Despite a league-wide reputation as an offensive powerhouse, defense was just as key in getting the 2012-13 Golden State Warriors into the postseason.
It should be hard to ignore a team with the fourth-lowest opponent field-goal percentage (43.9), seventh-lowest three-point percentage (34.7) and best defensive-rebounding percentage (75.5) in the NBA, but last year's Warriors somehow carried a "soft" defensive identity with them throughout the season and into the playoffs.
Amazingly, the team's best and most-respected defensive player—Andrew Bogut—missed 50 games last season. The fact that they still limited field-goal percentage and controlled the defensive glass like they did is a testament to sound defenders at other positions as well as excellent coaching.
There was certainly some talk of the Warriors being an improved defensive team. After all, it had been 14 years since the Warriors weren't in the league's bottom-third in opponent field-goal percentage.
The coaching staff was credited for this step forward, as it appeared it had changed the team's culture. Once only interested in scoring, the Warriors now at least worked hard on defense, even if their personnel were mediocre.
However, if one watched the games closely enough, Mark Jackson and Mike Malone were not in fact out on the court guarding Kobe Bryant, Chris Paul, James Harden and Tim Duncan. It was Klay Thompson, Stephen Curry, Harrison Barnes and David Lee.
Malone left over the summer to become the Sacramento Kings' head coach. Even with the addition of an all-world defender in Andre Iguodala, an elite defensive point guard in Toney Douglas and a healthy Bogut, many believed the loss of Malone would hurt the Warriors defense.
Nine games into the 2013-14 campaign, Golden State's opponents are shooting 42.3 percent from the field (fifth in NBA) and 29.2 percent from deep (first in NBA).
Malone Did Make an Impact
I'll admit I was being facetious earlier.
Malone may not have been on the court, but to think that strong team defense is nothing more than having capable defensive players would be incredibly ignorant—especially in the NBA.
With a never-ending cycle of screens on and away from the ball, cuts through the lane, rolls to the basket, and passes into and out of the post, having a strong game plan and deeply ingrained principles are vital to achieving defensive success in the NBA.
Malone is second-to-none in establishing both of these things in his teams. After turning the Cleveland Cavaliers and New Orleans Hornets into defensive juggernauts, Malone came to Oakland before the 2010-11 season as the highest-paid assistant coach in the NBA ($750,000/year)
After minimal improvements during his first year, the 2012-13 season saw Malone's work come to fruition.
He would essentially have his defense concede jumpers rather than drives, rolls or cuts to the basket, which helped mask the lack of a rim-protector when Bogut was out. It also helped the Warriors clear the defensive glass at the incredible rate they did.
This was necessary for last year's team, as it limited the number of times Curry could be driven on (something most starting point guards can do) or that Lee could be tasked with blocking or changing a shot (something he can rarely do).
Expecting this year's team to take a step back, however, requires two pieces of flawed logic. First, one must assume that Jackson and the rest of the Warriors coaching staff failed to learn from Malone. Second, one must ignore the huge defensive additions that this team made.
Elite Defenders Make All the Difference
The Warriors defense was certainly above-average last season, but it was not elite. They still struggled against ultra-athletic wing players who could impose their will on the drive, as well as elite low-post scorers.
That's because the team's primary wing and post defenders last season were Thompson and Festus Ezeli (before Bogut returned).
Thompson is tall (6'7"), has long arms and works hard, but he is not incredibly quick nor is he strong. Ezeli also lacked strength and quickness, and was additionally disadvantaged due to his lack of experience.
The Dubs have now replaced those two with Iguodala and a healthy Bogut.
Iguodala is as versatile a defensive player as you'll find in the NBA. He can absolutely smother guards with his size (6'6"), wingspan and ability to move faster laterally than most people can move forward. He can also lock down forwards with excellent strength and quick hands that make taller ball-handlers afraid to put it on the floor.
As dominant as this makes him one-on-one, it's his ability to help and play zone that make him a top-10 defender in the league, regardless of position. Considering how Iguodala's agility makes him nearly impossible to drive on, it's no wonder that it also makes him one of the most lethal pass deflectors and interceptors in the league.
It also means he can jump down to the post and swipe balls away from bigs. If he fails, he can jump back up to his man in one quick motion. In other words, what most wing defenders would call a gamble, Iguodala would call betting with house money.
Then there's Bogut. The Warriors traded for him over 20 months ago, but he has only been the guy they expected him to be for the past few weeks.
Even playing at less than 100 percent last season, Bogut was far and away the team's best interior defender. He blocked 1.7 shots per game and didn't allow big men to dominate inside as they had with Ezeli starting.
Still, Bogut was limited in his lateral and vertical movement, not to mention his confidence.
This year, the Warriors are experiencing what it feels like to have an elite defensive anchor. Not only can Bogut swat away layups from the weak side (the most common and least valuable way to pad blocked-shot stats), but he can block and alter the shots of his seven-foot counterparts. More importantly still, he has the strength to stop opposing bigs from establishing position.
The relatively pedestrian-looking 1.4 blocks Bogut is averaging this season is more of a testament to how good Iguodala and Thompson are at preventing penetration than anything else. Even when guards do get in close, they often dish it off or put up a floater before challenging Bogut at the rim.
Like Iguodala, if Bogut were simply a rim-protector and low-post enforcer, he'd be one of the better defenders in the league. What makes him elite, however, is his versatility.
Bogut has the lateral quickness to guard more athletic bigs as well as to take charges when a guard attacks the lane. He also gets a high number of steals for a center (1.0 per game) due to his ability to overplay on passes into the post and get his hands into passing lanes.
The presence of All-NBA level defenders on the perimeter and down low make things so much easier for everyone else.
Thompson was often overmatched when guarding go-to scorers last season, but he is more than capable of containing No. 2 options. With Bogut, Lee rarely has to play in the post and the team can finally hide Curry defensively—as many great teams do with their point guards.
Is Malone's Absence Felt at All?
Saying Malone would have the defense playing even better than it already is this season is difficult, considering its dominance, but it may be true.
There is one area in which the Warriors have regressed defensively this season: rebounding. Clearing the defensive boards has been a struggle. This is partially due to the loss of Carl Landry, but it is also due to new schemes.
With Bogut holding down the post and Iguodala preventing penetration, Thompson, Lee and Curry have been more aggressive when defending the pick-and-roll and less willing to concede jump shots and crash the glass.
Those three combined for 15.1 defensive rebounds per game last year, but they are only averaging 11.5 this season.
While it would be easy enough to look at this and say a regression in rebounding is a natural trade off for a more aggressive defense, the Warriors are actually far below where they should be rebounding wise based on their personnel.
Bogut and Lee are both superb defensive rebounders, while Jermaine O'Neal, Marreese Speights, Barnes and Iguodala are all capable glass-cleaners. Yet each of them—with the exception of Speights—is posting one of the lowest per-36 defensive rebounding averages of their careers, and the Warriors are back in the league's bottom third.
This group of players has no business being there.
Golden State's coaches are learning on the fly. Jackson, Pete Myers and Brian Scalabrine are each faced with a larger role in game-planning, play-calling and scheming than ever before, and it is possible that this issue will go away as the season progresses.
Defensive principles are primarily established in training camp and preseason, however. Defensive rebounding should not remain this poor all season, but there is little question that the regression is partially attached to Malone's departure.
Due to the rebounding struggles, it would be inaccurate to say that the Warriors defense has gotten unequivocally better this season.
At the same time, the team's defensive rating has climbed from 14th to fourth, so lamenting over Malone's departure would be senseless.
Perhaps the best way to describe Golden State's defense this season would be better, different and underachieving.
The latter term should be the most terrifying to the rest of the league.