Solving Problems: Warriors Need to Defend, Really
The Golden State Warriors have already gone through significant changes since last offseason. Coach Keith Smart is gone. Mark Jackson, who finally gets an opportunity to coach (despite no experience as an assistant), has been promising playoffs since day one.
New owners Joseph Lacob and Peter Guber are enthusiastic as they look to put their stamp on the franchise. Legendary basketball mind Jerry West has joined the cause, which may be the summer’s biggest acquisition.
The Warriors drafted shooting guard Klay Thompson with the 11th pick the draft, a player who may be a true steal at that position.
While Golden State may have been tempted to trade guard Monta Ellis before the lockout, they opted to stay pat.
If you believe Jackson, he wants the opportunity to coach both Stephen Curry and Ellis in the backcourt together, even if their combined heights and builds are less than ideal.
According to Rusty Simmons of the San Francisco Chronicle, Jackson “started an impromptu chant of ‘De-fense’” at recent season ticket holder event.
In the same article, Simmons quotes Warriors’ executive Jerry West:
“I watch Warriors games,” West said. “They come so close so many times and find a way to lose in the fourth quarter. This franchise just needs a little polishing.”
Warriors Most Pressing Need: Defense (not the chant, the actual act of getting stops)
Golden State won 36 games last season to finish 12th in the Western Conference. The New Orleans Hornets and Memphis Grizzlies tied at 46 wins in the bottom-two playoff spots.
The Warriors need to get at least another 10 wins this coming season (assuming the lockout is resolved in time) to climb into the top eight.
Given the team’s 103.4 points per game was sixth in the conference, scoring just isn’t the problem.
Golden State was a bottom-four team defensively at 105.7 points per game. They gifted an additional 567 free throws to their opponents (2262-1695) along with an extra 349 rebounds (3674-3325).
Smart promised his team would play defense when he took over last year. It’s a common refrain for each new coach so what makes Jackson’s proclamations any different?
Let’s Ask the Players
With the league on hiatus this summer, a number of Warriors happened to be participating Thursday in the loosely nicknamed “Lockout League” at Impact Basketball in Las Vegas.
Here’s what they had to say about the team embracing defense this coming season:
“It’s just a matter of really following the coach’s identity and taking that on the court with us and really buckling down for the whole season,” said Curry. “There will probably be new schemes that Coach Jackson will bring in and we’ve each got to learn them and execute them on the defensive end. It’s just a matter of us being committed to it and accountable.”
Forward Lou Amundson was part of a Suns team with a similar offensive bent that made enough of an effort defensively to get to the Western Conference Finals.
“I think we can do it. We definitely did it in Phoenix,” said Amundson. “We went from a mediocre defensive team to a pretty good one. It’s just commitment, getting everyone on the same page, accountability when it comes to rotations and being where you’re supposed to be and also just drilling it in every day.”
“Just practice, practice, practice getting rotations down so that everybody knows where they’re supposed to be,” continued Lou. “Keep doing that every day and it pays off and I think that culture is instilled . . . people buy into it.”
Didn’t Keith Smart Preach Defense Last Year?
The Warriors went from 26 wins to 36 under Smart but it wasn’t enough for him to keep his job. He too came in insisting the team would play defense but the results don’t back that up.
“Last year Coach Smart really had us focused on it in the beginning of the year,” said Curry. “We had a tough patch in the schedule. We lost a couple of games. We kind of just tried to go back to the old way of outscoring people.”
Forward Dorell Wright, who had a breakout season under Smart, still thinks highly of his former coach.
“Coach Smart did a good job I think with trying to emphasize [defense] as much as possible but it didn’t work out the way we wanted to,” said Wright. “We improved 10 games but he was also playing with a lot of new guys who were all still trying to get to know each other. I’m pretty sure that next year, whenever training camp starts, we’re going to lock in and take whatever defensive assignments Coach Jackson has for us. We’re just looking forward to getting back to camp and starting.”
Dorell isn’t sure what exactly went wrong last year.
“I couldn’t even tell you,” said Wright. “[Smart] came in here with a defensive plan and we tried to do our best at going in each and every night and following it. Sometimes it just doesn’t work. We play in the West. It’s tough. We just need to continue to learn and get key wins in.”
That’s really the question. How much can the Warriors improve defensively? Is it enough to just make the playoffs? Can they climb to the top without major changes?
Power Forward David Lee likes his team’s chances with the right attitude but acknowledged the Warriors may need a little more help.
“I think we do [have a chance as is] and I think we plan on adding more pieces. I think it’s a combination of both,” said Lee. “I don’t think it’s worth talking about as much as we’ve got to go on the floor and do it once the ball tips off.”
As far as his own performance, Lee noted that he came into camp out of shape after a finger injury and then struggled to stay healthy throughout the season, specifically with a freak accident with Wilson Chandler (and his tooth) that actually threatened David’s career with a violent arm infection.
“I plan on coming in a lot better shape,” said Lee. “Now we’re on the same page as far as knowing the personnel a little bit better. I have two very good guards that I’ve gotten a lot better at (as the season went on) playing alongside . . . and I think we can make each other even better this year so I’m looking forward to it.”
Wright and Lee both make the points on continuity. Most teams that prosper in the NBA have more than a few years together to develop chemistry (obviously not including last year’s star-laden Miami HEAT).
Smart was working with a fluctuating roster.
Should the Warriors, in their quest to make the playoffs, make additional personnel changes or look to build upon last year’s improvement?
“Guys you build relationships on and off the court with, you always want to be back with those guys,” said Wright. “Hopefully something works out for the best of us and next year we improve from 15-20 more games cause that’s where we need to be for the playoffs.”
Curry seemed to like the idea of keeping the group together.
“It’s just a matter of us getting our communication level higher on the floor on defense and getting a team together for more than one year,” said Stephen. “We’ve been in transition for the last four or five years. I think we have a little bit of consistency now.”
Do Ellis and Curry Fit Together Defensively?
This is the key issue the team has to evaluate moving forward. At this point it looks like, once the lockout is over, the duo will get a chance to prove they can work together.
Of course ownership and management may decide otherwise and make a preseason trade but Jackson has been clear publicly that he’d like the chance to coach the two together.
“They’re both very quick,” said Amundson. “Obviously Monta is real quick around the ball so he’s always a threat to get a steal. That’s going to be something we might have to get creative with . . . against bigger shooting guards who are more of mismatch. That’s something we’ll work on but I think we can work through it.”
Lou doesn’t think personnel is the issue but effort.
“It’s hard work. It’s commitment,” said Amundson. “If we’re all committed to doing that, I think we can be a good defensive team.”
Coach Jackson seems convinced but Jerry West may need some additional swaying. At some point the Warriors may need to make a number of difficult decisions.
Draft pick Thompson, at 6’7″, may prove to be an immediate contributor which would change the equation. Klay should be able to play with either Curry or Ellis at the point, which would give Jackson greater flexibility when it comes to matchups.
Greater defensive roles for players like Andris Biedrins, Ekpe Udoh and Amundson may help better protect the paint.
Going by the axiom that the best defensive is a good offense, Curry and Ellis are a handful for almost any team to deal with.
The Warriors may actually be wise to give this group a little more time before shuffling the deck.
“We have the talent offensively to show up every night and compete with anybody in the league,” said Curry. “We’ve been competitive the past couple of years we just haven’t had the defensive consistency to get us over the edge. I think that will be the most important thing for us.”
If Stephen and Monta stay dedicated to both sides of the ball, the Warriors may have a chance.
“[Defense] definitely comes from the top but not everybody’s going to do it if some guys aren’t going to be a part of it,” said Amundson. “Obviously with D. Lee and Monta and Steph and those guys it’s got to start with them. I think everybody needs to be involved for it to work.”
The Warriors may have a little bit of cap space this summer but probably not enough to make a significant splash (although that’s dependent on the unfinished Collective Bargaining Agreement).
In the summer of 2012, when the free agent class may include superstars like Dwight Howard, Chris Paul and Deron Williams, Golden State should be able to come up with a max slot.
If Ellis does go on the block, a number of teams are going to be interested in picking him up at $11 million annually over the next three seasons.
Lee, with the $69 million left on his deal, probably won’t return value and thus seems a lock to stay.
The Warriors may be able to find a suitor for Biedrins at $9 million a year (for three) although that too may not be easy.
Charlie Bell has an expiring deal at $4.1 million. Amundson is in his last year at $2.4 million.
The Warriors have potential on the trade market. Supposedly the team made overtures to the Orlando Magic for Howard but were rebuffed.
Ellis has been linked to the Philadelphia 76ers for Andre Iguodala and the Los Angeles Lakers for Lamar Odom although nothing was close on either front back in June around the draft.
Whatever the answer, Curry is optimistic about his team’s future.
“We improved 15 games from my rookie year to last year,” said Steph. “If we continue that we’re right there at the playoff level . . . it’s a harder level to get to but it’s definitely possible. We do have that optimism when it comes to getting back to the new staff, new management and new excitement out in the Bay Area, so it should be fun.”
The Warriors have some difficult decisions to make but having someone like Jerry West at the table increases the odds of moving in the right direction.
Jackson is preaching defense like it’s something new but the idea of it is tossed around each year . . . it’s the implementation that’s suspect.
Perhaps he succeeds where others have failed but give Mark credit, he’s staying on point with defensive mantra.
The West is indeed tough but the New Orleans Hornets are in flux. The Memphis Grizzlies need to prove that last year wasn’t an outlier. The Denver Nuggets were strong after the Carmelo Anthony trade but does that hold up, especially with both Wilson Chandler and J.R. Smith leaving to play overseas? How long can the San Antonio Spurs hang on with an aging Tim Duncan?
There may be a window available for the Warriors but it’s up to the players to commit defensively if they want to take advantage of whatever opportunities comes their way.