Nelson, a firm believer in offensive chaos, mismatches and lots of up-and-down possessions.
Relatively speaking, Golden State's best days were during the Nellie eras, so the offense-only label stuck.
Things are different now, though, and the trade that sent Monta Ellis to the Milwaukee Bucks for Bogut could rightly be viewed as the origin of the team's new identity. Really, it's hard to imagine a bigger offense-for-defense swap than the one the Warriors pulled off in March 2012.
In hindsight, the deal was a symbol of a new direction.
The Warriors entered the 2012-13 season with an eye toward getting stops, but Bogut's bad ankle cost him 50 regular season games and left him looking like a shell of his former self. There were occasional flashes—a block here, a perfect rotation there—but he never looked right.
Remember, then-ESPN analyst John Hollinger counted Bogut among the league's defensive elite as recently as the summer of 2012:
There's an impression out there that Bogut is a good defensive player, so I just want to clarify: He's not good. He's a freaking monster.
Let's sample Bogut's brief 2011-12 season: Synergy ranked him among the elite centers, opposing centers had a 13.2 PER against him, according to 82games.com, and the Bucks gave up 9.9 points per 100 possessions less with him the court.
This isn't a small-sample thing; Bogut's numbers look like this every year. He annually ranks among the league leaders in both blocks and charges per minute with an elite defensive rebound rate, and was in the midst of single-handedly shutting out Houston's offense on the night he was injured.
Get the picture?
The guy Hollinger described didn't show up for the Dubs' regular season. Physically, he just wasn't ready.
But he gave the Warriors a small taste of what he could do during the team's playoff run. Despite continued pain and swelling in the ankle, Bogut offered Golden State everything he could. His paint protection was stellar, and he lent the Warriors an angry edge with his physical play. It wasn't his best work, but it was still the nastiest interior defense the franchise had seen in decades.
The numbers tell the tale.
Even at less than full strength, Bogut's presence on the court during the postseason improved the Warriors' defensive rating from 103.4 points allowed per 100 possessions to just 99.9, per NBA.com. Coincidentally, that last number would have been good enough to rank fifth in the NBA last year, just a fraction of a point ahead of the Bulls, according to ESPN.
Stacking Up and Looking Ahead
So, hypothetically, if the Warriors could defend as effectively for a full season as they did with Bogut on the court during the playoffs, where would that situate them in the championship chase?
Well, think of it this way: Golden State posted a net rating of plus-7.9 points per 100 possessions when Bogut was on the court during the postseason, per NBA.com. Just two NBA teams—the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Miami Heat—posted higher net ratings during the 2012-13 regular season.
Obviously, Bogut won't play 48 minutes per game next season, which would seem to weigh against the idea of Golden State sustaining that kind of differential. At the same time, the Warriors posted that impressive rating against the Denver Nuggets and the San Antonio Spurs, two teams that are simply much better than the competition the Warriors will face—on balance—over the course of the regular season.
Plus, we've already pointed out how Bogut helped the Warriors post such a remarkable differential while playing well below 100 percent.
What if he really is completely healthy?
What if Stephen Curry's ankle, which bothered him during the postseason, is no longer a concern?
What if Klay Thompson continues his upward defensive trajectory? He made major strides last year, eventually drawing the assignment of guarding Tony Parker in the Western Conference semifinals. Maybe he'll be even better on D this season.
Perhaps Harrison Barnes will take the leap forward that his considerable tools indicate he may be ready for.
And then there's Andre Iguodala, who is unequivocally an elite defender and perhaps the most versatile stopper this side of LeBron James. Even if we take the other "ifs" out of the equation, Iguodala's presence on the roster is certain to improve Golden State's defense.
As you can see, there are a number of reasons to believe that the Warriors are poised for a big year. But in the end, everything comes back to Bogut.
He showed during the postseason that even when hobbled, he's capable of putting the Warriors on equal footing with the very best teams in the NBA. That's not some anecdotal piece of analysis; it's a statistical fact.
Bogut says he is completely healthy, unrestricted in his workouts and ready to play without any sort of minute limit this year. If all of those things are true, Golden State profiles as nothing less than a legitimate championship contender.