It’s never easy to go into Denver and get a win. Particularly against this Denver team, which just got Wilson Chandler back. Chandler is one of my favorite players in the NBA, a world-class defender of three positions, as well as a versatile scorer. A true Nellieball two-way wing.
I think the presence of Wilson Chandler, if he’s truly back for good and capable of reaching his former level, transforms this Denver team from good to great. In the preseason, I predicted a third place finish for the Nuggets in the West. Even after their tough start, I think that’s well within reach.
In the post-game, Mark Jackson placed the blame for the Warriors fourth quarter collapse on careless turnovers and lack of defensive effort. We saw some of that to be sure, but I’m not sure I agree with Jackson.
I think it’s possible that the Warriors were outclassed in this game, and only phenomenal three point shooting performances by Curry, Thompson and Barnes kept them in it for the first three quarters. I think it’s possible that Denver coasted on defense through the first three quarters, and simply lowered the boom in the fourth. And I think it’s likely that this Warriors team, playing as it has most of the season with a 7 man rotation, simply ran out of gas.
In short, I think this excellent Denver team badly exposed a couple of the myths that currently surround the Warriors, and has given me a good excuse to get to work dissecting them for you.
Let’s begin with the reason the Warriors ran out of gas:
The Myth that the Warriors are a deep team: The Denver Nuggets are a deep team, a textbook illustration of how to build a contending team in today’s NBA.
Not one, but three playable centers on reasonable contracts. Two of whom, Koufos and McGee, are tremendous defensive players.
Not one, but three long, rangy defensive wings. True two-way Nellieball players. Iguodala, Chandler and Brewer.
Not one, but two spread fours: Gallinari and Chandler.
A team that goes 9 men deep, with real talent at every position. That’s depth.
The Warriors stand in stark contrast, despite all the noise we’ve heard from Warriors shills about them being a deep team this season. The Warriors are not a deep team. What they are is a team that finally has a couple of veteran bench players, for the first time in the three years since Joe Lacob took over. I suppose it’s possible to confuse that with depth, when you’ve been deprived of it for years.
Let’s look a little more closely. The Warriors are running with a 7 man rotation, and have been for most of the season. Two of their starting players are rookies, and a third is in his second year. Their 8th man is a rookie. Stephen Curry and David Lee are frequently required to play over 40 minutes a game in order for the team to compete. They don’t have a true two-guard. In fact, their back-up point guard (or Curry, depending on how you look at it) is getting the bulk of the minutes at the two. They have exactly one shotblocker, a rookie. The front-line players behind Ezeli and Lee go 6-7″ and 6-6″ respectively.
The Warriors are truly deep at one position only: small forward, where there is a logjam for minutes between Thompson, Barnes, Green and Jefferson. They are not even deep at point-guard, despite appearances to the contrary. Because if either Curry or Jack go down, the Warriors will be left playing either Jenkins, Bazemore or a small forward at the two.
The Warriors are in actuality extremely short-handed this season, and it may be starting to show. David Lee, in particular, has started to wear down late in games recently. And now both Jack and Curry are a little dinged up.
I think it showed in the fourth quarter of this Denver game. And I think it’s likely to show more frequently as the minutes begin to pile up this season. The Warriors will be hard pressed to maintain their winning pace this season employing the 7 man rotation they’ve started with. Something has to change, or something’s going to give.
Something like this next myth I’m going to discuss.
The Field Goal % Against Myth: If you’re a Warriors fan, you’ve been hearing this one a lot. The Warriors are playing great defense this season, as evidenced by the low FG% of their opponents. Bob Fitzgerald and Tim Roye mention it every chance they get — which is several times a game — and it has been dutifully echoed by the mainstream media. It is quite clearly a major talking point of Joe Lacob’s PR machine.
And a quick glance at the stat itself shows that indeed, ’tis true. The Warriors have allowed an extraordinarily low FG% Against (FGA) this season. In fact they are third in the league in this stat, at 43.1%. THIRD IN THE LEAGUE!
Holy Cow! This must mean that the Warriors are playing some great defense, doesn’t it?
In fact, they must be playing better defense than the Clippers, Grizzlies, Bulls, Denver, Miami and San Antonio, because they are ahead of all of those teams in this stat, right?
Wrong. The Warriors are not even in the same ballpark defensively with the teams I just listed. And if you believe that the FGA stat indicates otherwise, then I have a Triple A Rated Subprime Mortgage Bond I’d love to sell you. At a discount, of course.
As I have demonstrated frequently on this blog before, stats lie. And FGA lies even more than most, when used by the ignorant (or intentionally deceptive) to prove the quality of a defense.
Let me demonstrate this to you in a few brief steps:
1) Free Throws Allowed. That should be something that you consider when evaluating a team’s defense, shouldn’t it? The number of free throws the defense gives up each night? Because free throws lead to points, right?
Like last night, when the Nuggets took an incredible 27 FT’s to the Warriors 8, scoring 21 points.
Does the FGA stat incorporate Free Throws Allowed into its percentage? No, it does not. Those 21 points the Nuggets scored on FT’s were completely unaccounted for in their team shooting percentage.
Another glance at the stats tells us that the Warriors are 26th in the league in FTA. 26th out of 30 teams. Only 4 teams in the league give up more free throws than the Warriors.
Does that sound like great defense to you? Or does it sound like a trade off, like the Warriors have chosen to lower their FGA by giving up fouls?
2) Three Point Shooting Luck: If you’ve watched the games this season, you will know that the Warriors have tried to goad their opponents into shooting threes, by packing it in on defense. Their big men no longer extend to the three point line to cover the pick and roll, they only hedge. Their wing players, Klay Thompson and Harrison Barnes, who are literally incapable of extending their man to man defense, play significantly back off the ball. And the small-ball Warriors quite frequently employ a zone.
The Warriors don’t defend the three point line as aggressively as other teams, mainly because they’ve designed their defense to leave it open, and partly because they probably couldn’t defend it even if they wanted to.
So this should be reflected in the Three Point % Against stat, right? Yes it should, quite obviously.
But it’s not. The Warriors are 4th in the league at 32.9%. The Miami Heat, by contrast, are 18th at 36%.
Another indication that the Warriors are a better defensive team than the Heat? Or something else?
I think we all know that it’s something else. There are few, if any, teams in the league capable of taking away the three point line like the Miami Heat.
That something else is known, quite simply, as luck. The Warriors opponents have shot miserably from three this season, and that’s down to luck.
Scheduling luck: Have you noticed how often the Warriors opponents have shown up at Oracle this season on the back end of a back-to-back, to meet a rested Warriors team? I’ve lost count.
Injury luck: Have you noticed how often teams have shown up down an important player, or three?
Sample Size luck: Even a complete regular season probably doesn’t offer enough of a sample size to eliminate the luck factor from this stat. A third of a regular season, with all of the scheduling asymmetries that implies? Forget about it.
And finally, this bit of luck:
3) The Warriors defense never has to face the Warriors offense: The Warriors offense is 7th in the league in FG%, at 45.9%. They are 2nd in the league in three point %, at 39.3.
Do you think the fact that their defense never has to face their offense helps their FGA stat, vis a vis other teams?
Oh yes it does. Next.
4) Points per possession. Are there better statistical measures of defense than FGA out there? Yes, of course their are. One of which is the stat that professional gamblers and bookies use to generate their line-setting algorithms: Points Per Possession. In other words, how many actual points do the Warriors give up in an average defensive possession? PPP, you may notice, incorporates all of those free throws the Warriors give up.
So how does the Warriors defense rank in PPP? They rank 12th, at 1.011. Not bad, but barely in the top half of teams in the league. And a far, far cry from the 3rd in the league that Warriors shills are trying to imprint in your brain.
5) Final Word: Middle of the pack. Is that the final word on where the Warriors’ defense ranks in the league?
I don’t believe it is. The final word would incorporate some form of regression analysis to account for and regularize all of the luck factors I enumerated above.
That is, thankfully, above my pay grade. I prefer to use my eyes and my judgement to generate my opinion of the Warriors defensive prowess, rather than the stats propounded by paid shills.
And my eyes and my judgement are telling me that while the Warriors coaches are deploying effective defensive schemes to match the talents of their players, and the Warriors players are playing hard and executing well on defense, the Warriors team defense is not close to the elite level that’s been suggested.
In fact, my eyes and my judgement are telling me that the Warriors team defense has been overachieving, and is likely to finish the season ranked significantly below where it is now in all statistical measures.
And is one Festus Ezeli injury away from total disaster.
The Myth of Culture Change: Another myth currently in circulation regarding the Warriors defense is that Joe Lacob and Mark Jackson have successfully instilled a new defensive culture in the Warriors. A new accountability.
I think that’s nonsense.
One thing that I have noticed in all of my years watching NBA basketball is that all good defensive teams have one thing in common: a predominance of good defensive basketball players. And all bad defensive teams have one thing in common: a predominance of bad defensive basketball players.
Another thing I’ve noticed is that teams with bad defensive players don’t work hard on defense. And why should they, since any effort they expend on the defensive end is not well rewarded? And conversely, I’ve never seen a team with good defensive basketball players that didn’t work hard on defense.
In my mind, the Warriors are playing harder on defense this season simply because playing hard on defense is working. And it’s working simply because they have far better defensive players than they’ve had in some time.
Since 2008, in fact, which was the very last time they had a healthy center.
And in 2007 and 2008, in fact, the Warriors had a better defensive team as a whole than this year’s Warriors team. A team that absolutely dismantled Dirk Nowitzki and the Maverick’s offense in the playoffs.
It’s funny, I don’t recall anyone on the Warriors staff mentioning a “change in culture” back when the We Believe Warriors gelled defensively around Andris Biedrins, Stephen Jackson, Baron Davis, Matt Barnes and Kelenna Azubuike. They knew better than that.
Or perhaps they knew less, about that one thing that Joe Lacob has demonstrated to be Oh so important in running a successful and profitable NBA franchise:
The Truth about the Warriors Defense: Whom do you think is the most impactful Warriors rookie this season? If you listened to the Warriors broadcasters and other PR professionals, and the mainstream media, you would think it was Harrison Barnes. He’s the one you see in every Warriors promo, he’s the one getting feature articles, he’s the one being talked up in every broadcast. Stories of the Black Falcon’s progress are being breathlessly reported to you on a daily basis.
Well, let’s perform a little exercise together. Close your eyes for a moment, and attempt to visualize where the Warriors would be this season without Harrison Barnes.
I think we can safely assume that the Warriors’ completely invisible ten million dollar man, Richard Jefferson, would be getting Barnes’ minutes at small forward, and Draymond Green’s minutes would be increased as well. What would the result on the Warriors record be? Better or worse?
Now close your eyes again, and attempt to visualize where the Warriors would be this season without Festus Ezeli.
How many wins are you visualizing? Fifteen?
It was completely and utterly forseeable that Andrew Bogut would not be able to play this season. Particularly after last April, when Warriors management (and no one else) discovered that his ankle was osteoarthritic, and required microfracture surgery.
It was completely and utterly forseeable that the Ghost of Andris Biedrins — now down to 5 minutes a game, when he’s available to play at all — would not be able to give much this season. Because Warriors management has known since 2009 that he has osteitis pubis, and is deteriorating yearly.
And yet Warriors management, in all their wisdom (and frugality), came into this season with no one else but Festus Ezeli, a raw rookie taken at #30 in the draft, available to man the middle.
The extent to which Festus Ezeli has bailed out the amateur GM of the Warriors — I refer of course to Joe Lacob, whom did you think I was referring to? — is an absolutely incredible story. Absolutely incredible. Perhaps the very biggest story of this Warriors season to date.
And yet completely unreported by the mainstream media.
In this Denver game Ezeli collaborated with David Lee to hold The Manimal and the underrated Koufos far below their recent averages. Just as he did the last time these two teams met.
Festus Ezeli is the truth. The truth behind the myths. Festus Ezeli is all you really need to know about the Warriors defensive turnaround.
Ho hum. When can we read another story about the Black Falcon?
Still to Come: There remains one more myth about this Warriors season for me to discuss. It’s the biggest myth of all, one requiring a post all to itself.
The Andrew Bogut Myth.