Golden State Warriors’ Zaza Pachulia (27) and Golden State Warriors’ Stephen Curry (30) guard Cleveland Cavaliers’ Kyrie Irving (2) during the fourth quarter of Game 1 of the NBA Finals at Oracle Arena in Oakland, Calif., on Thursday, June 1, 2017. The Golden State Warriors defeated the Cleveland Cavaliers 113-91. (Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group)
CLEVELAND — When LeBron James called the Warriors a juggernaut, he was referencing the addition of Kevin Durant to a team with three All-Stars that had won a record 73-regular season games the previous year. Understandably, most only see this team’s offensive prowess.
But the Warriors really reached juggernaut status for a less apparent reason: While they are exceptional on offense, they are elite on defense. This has been a running theme of the Steve Kerr Era, the Warriors at or near the top of the league on both sides of the court.
The offense is obvious: Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Durant are scoring machines. They are surrounded by shooters and all of them pass like they have a college degree in ball movement.
But it’s the defense that puts them into that rare air. If it weren’t for their offense, the Warriors might be playing for a third straight title. In last year’s Finals, they held Cleveland to 93 points on 40.2 percent shooting.
Maybe one day, when this era is over and a complete autopsy of these Warriors can be done, their defense will get its due. Maybe the wisdom of hindsight will expose the difficulty of what they are accomplishing.
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Not just because they can be as dominant, or more, on defense as they are on offense, but that it’s the Warriors – a team that couldn’t figure this out for 30 years.
It took quite a bit to get the Warriors to this level. Here are 10 steps that led to them becoming a defense-first juggernaut.
Golden State Warriors’ Stephen Curry (30) chats with head coach Mark Jackson during a time out in the first quarter of their game at Oracle Arena in Oakland, Calif., on Sunday, Jan. 26, 2014. (Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group)
1. Hiring of Mark Jackson
Jackson, shaped by his heyday in 1990s Eastern Conference basketball, indoctrinated a defensive mindset. He shifted the focus from the run-and-shoot style of play that sold tickets to the gritty, hard-nosed side of basketball that brought credibility. He promised success and legitimacy by prioritizing defense.
“It was talked about and it’s well known if you want to win a championship … you can’t just try to outscore people all the time,” Curry said. “That became a part of the identity. Even when Coach Jackson was here way before that, that was talked about a lot more being a strength of the team as opposed to something you just kind of glance over and hope for the best, really.”
This was critical for a nucleus that was mostly young and developing, and the success they experienced — winning games, making the playoffs – validated Jackson’s bent in the psyche of Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Harrison Barnes.
All of them had a temptation to pursue offense, and its acclaim, first and foremost. But Jackson coached them into a proper paradigm by framing it as a culture change. If they wanted to break free from the Warriors’ cycle of futility, they had to bring it on defense. That message especially resonated with Curry and Thompson, who had already experienced the ineptitude of the Warriors’ offense-first philosophy.
“When I was in TV,” head coach Steve Kerr said, “I was doing Warriors games for years, every year they were one of the worst defensive teams in the league. Mark came in and made a focus of being a tough defensive-minded team. The year before I got here, the Warriors were the fourth-ranked defensive team in the league. Already top five. So we knew what we had. We didn’t change one thing defensively. … We already knew they had established that defensive identity.”
Golden State Warriors’ Andrew Bogut (12) guards Oklahoma City Thunder’s Kevin Durant (35) in the first quarter of Game 1 of the NBA Western Conference finals at Oracle Arena in Oakland, Calif., on Monday, May 16, 2016. (Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group)
2. Trade for Bogut
Stressing defense is one thing. But playing defense requires having good defensive players. The Warriors got their first elite defender when they traded for Andrew Bogut.
The seriousness of the Warriors’ push for defense was proven by the March trade of star guard Monta Ellis, whose defensive effort was usually suspect, for a reputed defensive force in Bogut. It was risky, as he was injured at the time of the trade. But the Warriors were officially done just talking about defense.
Bogut was a top-notch rim protector and brought legitimate size to the Warriors front court. More than that, though, he was part of the accountability necessary for good defenses.
He was the anchor of the defense, covering their mistakes and showing them how to talk on that end. And he wasn’t afraid to call out his teammates for their shortcomings. The Warriors had a player on the court who cared as much about defense as the coach.
North Carolina’s Harrison Barnes talks on the phone moments after being selected No. 7 by the Golden State Warriors during the NBA basketball draft, Thursday, June 28, 2012, in Newark, N.J. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
3. The 2012 Draft
It is reputed for its role in the construction of these Warriors. They landed Harrison Barnes, Festus Ezeli and Draymond Green.
Collectively, they brought size and toughness to the Warriors’ roster, essential traits for a good defense in the NBA.
Barnes gave the Warriors a 6-foot-8 athlete who allowed the Warriors to play small without sacrificing defense. Ezeli gave the Warriors a true center and rim protector off the bench, which was needed because of Bogut’s injuries.
And in Green, they got even more than they ever imagined.
“We thought we got three guys there that were above average defenders,” Myers said.
Golden State Warriors’ Klay Thompson (11) scores and draws a foul by the Cleveland Cavaliers’ Kevin Love (0) on his drive to the hoop in the first quarter of Game 2 of the NBA Finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers at Oracle Arena in Oakland, Calif., on Sunday, June 4, 2017. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)
4. Development of Klay Thompson
As a wrinkle in the 2013 playoffs against Denver, Jackson went to Thompson on Ty Lawson. Thompson, 6-foot-7, is harder to get around than Curry and the Warriors couldn’t afford Curry to get in foul trouble. Thompson was a problem for Lawson, then for Tony Parker, and became a weapon to use against opposing point guards.
This versatility of Thompson freed up Curry to be a roamer and a double-teamer, more his strength as a defender than on-ball defense. It also proved valuable in a Western Conference full of point guards. With Thompson, the Warriors could aggressively go after opposing point guards and disrupt offenses.
Golden State Warriors’ Draymond Green (23) gestures as he walks off the court during a practice session before Game 4 of the NBA Western Conference Finals at AT&T Center in San Antonio, Texas, on Sunday, May 21, 2017. (Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group)
5. The emergence of Draymond
In order to dominate offensively, a team must have a primary scorer, a great player who can carry their offense. The same is true on defense, and Green became the Stephen Curry on that end of the court.
He and Bogut, they were the Smash Brothers. They were the one-two punch whose defensive acumen upgraded the Warriors’ defensive quotient.
When Green became the starter, due to David Lee’s injury, he had the space and the freedom to unveil his defensive prowess. He showed he is a low-post stopper who can also guard on the perimeter and is a premiere help defender.
He went from coming off the bench as a rookie to be a different look for stars, such as LeBron James, to being one of the best defenders in the league.
Golden State Warriors’ Andre Iguodala (9) shadow boxes before the start of Game 4 of the NBA Western Conference Finals at AT&T Center in San Antonio, Texas, on Monday, May 22, 2017. (Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group)
6. Acquiring Andre Iguodala
The Warriors added more defensive prowess by trading for Iguodala. It was a move that required Warriors general manager Bob Myers making some magic happen, underscoring the franchise’s appreciation of defense.
Most important, Iguodala was the start of the Warriors coveting two-way players. Instead of relying on defensive specialists to supplement their offensive stars, they started creating a regular rotation of players who had key roles on both ends.
Golden State Warriors coaching staff Bruce Faiser, left, Ron Adams, interim head coach Luke Walton and Jarron Collins share a moment in the first half of an NBA game against the Phoenix Suns at Oracle Arena in Oakland, Calif., on Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2015. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)
7. Hiring of Ron Adams
Kerr said his focus was improving the offense and leaving the defense alone. But really, he didn’t.
Adding Adams, a reputed defensive wizard, graduated the Warriors to advanced calculus level on defense. With Adams’ genius in tow, defense went from a strength of the Warriors to an expertise. The schemes and scouting report helped players like Curry and Barnes maximize what they can do individually on defense. The Warriors leaned more on switching and could execute complex strategy when necessary, such as having Bogut defend Memphis guard Tony Allen in 2015, backed by complicated rotations that stymied the Grizzlies.
Even in this series, as the Cavaliers try to put the Warriors in the pick-and-roll to get Curry onto LeBron. The Warriors answer with a show-and-recover defense that gets Curry off LeBron and back onto a better matchup. These high-level strategies and executions are part of what Adams brings.
“Ron is the aficionado of defense,” Myers said.
The Golden State Warriors’ Shaun Livingston (34) takes a break during a workout at media day for the NBA Finals at Oracle Arena in Oakland, Calif., on Wednesday, May 31, 2017. The NBA Finals between the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers begins tomorrow. (Dan Honda/Bay Area News Group)
8. Signing of Shaun Livingston
Nate Robinson. Jarrett Jack. Steve Blake. Jordan Crawford. Those are the type of point guards the Warriors had coming off the bench before Livingston.
Continuing the theme of two-way players, the 6-foot-9 Livingston allowed the Warriors to continue their switching style of defense with the second unit. It also gave them another option with the starters, as Livingston could fill Thompson’s defensive role alongside Curry.
Golden State Warriors’ Draymond Green (23) dunks the ball past Cleveland Cavaliers’ Deron Williams (31) during the fourth quarter of Game 1 of the NBA Finals at Oracle Arena in Oakland, Calif., on Thursday, June 1, 2017. The Golden State Warriors defeated the Cleveland Cavaliers 113-91. (Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group)
9. Institution of the small lineup
With all these pieces in place, the Warriors were ready to take a crack at pulling off what they set out to do under Jackson. The former coach boldly proclaimed they would maintain their pace of play while also playing defense. It sounded like an oxymoron at the time.
Playing fast, which favors the offense and increases the number of possessions in games, had always been antithetical to playing defense. But in 2015, the Warriors began turning to a small lineup with Green at center, Curry aggressively hawking at point, with three wing players with long arms. They sacrificed bulk for quickness, height for length — to be everywhere on defense and aptly transition to offense.
“It’s hard to do,” Myers said. “It’s hard to find players that are good on both sides of the ball. That’s why the ones that are, are in such demand. Especially this time of year, you realize the value of defense.
OAKLAND, CA – JUNE 04: Kevin Durant #35 of the Golden State Warriors warms up prior to Game 2 of the 2017 NBA Finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers at ORACLE Arena on June 4, 2017 in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
10. Signing of Kevin Durant
What perhaps no one saw when the Warriors signed Durant was how he would fit into this defensive arc.
Durant admitted he only latched on to the defensive elements of basketball after making the postseason in 2010. His first taste of the playoffs schooled him on the importance of defense.
“My first year in the playoffs,” Durant recalled, “and going over scouting reports, defense is the only thing you really are concerned about, really, to start the series. So that’s when I started to realize how important defense is. I know that’s kind of late in my career but it’s really when I started to focus on the importance of getting a stop and rebounding … and other parts of the game outside of just trying to score.”
Durant saw the light defensively in the 2016 Western Conference Finals – and nearly got past these Warriors. And now he’s plopped himself into a team that already has the mindset, the commitment and the expertise on defense. And with his considerable natural talent, he is not just merely an upgrade but an amenity that makes them far more versatile and dangerous.