‘You have to have chemistry’: What’s fueling the fall of the once-mighty Golden State Warriors defense

THE SHOT CLOCK is winding down in the final minute of the third quarter in an early November tilt between the world champion Golden State Warriors and the perpetually moribund Orlando Magic. The Magic are in the midst of a 13-6 run as Wendell Carter Jr. brings the ball up the court and passes it to backup forward Chuma Okeke on the right wing.

What happens in the next six seconds is a personification of the 2022-23 Warriors — a team struggling to find its footing after its magical title run a year ago — and lost altogether in its longstanding self-diagnosed identity: its impenetrable defense.

Okeke’s 27-footer bounces high off the rim, and three Warriors — James Wiseman, Moses Moody and Stephen Curry box out under the basket. Curry starts to move away, expecting the much larger Wiseman to secure the rebound. But instead, it falls into the waiting hands of Magic guard Kevon Harris, who swoops in from the left wing. On his way up for the lay-in, which he makes, Wiseman wallops him.

Foul.

Wiseman fumes, forcefully throwing the ball off the stanchion.

Technical.

The score is 96-90, and Franz Wagner makes the technical free throw. Harris misses the and-1, but once again the Warriors fail to land the board. Okeke snags it and passes it out to Jalen Suggs, who stands alone at the top of the key.

Jordan Poole closes out, but Suggs quickly pings it over to the equally open R.J. Hampton a few feet to his right. Curry, Hampton’s defender, had missed a rotation and was several feet away in the paint.

Swish.

Six points in four seconds. Missed rebounds. Poor discipline. Sloppy rotations.

The Warriors end up losing 130-129 to the 1-7 Magic. It’s their fourth straight loss on the road. They’re 3-6.

Leading into that game in Orlando, the Warriors had been emphasizing the need to clean up the small details and fundamentals on defense. All of their losses on that road trip, they said, could have been avoided if they had just tightened up their play. But that play in Orlando isn’t an isolated event. This has been going on all season.

With the Warriors still displaying the breathtaking offensive firepower that has filled highlight reels for the better part of a decade, it’s easy to assume it’s their play on that end of the floor that anchors their success. But, internally, the team believes the contrary — that it’s their defense that fuels everything — including their offense. That it’s the foundation of their dynasty.

Five weeks into the Warriors’ title defense, they’re 6-9, good for 12th in the Western Conference, and it appears that foundation could be splintering.

AFTER ALLOWING THE Phoenix Suns to score 72 points in the first half, Curry stands at half court looking up at the scoreboard. It’s the fourth game of the season. This is the third consecutive one the Warriors have given up 70-plus points by halftime.

After his team surrendered 134 points, Warriors coach Steve Kerr takes his usual perch on the lectern. They’ve just lost by 29, but the season is young. No time to panic. Kerr notes the lack of intensity and physicality from his team, but he seems lighthearted.

“We’re given up 70 points in halves three games in a row. I don’t think that’s ever happened to the Warriors — even when [Don Nelson] was coaching,” Kerr said, a coy smile spreading across his face.

Kerr’s comment is made in jest, but there is a singular truth in it: Over the past decade the Warriors have ​​routinely been one of the top defensive teams in the league.

Before Kerr was hired by Golden State in 2014, coach Mark Jackson had begun to shift the way the organization prioritized offense and defense. He moved away from solely relying on the Warriors’ explosive small-ball, run-and-gun offense. It was a fun way to play, the thinking went, but ultimately wouldn’t lead anywhere.

The year after Jackson was hired, the Warriors traded Monta Ellis — the centerpiece of their quick-paced offense — for Andrew Bogut. The next season, they drafted Draymond Green and signed Andre Iguodala. The team’s personnel moves and Jackson’s message were aligned.

Bogut and Iguodala, of course, already had a knack for defense in the NBA. Green had just won Big 10 Defensive Player of the Year and was coming from a Michigan State basketball program in which coach Tom Izzo stressed the importance of defensive details. He also had a coaching staff with the Warriors waiting to pound them into his head.

Today, 11 years into his Hall of Fame career, Green recalls his summer workouts before his rookie season when Jackson and the Warriors’ coaching staff of Darren Erman, Pete Myers and Michael Malone would start each session with an hour of shell drills — those focused on the concepts of on-ball and help-side defense — before allowing anyone to touch a basketball.

“That’s what we were doing to build that foundation,” Green says. “Coming in, there was an understanding of the emphasis that was put on defense. I had to play defense to get on the court. That was how I would see the floor.”

The Warriors had the No. 4 defense in the league when Kerr took over in 2014. After his first season, they were No. 1.

Despite the usual roster turnover over its dynastic era, Golden State managed to maintain its elite unit. It always seemed to bring in players who perfectly supported its core of Green, Curry and Klay Thompson — a trio that had suffered through and learned from those shell drills of years past.

Last season, they found defensive gems in Otto Porter Jr. and Gary Payton II, who, in addition to often guarding the opposing team’s best player, ranked in the top 10 in field goal percentage allowed as the closest defender among more than 250 players to defend 400 shots, according to ESPN’s Stats & Information research.

This season, they are without both players and they lost defensive coordinator Mike Brown to the Sacramento Kings. But unlike past years when they replaced players with veterans, the Warriors are filling in the gaps with players they hope lead their next generation — Jonathan Kuminga, Moody and Wiseman.

“If I’m Jonathan Kuminga, in my second year, and they are expecting me to be able to defend at a world champion level, what would I think?” Green says. “I think my head would be spinning. So I try to put myself in their shoes and understand that it takes patience.”

Those hourlong defensive sessions, the ones that formed a nearly decadelong run of defensive excellence, no longer exist at Warriors practices. With a team full of veterans, they are accustomed to running a drill or scheme once, then moving on to more complex work.

The veteran players, from Kerr’s perspective, not only need less practice, but more rest — unlike what the younger group needs.

So Kerr adjusted. He has implemented more scrimmages and fewer optional practices for the younger players.

Sitting in the owner’s lounge at Chase Center after a film session following their most complete game of the season against the Cleveland Cavaliers, Green leans forward and starts counting on his fingers. “Klay Thompson. Andrew Wiggins. Kevon Looney. Stephen Curry, myself,” he says, rattling off the starters. He continues: “Donte DiVincenzo. Jonathan Kuminga. Moses Moody.”

Green is listing the players he believes are good individual defenders with potential for more.

“I’ve had to readjust my thinking as far as how I am going to coach this team,” Kerr says. ” I don’t think I have done a great job of that so far.”

THE NUMBERS — BASIC or advanced — paint a stunning portrait: The Warriors rank 27th in defense so far. Last season, they were No. 1. Other than the 2019-20 season, in which Thompson missed the entire year and Curry played five games, this is the worst defense of their dynasty.

Ask people around the organization and they will tell you, the Warriors’ struggles on that side of the court stem from two areas: transition defense and pick-and-roll defense.

Consider: Golden State is 15th in the NBA in field goal percentage allowed in transition — a category the Warriors led the league in last season — a problem heightened by the fact the Warriors have the fourth-highest turnover rate in basketball. This is leading them to also allow the third-most opponents’ points per game off turnovers.

Consider, too, their pick-and-roll defense, where they allow 1.07 points per direct pick, 28th in the NBA, per Second Spectrum tracking. Last season, Golden State ranked third, giving up just 0.93 points per direct pick.

And the Warriors are allowing 1.27 points per direct pick when switching, second worst in the NBA. Prior to this season, no team has allowed that high of an efficiency when switching against on-ball screens in a season since player tracking began in 2013-14.

The Warriors say a lack of communication on the court, especially when stalwarts Green and Looney are off the floor, has been an issue.

“The communication is not for you. It’s for everyone else,” Iguodala says. “When you’re out there, you want to get a good feel for yourself. You want to feel comfortable … you’re just thinking about yourself, which is a natural human thing. … It’s not demonstrative, you’re not being a bad teammate. You just want to do something to help the team so badly. What can I do next? It’s not about that. It’s about how you can help your teammate. It comes with maturity.”

Says Green: “What I’ve been seeing is uncertainty. Due to uncertainty, if I’m not sure my help is going to be there, I foul. If I don’t trust the guy who is on the ball, then you overhelp. … You have to have chemistry on the defensive end. I don’t think we have that.”

After the Warriors’ loss to the Suns on Wednesday — their second loss in the Valley this season — Kerr and Curry admitted there is a lack of connectivity and togetherness within the Warriors. Kerr went as far as to say there isn’t a shared “commitment to the group.”

Looney, for his part, has been the Warriors’ most important defender all season. Lineups with Looney rank in the 92nd percentile defensively.

“He’s a guy who understands everything the other team wants to do,” Green says. “And on top of that, he’s an incredible rebounder. … He talks, he’s not afraid to hear his own voice … and he’s very versatile. The versatility he brings to the defensive end, the coverages he allows us to play, it makes all the difference.”

Green has long been considered the engine to the Warriors’ defense. But even his impact has diminished. Lineups with Green at the center position — once a pillar in the Warriors’ “Death Lineup” — rank in the 16th percentile. Last year, they were in the 99th.

The Warriors don’t see Green’s drop in production as a sign he has been playing poorly. Instead, it’s another reminder of how they still need to build chemistry on the floor and the difficulties that come with learning how to play alongside players such as Green, who operates on defense similarly to how Curry plays on offense.

“I’m random as hell on the defensive end,” Green says. “I’ll just go and do something. And you’re expected to figure it out. That takes time to figure it out.”

AT LEAST ONCE a season, Kerr gathers the team and reads a proverb called “For Want of a Nail.” It describes a situation in which there is a failure to predict or correct a minor issue, so the minor issue escalates and compounds itself into a major one.

Like giving up six points in four seconds in Orlando.

“For want of a nail, the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe, the horse was lost.
For want of a horse, the rider was lost.
For want of a rider, the battle was lost.
For want of a battle, the kingdom was lost, And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.”

In the Warriors’ case, their failure to box out leads to fouling. Sending their opponent to the free throw line limits their number of transition opportunities. That leads to more half-court offense.

“You can just keep going down the list,” Kerr says. “It’s a reminder that everything matters.”

When Kerr started his job with the Warriors, he made it a point to carry on Jackson’s emphasis on defense. For Kerr, it was obvious just how dangerous the Warriors’ offense could be — but it all had to start with them making stops on the other end.

“Even more than stressing defense, [Kerr] stressed connecting the game,” Green says. “Connecting the offense with the defense and how they beautifully work off of each other and work together. From that point on, it was, ‘OK, I have to do this right on this one end to then connect it to that end.'”

There’s good news for the Warriors amid all the early challenges: their starting lineup of Green, Curry, Thompson, Wiggins and Looney is plus-77 so far this season, the best of any lineup in the NBA.

But in any other lineup, the Warriors are minus-90.

“Most players now are feel players. They have to feel the ball to feel injected with what’s going on in the game. I’m not even just talking about offense. If you don’t have the ball, you don’t even feel injected into the defense,” Iguodala says. “Defense can really get you into a rhythm, but we don’t emphasize that anymore.

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