Warriors fixing embarrassing defense only path to avoid rock bottom

Warriors fixing embarrassing defense only path to avoid rock bottom

LOS ANGELES -- The history of Warriors basketball in the Bay Area is rife with throwaway seasons, including two in which they posted 17 wins and two more with 19 wins. Not once in those 57 years, though, have they lost more than 80 percent of their games.

That inglorious standard is within stumbling distance this season. At 2-9, the Warriors are on pace to finish 15-67. That’s not to say they will. With enough progress and development, they could push their win total deep into the 20s.

That requires a significant upgrade from the pillow-soft defense they’ve exhibited thus far.

“We just haven’t found an identity defensively,” coach Steve Kerr said Tuesday. “We don’t expect to be the best defensive team in the league, but I don’t think we should be the worst.”

The Warriors are, 11 games into this transitional season, the worst defensive team in the NBA. In a 30-team league, they are No. 30.

As they stroll into Staples Center to face the Lakers on Wednesday night, the Warriors rank dead last in defensive rating (117.0), in defensive efficiency (1.136), in field goals made per game by opponents (44.7) and in largest average deficit over the course of a game (19.5 points).

They’re No. 29 in effective-field-goal defense (56.4 percent), just ahead of the last-place Kings.

The lapses and indifference can’t be hidden, and they are spotlighted in team video sessions. It’s a team game, particularly on defense, but the Warriors won’t get much better on that end unless point guard D’Angelo Russell and primary center Willie Cauley-Stein are appreciably more effective.

“For us to be the team that we need to be, we’ve got to be super pesky, super aggressive, out in passing lanes,” Cauley-Stein said. “Our defensive mistakes need to be being aggressive and not just not knowing where to go.”

When I asked Cauley-Stein about his thought process when Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell drove in for a soaring dunk off a halfcourt set Monday night, the 7-footer’s reply was “try to just put a body in front of him and make him miss it.”

That’s not what happened. Cauley-Stein stood flat-footed and watched Mitchell’s highlight. In fairness to Cauley-Stein, he was nudged toward the baseline by Utah big man Rudy Gobert. But there was no aggressive effort to defend what should be his domain.

Asked, also, there was no indication that Cauley-Stein felt his domain was violated by Mitchell.

“There’s no comeback,” he said. “It’s a ‘play-on.’ There’s probably 200 plays that happen in a game. It’s not a touchdown. It’s two points. You probably go down and probably score a 3-pointer right afterward.

“It’s one of them things like, yeah, you want to protect the paint but we’re also fouling too much. Guys are getting downhill. We have to figure out a way to play without our hands and just being in the way and making dudes miss. That’s where we’re trying to go to now, is making it extremely difficult.”

Though Cauley-Stein looks and runs the part of a rim protector, his resume protests otherwise. In 199 games over four seasons in Sacramento, he totaled 228 blocks. For perspective, Andrew Bogut, who considered the paint his domain, had 227 blocks in 137 games in his last two full seasons as a Warrior.

Understand, blocks are not the only stat, or even the primary stat, that matters. The key is presence, which is best built by consistent assertiveness, a level of resistance that discourages driving.

Cauley-Stein arrived with the reputation of being relatively soft in the paint, uninclined to consistently make others feel his presence. If this continues, so will the dunks.

“Willie’s added quite a bit since his return from injury,” Kerr said. “Just the size, the rebounding, the ability to change shots at the rim is really important for us.

“But this is a teamwide exercise, all five guys being on the same page. Being aggressive, taking teams out of their comfort zone. I don’t really look at it as one position. It’s all five guys communicating, talking, playing with aggression, playing with force and doing it as a unit.”

Which brings us to D-Lo, whose apathetic defense is attracting such derisive nicknames as ‘Angelo and Lo -- as in “no D.”

In his first four NBA seasons, Russell was hounded by coaches and teammates -- including as a rookie by Kobe Bryant when the two were Lakers -- to work harder on defense. Show more fight. Be more engaged. Take pride. And there were stretches in Russell’s past, with the Lakers and the Nets, when he played respectable defense.

Indeed, his 110.2 rating last season in Brooklyn was superior to Dennis Schroder (110.3) and Mike Conley (110.8), to players generally considered solid defenders.

Russell now is in his fifth NBA season and first as a Warrior, and both the eye test (indifference and/or immobility) and sheer statistics (119.0 defensive rating) point to steep regression. Only two rotation players in the league, Collin Sexton (121.0) and Jordan Clarkson (119.5), both Cavaliers, finished last season with a worse rating.

After the loss to the Jazz the other night, Draymond Green, general of defense for the Warriors, was probed for his thoughts on fixing the defense.

“That all starts at the point of attack,” he said. “One thing we’ve been good at over the years is guarding the pick-and-roll with two guys. If you can guard the pick-and-roll with two guys, maybe two-and-a-half guys, you give yourself a lot better chance at taking the 3 out of the game, and also dunks out of the game.

“It’s not one person in particular’s fault. It’s just something that we’ve got to continue to get better at as a team.”

The Warriors team defense is so incredibly poor that their players are saddled with the seven worst defensive ratings in the league. Rookies Eric Paschall and Jordan Poole are at 119.4. Veteran wing Glenn Robinson III, cooked repeatedly by Timberwolves guard Andrew Wiggins despite everyone in the league knowing he always goes right, is at 118.9. Rookie Ky Bowman is at 118.5, two-way guard Damion Lee and veteran wing Alec Burks are both at 117.8

Why is Russell, who made his first All-Star team last season, defending at the level of rookies learning the ways of the NBA and guys trying to prove they can contribute in the league?

Perhaps because he’s focused on scoring, especially now, with Steph Curry and Klay Thompson out for at least a few months. His scoring is needed to keep the Warriors in games, and it’s conceivable that he simply lacks the juice to contribute at both ends. An old quote might provide a clue.

“I wanted to play defense in L.A.," Russell told ESPN in August 2017, shortly after being traded to the Nets. "But I felt like I had to score every chance I got for us to be relevant."

[RELATED: How Russell is back to torching opponents in mid-range game]

Can he be blamed if he feels that way with this group of Warriors?

The outlook, then, is grim. The Warriors want no part of being the worst team in franchise history. If they can’t do better on defense, they invite that possibility.

Warriors' Steve Kerr shouts out Larry Bird on NBA legend's birthday


Warriors' Steve Kerr shouts out Larry Bird on NBA legend's birthday

On Larry Bird's 63rd birthday, Warriors coach Steve Kerr tipped his virtual cap to the Basketball Hall of Famer. 

Kerr shared Yahoo Sports' retrospective video on Bird's career on Twitter, imploring "all you young NBA fans out there" to watch and get a sense of just how good Bird was. 

In his 13-year career, Bird was a 12-time All-Star, nine-time All-NBA first-team member, three-time champion and three-time MVP. The trash-talking forward shot 50.9 percent from inside the arc and 37.6 percent from 3-point range, emerging as one of the league's sharpest shooters in the nascent 3-point era. 

[RELATED: Why Hampton, Ball might interest Warriors]

Bird retired as the NBA's 11th-leading scorer all-time, averaging the 12th-most points per game in league history (24.3) through 1992. The "Hick From French Lick" made a clear impression on Kerr, and the Warriors coach recalled being starstruck when he played against Kerr during his second NBA season. 

“You know my name,” Kerr said to KNBR in a 2017 interview, recounting when Bird said hello to him before a game. "[I said,] 'Hey guys, Larry Bird knows my name!'"

R.J. Hampton, LaMelo Ball making case to be Warriors' draft selection

R.J. Hampton, LaMelo Ball making case to be Warriors' draft selection

The Warriors are going to have a very high draft pick. That much seems obvious. What's less obvious is which prospects they might be zeroing in on as the missing piece of Golden State's next championship pursuit.

Some prospects like Memphis' James Wiseman, Georgia's Anthony Edwards and North Carolina's Cole Anthony are all stateside -- Golden State doesn't have to send scouts very far to get a glimpse of any of them.

Two other highly-rated prospects, however, require a far greater trek to evaluate them in person, as 18-year-olds LaMelo Ball and R.J. Hampton currently play in the NBL, Australia's top basketball league. Both players elected to go overseas for their final year of basketball before entering the NBA draft, rather than enroll in a collegiate program or join the G League.

Liam Santamaria is a writer and broadcaster for the NBL, and whereas the Warriors likely haven't had a ton of opportunities to see Ball and Hampton firsthand, Santamaria has had no such issues. So far, he has been blown away by what he has seen from the two young prospects.

"I've been not just impressed with the way they've played and the improvement that they've shown in their game over the course of the season thus far in Australia," Santamaria told NBC Sports Bay Area, "but also just how they've handled themselves on the court with their teammates, in the heat of battle in a professional situation like this."

The two phenoms currently find themselves in quite different scenarios. Ball, playing for the Illawarra Hawks, has far less talent around him than Hampton does on the New Zealand Breakers, where he plays alongside the likes of former NBA players, McDonald's All-Americans and foreign league MVPs. Consequently, Ball fittingly has the rock in his hands more often than Hampton does, which helps explains why Ball's stats are so comparatively eye-popping.

"While he hasn't been putting up the same kind of stat sheet-stuffing performances as LaMelo, I think he's actually been equally as impressive," Santamaria said of Hampton.

Both Ball and Hampton project as guards at the NBA level, but they're different kinds of players.

Ball has a knack for highlight-reel plays, but still needs to round out his game.

"He's obviously a phenomenally talented playmaker, and his feel for the game is incredible," Santamaria described Ball. "And we knew that coming in, but his game still is for the most part pretty raw."

Specifically, Ball's shooting mechanics and defense remain works in progress.

"When he arrived here in Australia and started playing, it looked like he'd never really been taught much of anything about how to defend," Santamaria recalled. "The fundamentals of 1-on-1 containment defense, but also fundamental concepts of playing defense off the ball, five guys defending as one ... just team defensive concepts. And that for me is the area that I think has probably undergone the most rapid improvement because he was almost nonexistent as a defender when he first stepped on Australian shores. Now you can see him taking some big strides in that regard. He's much more engaged at that end of the floor."

Hampton, on the other hand, is more refined at this stage of his young career and has what Santamaria described as better fundamentals than Ball currently possesses. 

"R.J. looks to me like he's a sure-fire certain thing, in terms of panning out to be a really productive pro," Santamaria summarized. "He has a great combination of size, length, athleticism, explosive quickness and basketball IQ."

As Ball and Hampton go through the draft process, they inevitably will be compared to other NBA stars, past and present. Santamaria has already begun that process.

"There's an element of Jason Kidd, for me," he said of Ball's comparison. "Where he just looks like he's got that thing on a string and makes those passes and plays look so easy." 

Santamaria added that Ball particularly reminds him of Kidd when handling the ball in the open court. Ironically, his comparison for Hampton involved another guard who has proven to be exceptional in the open court.

"He doesn't have the kind of strength and the kind of muscular frame yet that [Russell] Westbrook has, but when he gets that ball in the backcourt and starts pounding it, his head's on a swivel offensively and he's super quick attacking, putting heat on the rim," Santamaria said of Hampton. "In those situations, I see elements of Westbrook in his game. If he can become a little stronger and bounce off physicality like Westbrook does, I think that comparison might become more obvious over time."

As such, if the Warriors choose to draft another guard -- which seems unlikely, considering the presence of Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, not to mention D'Angelo Russell -- it would appear they have a couple of fantastic prospects to choose from. If they come anywhere close to living up to Santamaria's lofty comparisons, they almost assuredly will have been worth the high draft selection.

[RELATED: Top NBA draft prospect LaMelo Ball is a big fan of Steph]

So, if push comes to shove, which one should the Warriors choose?

In formulating his answer, Santamaria mentioned yet another NBA MVP.

"Well, Bob Myers -- it depends if he's ready to swing for the fences, because LaMelo Ball is that swing-for-the-fences pick," he said. "Somebody's going to be brave enough to do it. I'm certainly not going to say he's going to be an NBA MVP at any point, but Giannis Antetokounmpo was a swing-for-the-fences pick a few years ago that a lot of teams decided they didn't want to or didn't have the courage to take. The Bucks did, and they have reaped the rewards. I think LaMelo Ball is going to fall into that category a little bit as well.

"If Myers and the organization have the courage to swing that bat, then he could very well be a home run."

The Warriors have long been expected to pursue Antetokounmpo if and when he hits free agency. There's no one quite like the Greek Freak, but perhaps Golden State ends up with its own version of him.