Warriors' season of transition has cost them their defense principles

Warriors' season of transition has cost them their defense principles

The Warriors unfurled a massive defensive abomination Wednesday night, and in such a case it’s always tempting to throw a big blanket of blame over the braided head of D’Angelo Russell.

That’s Russell’s reputation, right? That he’s a fantastic scorer, with the ability to create, but his languid defense is going to give away as many if not more points than he produces?

And, man, did Hornets guards Devonte Graham and Terry Rozier, both smallish by NBA standards, get theirs. They combined for 58 points, basically burying the Warriors under an avalanche of 3-pointers in Charlotte's 106-91 victory.

Of course, they did. Russell, after missing nine games, was back in the starting lineup. Such a conclusion was predictable.

Yet it is, in this instance, a thousand ways wrong.

Though Russell wasn’t not exactly locking down either Graham or Rozier, a lot of the damage they did came with him on the bench. Indeed, it’s not hyperbole to suggest the Warriors lost this game because Russell was on the bench.

The Warriors trailed by three, 71-68, when D-Lo took a seat with 6:17 remaining in the third quarter.

A little more than five minutes later, with Russell still on the bench, the Warriors were squinting at a 12-point deficit. By the time D-Lo returned early in the third quarter, they were down 15 and the slow fade was on.

“The late third quarter really killed us,” coach Steve Kerr told reporters in Spectrum Center. “We just didn’t have much traction defensively. We turned it over a few times, and they got some easy hoops and it was too bad because we started out the 3rd quarter really well. We just couldn’t stay in the game.”

What happened? Russell’s rest break – which, it must be noted, was simultaneous to that of Draymond Green – was greeted by a 3-pointer by Rozier, followed by a Rozier dunk off a turnover by backup guard Ky Bowman, followed by a Graham triple.

Graham finished with 33 points, with 10 triples. Rozier had 25 points, with five triples.

The separation created during that stretch crushed the Warriors and, moreover, told a story about their defense that extends well beyond the lapses that can be attributed to Russell.

The team that won championships with its defense – though the offense received greater acclaim – has only a couple players committed to full defensive engagement and that’s hardly enough to offset the generally poor habits on that end of the floor.

The holey defense of November, the one Kerr lambasted a couple weeks ago, has seeped into December.

Yeah, the roster has been fortified. After spending the past two weeks with eight or nine available players, the Warriors dressed 11 against Charlotte. But the broad gaps and slow rotations and flat-footed postures remained – along with communication that alternates between little and none.

“You can’t play defense without communicating,” Green said. “Next to just wanting to play defense, the most important thing is communicating. We’ve got to be better.”

Which is what was said opening night, when the Clippers rolled up 141 points. It was said after the Spurs rang up 127, after the Jazz hit 122 and the Lakers hit 120. It was fairly screamed two weeks ago, after the Mavericks went for 142 – with Russell out of the lineup.

This is not to excuse the offense, which often goes fully zombiesque, with little movement and possessions that seem to give up after one or two passes. That offense committed 17 turnovers Wednesday, giving the Hornets 23 points.

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When the offense is better, and Russell certainly will help, the defense should get better. But the habits can be there at all times, no matter what the offense is doing. Graham and Rozier often had enough time to shower before aiming and firing.

Kerr and his coaching staff are trying to be patient. Green, who lives for defense, is trying to stay optimistic. They all understand the team is in transition.

But must a tumble from the elite forgo defensive principles to such a degree that it plummets right past ordinary and into a place beneath the NBA’s cellar?

Warriors coach Steve Kerr wishes 49ers well in Super Bowl 54 vs. Chiefs

Warriors coach Steve Kerr wishes 49ers well in Super Bowl 54 vs. Chiefs

Draymond Green might not be rooting for the 49ers in Super Bowl LIV, but one other prominent member of the Warriors’ organization will be.

Coach Steve Kerr delivered a message via social media on Friday, wishing the Niners well as they prepare to take on the Kansas City Chiefs at Hard Rock Stadium on Feb. 2.

"I just wanna say good luck to the 49ers," Kerr said. "Everybody's pulling for you guys, let's go."

[RELATED: How Dubs benefit from Cauley-Stein trade to Mavericks]

Draymond said after shootaround on Friday that he’ll be rooting for the Chiefs, whose roster features his close friend, defensive end Frank Clark.

Both Kerr and Green happen to know a thing or two about winning championships, but only one of them will be happy with the result from Miami.

How Warriors gain flexibility in Willie Cauley-Stein trade to Mavs

How Warriors gain flexibility in Willie Cauley-Stein trade to Mavs

SAN FRANCISCO -- Willie Cauley-Stein walked out of shootaround, down a long corridor that leads to the Warriors' locker room in Chase Center late Friday morning in preparation for a game scheduled hours later against the Indiana Pacers. The trek marked the big man's last as a member of Golden State.

By Saturday morning, Cauley-Stein officially was traded to the Dallas Mavericks in exchange for the Utah Jazz's second-round draft pick in 2020, ending his short tenure in the Bay Area. Along the way, the Warriors set themselves up for future flexibility. 

In the immediate aftermath, the Warriors shed Cauley-Stein's current $2.17 million salary and his $2.8 million player option for the 2020-21 season, while freeing up an open roster spot for this season and beyond. From a financial perspective, it sank Golden State $2.57 million below the hard cap, according to ESPN's Bobby Marks. Additionally, the Warriors have enough salary space to convert the two-way deals of either Ky Bowman or Marquese Chriss. 

Six months ago, Cauley-Stein came to Warriors in search of career revitalization. After four years in Sacramento, he demanded that the Kings rescind his qualifying offer to make him a free agent last summer. After garnering more lucrative offers from other teams, he chose to sign a one-year contract with Golden State, which included the player option. With a new contract, the center hoped to keep the Warriors' postseason streak alive while earning a payday next summer. 

However, those wishes didn't come to fruition. A week before training camp, Cauley-Stein sprained his foot, causing the center to miss the first month of the season. His injury, coupled with Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Kevon Looney missing significant time, led to a lost season for the big man.

Nonetheless, Cauley-Stein expressed a desire to stay with the Warriors long term, citing his relationship with coach Steve Kerr. 

"He wants to build a relationship with you," Cauley-Stein told NBC Sports Bay Area last month. "I think, in the past I hadn't had a relationship with my coach. [Former Kings coach Dave] Joerger, me and him had a pretty good rapport, pretty good, like cordial, but we never had like in-depth conversations about life and stuff like that, and the first couple of conversations I had with coach Kerr was real-life stuff and that hit home with me like, 'Damn, he really tried to get to know me.' "

[RELATED: Draymond not rooting for 49ers]

Unfortunately for Cauley-Stein, he won't get to continue that relationship with Kerr.

Now, with Dallas in need of a center with the loss of Dwight Powell, his hope to find a similar relationship with Rick Carlisle will immediately start in a Mavericks uniform.