How the Golden State Warriors Rebuilt Their Elite Defense

When Golden State Warriors fans go to that dark place where they ponder the living nightmare that was Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers, a few images invariably stand out:

LeBron James’ block on Andre Iguodala. Kyrie Irving’s clutch three-point dagger. Kevin Love’s improbable lockdown defense on Stephen Curry.

The one image that should stand out, however—and likely still does for avid fans across the Bay Area—is Anderson Varejao playing critical third-quarter minutes.

While Cavs coach Tyronn Lue tightened up his rotations as the game clock ticked down, Warriors helmsman Steve Kerr elected to keep the net widely cast. Part of this was gut instinct on his part, but it was also largely necessitated by circumstance: Golden State simply didn’t have size to spare. Andrew Bogut was knocked out of the series in Game 5 with a knee injury, Festus Ezeli was laboring through a dismal postseason and had nothing to offer, and Marreese Speights wasn’t a classic center by any means.

Alas, it had to be Varejao, who played four minutes and 20 seconds of the third, committed two fouls, didn’t score and posted a minus-six point differential—two points more than the game’s ultimate outcome. With no margin for error, the Warriors had erred in a big way.

Lesson learned.

Gone are Bogut (traded to the Dallas Mavericks), Ezeli (signed with the Portland Trail Blazers) and Speights (flew south to the Los Angeles Clippers), as well as Harrison Barnes, who, for all of his faults, was a strong defender that could slide up as needed to guard power forwards.

In their collective stead, the Warriors ushered in a group of bigs who largely de-emphasize size and physicality in favor of agility, positioning and pace:

• Damian Jones, their first-round pick and a 7’0” center out of Vanderbilt • Kevon Looney, last year’s first-round pick (who’s finally healthy) and a 6’9” power forward • David West, a 6’9” power forward in his 14th season• Zaza Pachulia, a 6’11” center also in his 14th season• JaVale McGee, a 7’0” center with his fifth team in nine years

That’s quite a hodgepodge of youth and experience, but it’s working out big-time.

Heading into their three-game road trip that culminates with the titanic Christmas Day showdown in Cleveland, the Warriors rank second in NBA defensive rating with just 100.8 points allowed per 100 possessions—a smidge better than where they wound up last season (100.9) and within striking distance of their league-best mark (98.2) from two seasons ago.

Of course, much of that uptick is also due to the formidable contributions made by Draymond Green, who has already won several games with last-minute plays. And then there’s Kevin Durant, a legit 7-footer starting at small forward who, as the Warriors learned in last May’s conference finals, can disrupt passing lanes and cross-match with the best of them.

But with more than a third of the season gone, the Warriors are also first in blocks and a surprising 10th in opponents’ field-goal percentage at the rim. They’re also tops in contested defensive rebounds per game.

For the past three games the Warriors have held their opponents to 90 points or fewer—the first time such a streak has happened in the Kerr …

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