The Golden State Warriors' dynasty was known best for its turbocharged offense, but it was made possible by the support of its defensive backbone.
Spearheaded by Draymond Green, who single-handedly revolutionized the way defense is played, the Warriors were able to go small, creating a fast, switchable unit that sacrificed nothing in the way of post defense or rim protection.
While Green remains, Kevin Durant, Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston are gone, three of the team's top perimeter defenders. Klay Thompson, Golden State's primary point-of-attack defender, is likely to miss at least a large chunk of the season, if not all of it.
The Warriors roster has been gutted and reimagined, and while D'Angelo Russell and the rest of the new supporting cast can help prevent defenses from throwing triple-teams or box-and-ones at Stephen Curry, it's fair to wonder how the defense will hold up in the wake of all these changes.
Defense is nearly impossible to measure and even harder to project into the future. There are too many moving parts. Too many assignments and rotations that cannot be accurately concentrated into statistics.
For example: Counting stats measure how many rebounds, steals and blocks a player accumulates, but they don't necessarily express how good a player is at rebounding, stealing or blocking shots. Too much of it is based on immeasurables like luck, the effectiveness of on-court teammates and what the defensive scheme tells a player to do. Adjusting for pace and possessions helps, but no one argues over steal rates with their friends at a bar.
Pace-adjusted stats like defensive rating help illuminate the picture a little more, but again, they are predicated on team success and therefore do not always show whether a player is good or bad.
All-in-one tools like Box Plus-Minus or RPM take us a step closer, and including all of these paints a fairly complete picture.
FiveThirtyEight's new statistic DRAYMOND, short for Defensive Rating Accounting for Yielding Minimal Openness by Nearest Defender is a new tool that uses the NBA's player tracking data to give us an idea of how often a defender affects an offensive player's ability to get an open shot by cramping his space.
"It does get at one essential discovery we made in playing around with the opponents' shooting data: the idea of minimizing openness. The main goal of shooting defense, especially in today's spacing-centric, ball-movement-forward offensive era, is really to minimize the chance of an open shot," FiveThirtyEight's Nate Silver wrote.
One alternative, opponent field-goal percentage, is a bit noisy and doesn't accurately measure whether a defender is doing his job; all it measures is whether the offensive player made or missed his shot. Process vs. outcome.
"If an opponent gets hot against your team and shoots 53 for 91 en route to scoring 130 points, we know your team defended poorly in the aggregate, but we don't know which players to blame," Silver wrote.
Just because this model points out flaws in other methods of quantifying defense doesn't mean it isn't flawed in its own right. But it is a fancy new toy to play with.
While it isn't projecting how these new Warriors will be defensively next season, it does affirm some of the concerns with removing four of the top six defenders on the team; they go from elite to simply good.
Green himself reminded viewers why he is such a special defensive force during his playoff run, but he has still fallen off a bit, at least during the regular season. As the No. 1 (plus-3.16) defender of every player to log at least 10,000 possessions since the 2013-14 season (by a significant margin) in this metric, his plus-1.76 last year was tied for 30th in the league last year.
Looney was the team's top DRAYMOND defender, but he only played 18.5 minutes per game in 2018-19. While playing the 23-year-old center more fits with the Warriors' youth movement, the lack quality wing defenders prevents them from utilizing the scheme made them so special in the first place—sliding Green to the center position.
Despite the positive mark on the DRAYMOND stat, marquee addition D'Angelo Russell likely won't improve them on the defensive end. He has never rated out as a plus defender. His DRAYMOND rating since the 2013-14 season is negative, and he had a minus-0.5 defensive BPM last year and his minus-0.57 defensive RPM was 52nd among point guards. He does have a long, 6'10" wingspan, which helped him attain his 1.9 percent steal rate and 0.6 percent block rate last year, but he will need to buy into the defensive system and learn to defend at a championship level for the Warriors to carry their dynasty into the next era.
That next era is as undefined as it has been since the Warriors started competing for championships, and the lack of a defensive identity may be the biggest challenge for the Warriors to grapple with. It's possible that this pivot from the championship days will result in a rejuvenation to where Green competes at a higher level during the regular season as opposed to saving it up for the playoffs. It's also possible, as the DRAYMOND model suggests, the Warriors may experience a noticeable drop-off on the defensive end.
Ultimately, their ceiling, especially on the defensive side, is not as high. But with the youth they added to complement Curry and Green, the Warriors are hoping that even if they aren't as elite, their title window will be open just a bit longer.
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