When five-time All-Star Klay Thompson was ruled out for the season, the Warriors took an immediate dive in the NBA status rankings. When they begin full-squad training camp, scheduled for next Monday, they won’t be championship favorites.
They’re now bunched in the second and third tier of contenders, among eight or nine teams with a reasonable chance at achieving a top-four postseason seed.
Whether the Warriors move up depends on two factors. The first, optimum health, is obvious but largely beyond their control. The second, defense, is mostly a matter of desire, intellect and skill -- in that order -- and coach Steve Kerr believes all three are in place. Indeed, Kerr has set a goal for the Warriors to reclaim a place among the league’s top 10 defenses.
“We have potential to be an excellent defensive team,” Kerr said Tuesday. “That will be our challenge. I'll challenge the guys from Day 1 that we want to be a top-10 defensive team. Training camp will largely be centered around our defense.”
The team Kerr inherited from Mark Jackson in 2014 was a top-10 defensive team, finishing third in defensive rating in 2013-14. Kerr and his defensive coordinator, veteran assistant Ron Adams, raised the Warriors to No. 1 in their 2014-15 championship season.
The Warriors ranked sixth in 2015-16 and second in 2016-17. They were living in the top 10 before sliding to 11th in each of the next two seasons and tumbling all the way to 26th 2019-20.
Defense might not excite a fan base craving a flurry of Steph Curry 3-balls, but it always is the backbone of a legitimate contender.
Draymond Green, a 6-foot-6 power forward who somehow guards centers, is a demon. Curry will need to regain the disruptive powers that allowed him to lead the league in steals in 2015-16. They’ll be joined in the starting lineup by relatively new acquisition Andrew Wiggins and completely new acquisition Kelly Oubre Jr. -- both 6-foot-7 -- at the shooting guard and small forward positions.
Kerr did not commit to naming his starting center, pointing to Kevon Looney’s experience in the system and the massive potential of 7-foot-1 rookie James Wiseman
Green, Wiggins, Oubre, Looney and Wiseman all have wingspans that exceed 7 feet.
“I'm not really into predictions or anything,” Kerr said, “but I do like the concept of what we have, the length and athleticism that we have at every position.”
With Wiseman, four months from his 20th birthday, it’s pretty simple. If he can pick up on schemes, reads and timing, he’ll get plenty of playing time. If he’s able to switch effectively, too, it’s hard to imagine him not becoming the starter.
Oubre is expected to move into the role temporarily vacated by Thompson, one which will have him chasing elite point guards as well as explosive scorers. He’ll see plenty of Damian Lillard one night, plenty of Devin Booker the next.
“He's got a toughness about him,” Kerr said of Oubre. “He's got the length to be a good defender. He's got the ability on the ball to hound people. I envision us using Kelly quite a bit on the ball. I imagine putting Steph on the ball, as well. Even sliding Andrew onto the point when it calls for it. We can mix and match and have a lot of options defensively. We plan on using those options.”
When at their best in recent years, the Warriors were ferocious on defense, forcing bad shots or turnovers and turning them into transition offense. That capability should be there once again.
It will have to be there for the Warriors to have a chance to climb back to elite status.
“Offensively we'll figure it out as we go,” Kerr said. “But I've always found if you have a good defensive team, you have your foundation. It's much easier to build from there. If you can't get stops, you're just kind of running around in circles.”