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."
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.