There was a time when an assistant coach for the Golden State Warriors would spend the post-practice period launching half-court shots. But in the six months since Steve Kerr took over as head coach for Mark Jackson, the team appears to have embraced a more business-like approach.
The Warriors return a lot of last season’s team, except with a completely different coaching staff. That makes this season a referendum on the importance of such changes. You can hypothesize that Kerr and Jackson might be the same level of coach, but Kerr’s surrounding staff is more touted, better compensated. If that matters, the 3-0 Warriors matter.
Three games in, we’re already seeing signs of two potential major developments.
The first is obvious: Klay Thompson is threatening to turn every net to ashes. The second is more under-the-radar, and quite big if true. It’s best summarized by Kerr himself: “Steph is fully engaged defensively. He's probably been our best defender through three games."
Yes, Stephen Curry is playing some great defense. He’s tied with Memphis' Tony Allen for the league lead in defensive rating at 83.9, which looks like a typo crossed with small-sample-size theater mixed with a prank. That’s if you believe the hype about his bad defense -- hype validated by Jackson’s staff outsourcing all Curry's difficult defensive assignments to Thompson.
Point guards aren’t really allowed to be average or even mediocre at defense. You’re either considered great at it, like Chris Paul, or your defense is a national joke. Curry’s had his flaws defensively, on account of slightness of build, on account of lapsing attention when hidden on bigger players who only create offense off the ball. He’s also a smart player with quick hands, qualities that rarely get mentioned in assessments of his overall defensive performance. I would argue Curry was a slightly worse-than-neutral defender last season, as indicated by his slightly worse-than-neutral defensive real plus-minus.
Could Curry’s defense tilt toward great?
“He’s really taken it upon himself,” Golden State’s defensive guru Ron Adams said. “I give all the credit to him as a top-flight performer of internalizing stuff defensively that has made him better and has made his team a lot better."
Adams, once Tom Thibodeau’s top assistant in Chicago, is the guy Curry credits for recent defensive improvement. “Coach Ron Adams has been on me, watching film, and it's all about positioning, effort and having that focus every possession,” he said. That quote in and of itself represents a culture shift, not because Curry’s talking about defense, but because he’s giving a shoutout to an assistant coach. Last season’s coaching situation was so poisoned with insecurity that players were wary of publicly validating Jackson’s assistants.
Adams actually acts the part of a guru, speaking slowly with a cadence that does not fluctuate. Over the course of interviewing him, I kept interrupting because I thought his sentences were finished. There’s something not-of-the-NBA about Adams. He’s always toting a laptop around, peering deep into it through his specs, languidly surveying the practice floor outside it. He has this professorial air about him, or perhaps a clergyman who sells the religion of defense.
“I've been in programs with guys who come in who are so-called non-defensive players," Adams said. "They learn how because they convert.”
He makes a claim that few would agree with, naming Draymond Green the MVP of Golden State’s win Sunday in Portland. Green guarded LaMarcus Aldridge, who scored 29 points on 50 percent shooting. But he did so on an island for much of the game, depriving the Trail Blazers of space that opens up when help is sent to Aldridge’s defender.
“Could I sell that to fans?” Adams scoffs. “No."
Adams talks of there being “two levels of scrutiny,” in the NBA. There’s what’s sold to fans, a narrative about one hero triumphing over a team. And there’s the actual story of what wins, which involves five players connecting and benefitting from one another. "If you watch film, you have one guy who basically defeats an army,” Adams says of the popular narrative. “So I think that's a mindset, that's an American mindset. However, when anything is examined, we didn't get there by ourselves, and we didn't do it on our own."
The expectation isn’t that Curry actually gets credit for improved defense, though that might happen. The expectation is that Curry sacrifices for his teammates in ways that are noticeable on the coaching level of scrutiny. His improvements won’t be obvious in a lock-and-trail defensive set-up where much of the job is shading and chasing your mark to certain spots on the floor. The task isn’t to dramatically wreck your opponent -- it’s to funnel him to help, like a slanted putting green subtly guiding the ball away from its target.
This season, the Warriors hope to benefit from a subtle absence of ego. That might sound like some new-age bull, but the Spurs’ success is predicated on people getting over themselves. The R.C. Buford model is to hire those who know what you don’t. The want for credit can be corrosive to an organization. It’s difficult to ask for the right kind of help if you’re obsessed with being the reason for success.
What is New Klay?
There’s a big debate over whether Thompson’s hot shooting start is for real, even though everybody pretty much agrees his 28.83 PER isn’t sustainable. So that brings up an obvious question: How good does Thompson have to be to qualify as taking a leap? I’m conservative with these things, so I’ll peg the number at a 17 PER. New Klay is like a graphic movie: If you’re 17 or over, all that shooting is fine.
Thompson’s play might be yet another testament to the FIBA bump, accelerated improvement that comes with playing internationally. James Harden’s flaunted better defense since this summer’s World Cup games, and Anthony Davis hasn’t looked half bad. Not so much with Kyrie Irving, who was last seen trudging far behind Damian Lillard’s dust trail like he feared it’d dirty his jersey.
Draymond Green, who will be a restricted free agent at season’s end, has switched agents, opting for Warriors general manager Bob Myers’ old boss, Arn Tellem. What does this mean for the Warriors? It guarantees open lines of communication in contract negotiations, but it also probably means that Green’s power agent gets him fair value.
The Warriors are in a funny spot with their Swiss army knife forward. They can’t afford for him to have a bad season, and they can’t afford him if he has a great season. Green’s value is a topic of debate within and outside the organization because it’s difficult to reconcile his pedestrian traditional stats with the advanced stats that speak to his tremendous positive influence. Personally, I think they should move mountains (of money) to keep him. This team is capped out to the point where adding players as young and good as Green gets near impossible.
Warriors Optimism Report
There’s a light dusting of Warriors Optimism over the Bay Area. And that dust is sticking to the region’s film of champagne residue left by a Giants World Series victory.