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How the Golden State Warriors Rebuilt Their Elite Defense

Erik Malinowski@@erikmalGolden State Warriors Lead WriterDecember 22, 2016

NEW ORLEANS, LA - DECEMBER 13:  JaVale McGee #1 of the Golden State Warriors and Draymond Green #23 of the Golden State Warriors react after scoring against the New Orleans Pelicans during a game at the Smoothie King Center on December 13, 2016 in New Orleans, Louisiana. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)
Sean Gardner/Getty Images

When Golden State Warriors fans go to that dark place where they ponder the living nightmare that was Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers, a few images invariably stand out:

LeBron James' block on Andre Iguodala. Kyrie Irving's clutch three-point dagger. Kevin Love's improbable lockdown defense on Stephen Curry.

The one image that should stand out, howeverand likely still does for avid fans across the Bay Areais Anderson Varejao's playing critical third-quarter minutes.

While Cavs coach Tyronn Lue tightened up his rotations as the game clock ticked down, Warriors helmsman Steve Kerr elected to keep the net widely cast. Part of this was gut instinct on his part, but it was also largely necessitated by circumstance: Golden State simply didn't have size to spare. Andrew Bogut was knocked out of the series in Game 5 with a knee injury, Festus Ezeli was laboring through a dismal postseason and had nothing to offer, and Marreese Speights wasn't a classic center by any means.

Alas, it had to be Varejao, who played four minutes and 20 seconds of the third, committed two fouls, didn't score and posted a minus-six point differential—two points more than the game's ultimate outcome. With no margin for error, the Warriors had erred in a big way.

Lesson learned.

OAKLAND, CA - JUNE 19:  Anderson Varejao #18 of the Golden State Warriors dribbles the ball against the Cleveland Cavaliers during the 2016 NBA Finals Game Seven on June 19, 2016 at ORACLE Arena in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowl
Bruce Yeung/Getty Images

Gone are Bogut (traded to the Dallas Mavericks), Ezeli (signed with the Portland Trail Blazers) and Speights (flew south to the Los Angeles Clippers), as well as Harrison Barnes, who, for all of his faults, was a strong defender that could slide up as needed to guard power forwards.

In their collective stead, the Warriors ushered in a group of bigs who largely de-emphasize size and physicality in favor of agility, positioning and pace:

• Damian Jones, their first-round pick and a 7'0" center out of Vanderbilt
• Kevon Looney, last year's first-round pick (who's finally healthy) and a 6'9" power forward
David West, a 6'9" power forward in his 14th season
• Zaza Pachulia, a 6'11" center also in his 14th season
• JaVale McGee, a 7'0" center with his fifth team in nine years

That's a hodgepodge of youth and experience, but it's working out big time.

Heading into their three-game road trip that culminates with the titanic Christmas Day showdown in Cleveland, the Warriors rank second in NBA defensive rating with just 100.8 points allowed per 100 possessions—a smidge better than where they wound up last season (100.9) and within striking distance of their league-best mark (98.2) from two seasons ago.

TORONTO,ON - NOVEMBER 16 2016:  Draymond Green #23 of the Golden State Warriors blocks a shot against DeMar DeRozan #10 of the Toronto Raptors during their game at Air Canada Centre on November 16, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. NOTE TO USER: User expr
Dave Sandford/Getty Images

Of course, much of that uptick is also due to the formidable contributions made by Draymond Green, who has already won several games with last-minute plays. And then there's Kevin Durant, a legit 7-footer starting at small forward who, as the Warriors learned in last May’s conference finals, can disrupt passing lanes and cross-match with the best of them.

With more than a third of the season gone, the Warriors are first in blocks and a surprising 10th in opponents' field-goal percentage at the rim. They're also tops in contested defensive rebounds per game.

For the past three games the Warriors have held their opponents to 90 points or fewer—the first time such a streak has happened in the Kerr era.

"I know everybody is looking at the blocked shots," Kerr said before Tuesday night's 104-74 blowout win over the Utah Jazz, "but it's a lot different. We had dominant shot-blockers at the center position before with Festus and Bogues, and now we don't have that.

"We have a guy who is capable of it with JaVale, but he plays short minutes. Zaza is more of a positional defender. He does a great job. I think a lot of what Zaza does is he eats up space, takes on bodies and that allows Draymond, [Durant] and other guys to come over and block shots.

"It's a little different look defensively. I think we are getting better and more in tune with one another. Hopefully that will now really grow."

That echoes what general manager Bob Myers told me recently with regard to the defense: "I think patience is important. It's hard to be patient, but it's important to be patient."

OAKLAND, CA - DECEMBER 01:  JaVale McGee #1 of the Golden State Warriors goes up to attempt to slam dunk over Sam Dekker #7 of the Houston Rockets during their NBA basketball game at ORACLE Arena on December 1, 2016 in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: U
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

The Warriors were especially patient with McGee—maybe cautious is the better word—and it's paid off. Over his last 10 outings, the gangly center has averaged more than eight points and nearly four boards in 11.3 minutes per night. He hasn't proved to be a net-positive defender like Looney or even James Michael McAdoo, but he's kept his fouls down (fewer than two per game) and has energized the offense with his penchant for finishing lob dunks with style.

Over that 10-game stretch, the Warriors have posted a 99.1 defensive rating and a 14.6 net rating, both metrics besting Golden State's season-long averages.

"I feel like they're just accepting me for who I am," McGee said in the locker room after the win over Utah. "They're not judging me from my past, even though I don't really have a bad past. I'm just a goofy person. I'm a joy to be around. It's just [about] being accepted here."

Once heralded as a potentially paradigm-shifting big, McGee has accepted his purpose in Oakland and seems at peace with this new reality: "My role is to block shots, run the floor, rebound, and catch alley-oops. I don't need to do anything else."

LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 7:  Zaza Pachulia #27 of the Golden State Warriors blocks the shot of Blake Griffin #32 of the LA Clippers on December 7, 2016 at STAPLES Center in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees th
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

McGee was the 15th man on the roster coming out of training camp, and his steady rise has pleased Kerr, who knew the Warriors could use some size on the second unit.

"Early in the season, we weren't playing JaVale. We were playing David in the backup center role right away," Kerr said.

"I think JaVale has really established himself, and he gives us a spark every time he goes out there. He took 14 shots in 15 minutes, so we like that. Called him 'Klay McGee' tonight. The guy is an absolute joy to be around. JaVale has added so much to our team. He gives us a burst, as you can see. He's such a great teammate and a fun person to be around. I love what he's brought to our group."

Between the stabilizing effect of Pachulia and McGee, the emergence of Looney, the promise of Jones (who projects for a larger role next season) and the dependability of late-game minutes-eaters like McAdoo and Varejao—still an important task considering how many blowouts this team piles up—the Warriors are well positioned for the midseason slog yet to come.

Kerr has long preached that defense sets up the offense and that the one flows right into the other. In that sense, it's a credit to see the offense performing at a historically high level. It was clear against Utah, which only shot 48 percent at the rim while the Warriors shot 59 percent.

Maybe those aren't the kinds of things that will carry the Warriors deep again into May or June—Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, along with Green and Durant, will have their say—but it could help tip a season in those crucial final moments.

Before the season, assistant coach Ron Adams, who handles the defensive strategy, told me he simply wanted to make sure Golden State stayed a top-10 defense.

Now, with all the progress the Warriors have shown, they can think about reclaiming the No. 1 spot that produced a long-awaited championship two seasons back.

     

Warriors Insider's Notebook

'Off' Is On Again

OAKLAND, CA - DECEMBER 01:  Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors dribbles the ball while defended by Trevor Ariza #1 of the Houston Rockets during an NBA basketball game at ORACLE Arena on December 1, 2016 in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: U
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

While Curry continues to have an excellent season by anyone’s standard, his numbers have taken a dip due to a drop-off in shooting three-pointers off the dribble. He was otherworldly last year, leading all players with 2.8 such threes a night on 42.8 percent shooting.

But despite hitting three pull-up long balls against Utah, Curry is shooting just 30.7 percent on them for the year.

"It's just a flow thing," Curry said after beating Utah. "The three I got tonight, two were in transition. Just setting a guy up for a pick-and-roll or setting him up for a dribble move and knocking it down. You just find a flow.

"I'm not really worried about whatever the percentage is for that shot this year. It'll always be there. Just staying confident and reading the situation. In those opportunities when I'm pushing in transition, you can always have that as an option if it's uncontested or sometimes when it's not."

Kerr, for his part, remains unconcerned. "I always think [Curry's] going to make every shot," he said. "I thought he was really close to having a huge night tonight because you could tell that he had some bounce in his step, and he had several shots that were right there and just didn't quite go in."

    

Keepin' It (Below) 100

OAKLAND, CA - DECEMBER 17: Draymond Green #23, Stephen Curry #30, Kevin Durant #35 and Klay Thompson #11 of the Golden State Warriors high five each other during the game against the Portland Trail Blazers on December 17, 2016 in Oakland, California. NOTE
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

The Warriors have an overall plus-minus differential of +13.5 over their opponents through 29 games. That number goes up to +18.7 in wins.

But in games where the Warriors hold opponents under 100 points, they are winning by a margin of 23.6 points. In fact, the Warriors are 77-1 in the regular season when holding opponents to double digits since Kerr took over as head coach.

If you're not keeping it (at least) 100 versus Golden State, you never had a chance.

   

Erik Malinowski is the Golden State Warriors lead writer for B/R. Quotes are obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. You can follow him on Twitter at @erikmal. All stats via NBA.com/Stats and Basketball-Reference.com and are accurate through Dec. 20, 2016.