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Barber: Warriors seeking defensive identity as they prepare for Clippers

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SAN FRANCISCO — Remember the 2015-16 season, when the Warriors roared to an improbable 24-0 start that shook the NBA? In the first four games of that epic season, they allowed 376 points, or 94 per night. The Warriors will try to beat that mark when they open the 2019-20 season against the Los Angeles Clippers on Thursday night.

I don’t mean the per-game average. I’m talking about the total.

OK, that’s unfair. The Warriors will not be the worst defensive team in the history of the NBA this season. No roster that includes Draymond Green could be guilty of that. But as we prepare for the start of the strangest, most unpredictable season the Warriors have met in the Steve Kerr era, it’s clear that their ability to stop the ball from going in the basket has taken a big hit over the past four months or so.

“From the beginning, it’s not gonna be great,” Green said Thursday, after practice at Chase Center. “We got a lot of improving to do. I think there’s kind of this misconception that defense just works. Defense is no different than offense. You get a rhythm, you get a chemistry going.”

Defense is very different than offense in another respect, though. The Warriors are likely to be very good at only one of them.

Granted, Golden State has a lot to figure out on the offensive side, too — like how frequently Stephen Curry and D’Angelo Russell will share the backcourt, and how they will distribute the ball, and who will emerge as the third scoring option behind them.

But it’s easy to imagine the Warriors will put up a lot of points. Curry, unburdened by having to film a nightly buddy movie with Kevin Durant, could be poised for another MVP run, and Russell is a legitimate scoring threat. Rookie Jordan Poole and newcomer Willie Cauley-Stein, when healthy, should be able to get some buckets, too.

The defense, on the other hand, could be an adventure all season long. Which would be, depending on your inclination as a basketball fan, a lot of fun or a boring mess.

The preseason, though it is just the preseason and not to be fully trusted, set off all sorts of warning bells. The Warriors played the Lakers four times, and LA, behind the new super-tandem of LeBron James and Anthony Davis, had nearly unfettered access to the basket in most of those games.

“It’s good to play the Lakers,” coach Steve Kerr said Tuesday. “They’re huge. And so they really exposed a lot of our weaknesses.”

That they did. As Kerr noted, some of those weaknesses will erase themselves soon. Centers Kevon Looney and Willie Cauley-Stein missed the entire preseason slate —Looney with a hamstring strain, Cauley-Stein with a more serious mid-foot strain. Looney is expected to play in Thursday’s opener against the Clippers. Cauley-Stein might be back after the first couple weeks of the regular season.

That won’t exactly make the Warriors formidable inside the paint. But that’s kind of beside the point, anyway, because their true defensive liabilities are not down low. They are out at the wings.

It’s an ironic twist, isn’t it? For the second time this decade, the Warriors have popularized a particular style of play, only to see the rest of the league imitate them, then pass them by. First they did it on offense, with a barrage of long-distance shooting. In 2015-16, the year they won 73 games but lost to James’ Cavaliers in the NBA Finals, the Warriors led the league with 2,592 3-point attempts, second most in NBA history.

Last year, the Warriors were eighth in 3-point attempts. The year before, they tied for 16th. The copycats flew by them.

Now the same thing is happening on defense. The secret to Golden State’s five-year run of dominance in the Western Conference, even more than the nonpareil shooting of Curry and Klay Thompson, was its system of switching on the perimeter. The Warriors built a team of long, versatile, almost-interchangeable defenders who, instead of trying to crash through screens, could simply switch onto another player.

It was such a good idea that other teams have adopted it. The Rockets, as one example, have done it effectively enough to throw a scare into the Warriors in each of the past two postseasons.

Meanwhile, Golden State’s days of effortless switching seem to have ended when Kevin Durant and Andre Iguodala left for other teams, Shaun Livingston retired and Thompson tore his ACL. Even Alfonzo McKinnie, who fit the mold last year, is gone — a victim of the Warriors’ money-and-roster crunch.

“We basically lost our entire wing fleet of long-armed, long-limbed defenders,” Kerr said. “So we have to develop a new identity defensively.”

As the Warriors grasp desperately for that identity, there will be nights when the result is an electrifying 133-127 win, Curry exploding for 45 points and Chase Center rocking like no San Francisco basketball venue ever has. And there will be nights when the Warriors simply look uninterested on defense and the shots don’t fall and you change the channel to Comedy Central.

With Durant gone, there’s a vague feeling the Warriors are returning to 2015, when Curry was the centerpiece of the team and the delight of the entire NBA. But that’s not right, of course. Because that team had Iguodala, Livingston and Harrison Barnes. It could play that annoying perimeter D.

A better comp for the 2019-20 squad would be the Run-TMC Warriors of Tim Hardaway, Mitch Richmond and Chris Mullin. In the two years the trio played together, the Warriors led the NBA in scoring, then finished second — and ranked 26th in defensive scoring both seasons, out of the 27 teams that existed then.

I don’t expect the 2019-20 Warriors to be quite that good on offense, or quite that bad on defense. But the vision of those Don Nelson-led greyhounds should be closer to this year’s team than anything we’ve seen in the Bay Area recently.

That sounds encouraging, right? But because those teams were so exciting, and because Warriors fans were so starved for a hint of success at the time, it’s easy to remember that Run-TMC had limited success. Again, Hardaway, Richmond and Mullin were together for only two seasons. In 1989-90 they finished 37-45. In 1990-91 they went 44-38, made the playoffs, upset the Spurs and advanced to the second round.

I’d say those are pretty close to the bookend projections for 2019-20. It might be time for some Run-TMC throwback uniforms.

You can reach columnist Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.

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