Barber: Warriors seeking defensive identity as they prepare for Clippers
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.