Why Golden State Warriors' Defense Can't Stay Elite Without Andrew Bogut

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistDecember 30, 2014

November 1, 2014; Oakland, CA, USA; Golden State Warriors center Andrew Bogut (12) looks on during the fourth quarter against the Los Angeles Lakers at Oracle Arena. The Warriors defeated the Lakers 127-104. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
USA TODAY Sports

Under first-year coach Steve Kerr, the Golden State Warriors have uncorked a championship formula that revolves around a ball-moving, perimeter-sniping offense and an impenetrable defensive fortress.

But the centerpiece of the Bay Area's stone wall is brittle 7-footer Andrew Bogut, who will miss Tuesday's game against Philadelphia, according to Rusty Simmons of the San Francisco Chronicle, making it seven straight seasons that he's missed double-digit games due to injury. This defense can be good without him, but greatness is only possible when he's healthy enough to provide elite paint protection.

The culprit for his most recent sideline session is his ailing right knee, which has already required two rounds of platelet-rich plasma therapy. He has not suited up since making a two-minute appearance on Dec. 8, and Kerr said he is unsure of when Bogut will be able to return, per Comcast SportsNet's Monte Poole:

Bogut sounds optimistic about the progress he's making, but that hasn't allowed him to offer a concrete timetable.

"I’m rehabbing and I should be there soon," Bogut wrote in a piece for Sportal.com.

The Warriors, standing a league-best 24-5, can afford to wait. Given his gargantuan level of importance to this team making substantial postseason noise, Golden State shouldn't ask him to budge until he is completely ready to do so.

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"If Bogut isn’t ready for the playoffs, the championship aspirations are over," wrote Bruce Jenkins of the San Francisco Chronicle.

The Warriors are miles removed from crossing that bridge, but that scorching start to the 2014-15 season has allowed for such long-range looks at this team's trajectory.

Gone are the days when playoff appearances alone signal success for this franchise. The Dubs are ready to start trading in the type of currency reserved solely for the NBA's elites.

But doing so will eventually require an active, effective Bogut anchoring the interior, as Bay Area News Group's Marcus Thompson II explained:

With Bogut, the Warriors are one of the top three teams in the NBA. They can play any style, dominate on defense and overwhelm on offense.

Without him, they are good but exploitable. They lose rim protection, a must in high-stakes hoops. They also lose a quality offensive trinket: a big man who can orchestrate the half-court offense.

With Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson leading the way, the Warriors can hang with the big boys. Throw in Bogut, they are the big boys.

That's the macro-level view of Bogut's injury, and it isn't the least bit new. The Warriors' championship potential has already carried an asterisk thanks to the former No. 1 pick's detailed injury history.

Jonathan Bachman/Associated Press

It's impossible to know the long-lasting effects of this latest medical red flag, but there's a more immediate concern that carries just as many risks. In the overcrowded Western Conference, setbacks can prove nearly impossible to overcome (see: Oklahoma City Thunder).

For the Warriors to avoid a short-term fall from grace, they will need to become downright lethal on the offensive end. Bogut's absence has already cemented the fact this defense cannot perform at the same level without him.

Warriors Defense With and Without Bogut
PeriodOpp PTSOpp FG%Opp 3PMOpp 3P%DRtg
First 20 Games95.740.96.331.094.5
Last 9 Games105.244.98.334.1101.6
NBA.com

"Bogut makes everybody's life easier," Draymond Green said, per ESPN.com's Ethan Sherwood Strauss.

The Warriors have no one capable of replicating Bogut's skill set. Few bigs in the entire league could.

Bogut is the fulcrum of Golden State's league-leading defense. His court presence alone is what gives this unit its strength.

On pick-and-roll coverage, Bogut sags off his man to protect against dribble penetration. This allows the on-ball defender to aggressively attempt to force his man away from the screen with the insurance of having the big paint protector behind him.

If the driver is able to make it around the screen, Bogut has enough of a cushion to keep up with faster guards and deny them at the basket. 

It's a high-pressure look that ideally feeds into Golden State's opportunistic defense.

On the season, the Warriors rank first in blocks (6.4 per game) and are tied for fourth in steals (8.9). Not coincidentally, they lead the league with 19.0 fast-break points a night, per TeamRankings.com.

On the surface, the Warriors should be able to mimic this aspect of Bogut's game. Festus Ezeli, who has been battling a sprained ankle, is an intimidating shot-blocker (2.6 blocks per 36 minutes). And Green is a high-IQ defender with better speed to close off driving lanes than Bogut.

But it's not that simple.

Ezeli has an incredibly difficult time defending without fouling (7.2 per 36 minutes compared to Bogut's 3.9). Opponents are shooting a healthy 47.1 percent at the rim against Ezeli this season, nearly eight points higher than their success rate against Bogut (39.2). Bogut is also the superior rebounder (13.2 per 36 minutes to 9.2) and a better passer, making him a much more effective spark for Golden State's transition game.

Green does the best with what he has (1.5 blocks and 1.5 steals per game), but what he has is only a 6'7", 230-pound frame. That's not exactly the same type of deterrent as a 7'0", 260-pound behemoth.

Take Bogut out of the equation, and there is no security blanket behind the front lines. That changes priorities from harassing ball-handlers and plugging passing lanes to stopping penetration at the point of attack.

"We gotta scrap cuz' obviously [Bogut's] not out there to protect the rim, so you're not able to cut the ball off or get deflections, you know, close off lanes," Curry said, per Strauss. "The paint's kind of open so you want to make sure guards and wings put up a good line of defense and try to stop the first attacks."

Danny Moloshok/Associated Press

The Warriors held each of their first 20 opponents to less than 50 points in the paint per night. Their 21st opponent tallied 50 points in the paint, and four of their last eight have also reached that mark. After allowing an average of 40.2 paint points per game their first 20 outings, the Warriors have surrendered 45.3 a night since.

Golden State also saw its streak of keeping opponents under 50 percent shooting from the field snapped by the Los Angeles Lakers on Dec. 23. The lowly Lakers racked up 115 points on 51.7 percent shooting, with bigs Ed Davis and Carlos Boozer combining for 32 points on 15-of-18 shooting alone.

Despite being littered with rangy defenders on the wings who can switch onto almost anyone, the Warriors haven't been able to utilize those weapons as effectively without Bogut. They can't afford to take as many risks; otherwise, they open themselves up to attacks on their weakened interior.

With Bogut on the floor, Golden State has compiled a minuscule 91.3 defensive rating. For context, the Warriors lead the league with a 96.8 defensive rating. When the big guy sits, that number jumps to 99.8, which would rank fifth overall.

When Green or Ezeli try to slide in as the anchor of this unit, the defense takes a hit. It takes several steps back if offensive specialists David Lee or Marreese Speights man the middle. That's a card Kerr has to play to keep this offense humming without Bogut, but it comes with obvious complications.

"Using one of their forwards, David Lee or Marreese Speights, is a good change-of-pace plan. But too much of it leaves them ripe for attacking. Their defense is just not as formidable without someone to protect the rim," wrote Thompson.

OAKLAND, CA - DECEMBER 22: DeMarcus Cousins #15 of the Sacramento Kings shoots against Marreese Speights #5 of the Golden State Warriors on December 22, 2014 at Oracle Arena in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that
Noah Graham/Getty Images

The Warriors have to hope that Bogut's body cooperates sooner rather than later. There is no simple solution to this problem outside of a welcome break from the injury bug.

Ezeli's offensive limitations restrict how often his number can be called, and Green's size presents obvious challenges against the league's larger frontcourts. Neither Lee nor Speights offer much at the defensive end.

It's hard to tell if looking outside the organization for help is even an option or what the Warriors might find if they did.

Veteran Jermaine O'Neal, who backed up Bogut last season, has yet to officially walk away from the NBA. If the 36-year-old does return, league sources told ESPN.com's Marc Stein that O'Neal is most likely to end up with the Dallas Mavericks. Emeka Okafor could be another option once he gets healthy, but he is expected to have a long line of suitors.

The Dubs don't seem likely to go the D-League route to find a temporary replacement, as they already have sophomore 7-footer Ognjen Kuzmic on the roster. Judging by Kuzmic's minimal usage to this point (57 minutes over 12 games), he doesn't look like a viable option for a win-now contender.

The Warriors will probably proceed with what they have, which may not hurt them in the standings considering the rather easy road ahead.

They play 11 of their next 14 games at Oracle Arena, where they own an 11-1 record. Between now and the All-Star break, they have 10 games with teams in the bottom five of their respective conference standings and only seven with top-five clubs. Of those seven games, only two will take place on the road.

The Warriors can survive without Bogut, provided he can eventually put this knee problem behind him. But this defense won't be the same until he returns, no matter how it tries to mask his absence. This is not an elite unit unless he is at the center of it.

Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.