With three minutes gone in Wednesday’s preseason game against the Los Angeles Lakers, Draymond Green slid up to the three-point line to trap a LeBron James-Anthony Davis pick-and-roll. He raised his right arm to block LeBron’s vision and straightened his left to close space for a pocket bounce pass. It’s a maneuver Green has successfully executed millions of times in tandem with scores of brilliant Warriors wing defenders over the years.
Because LeBron is LeBron, it wasn’t quite enough to stop the pocket pass to Davis. Even the tiniest crack is vulnerable to LeBron’s pinpoint delivery.
But when Green turned his head to watch Davis react to LeBron’s pass, he was disgusted with what he saw. The help defense that has so often been in sync with Green’s highly effective freelancing was badly out of position, slow to react to a Lakers maneuver Green himself sees in his sleep. He stared daggers in the general direction of Jacob Evans and Marquese Chriss and angrily clapped his hands. He knew the play was doomed the second the Lakers got past him.
It was just one sequence in a preseason game. (Let me say it again for emphasis: it was just one sequence in a preseason game). But in that moment, the totality of the Warriors’ forced offseason makeover hit me like a ton of bricks. The Lakers had just executed the signature sequence of Golden State’s multi-title run — hitting a generational point forward on the roll to beat a trap and create a 4-on-3 situation — with such ease. Meanwhile, the player who popularized the maneuver watched in despair knowing he could see the threat easily, but his new anonymous teammates couldn’t.
The moment symbolized an enduring reality that’ll take a while for us to process. The name on the front of the jersey still says “Warriors,” but these are not the Warriors you know. They may still have Stephen Curry, Green, and Steve Kerr. At some point, they’ll even get Klay Thompson back from injury. But two stars and a big-name coach don’t make an NBA team alone, and everything around those players has fundamentally changed for the worse.
Everywhere it matters most, the Warriors have been forced into a complete 180. The revolutionary defense that used to move as one with a collection of the smartest like-sized wing defenders in league history is now asking one notoriously demanding player to prop up a collection of young, undersized, and unaware teammates. The positionless offense that presented infinite threats for defenses is now relying heavily on a marquee free-agent point guard that ran more traditional pick-and-rolls than the entire team last year. The organization that made Strength In Numbers its rallying cry now enters the season with four NBA rotation players and a salary-cap situation that makes it nearly impossible to even execute the smallest roster transaction. (The Warriors induced a hard cap on themselves by sign-and-trading for D’Angelo Russell and currently sit less than half a million dollars under that threshold).
All of that puts way too much of a burden on Curry and Green to be offensive and defensive systems all by themselves.
The former is more plausible, since we have years of evidence suggesting Curry’s presence alone lifts the Warriors’ offense when he’s on the court. There will be nights where Curry can’t miss and nothing the defense does will matter. We already saw one such night against the Timberwolves this preseason.
Still, this won’t be the same beautiful game as in years past. Golden State had already become just as dependent on Kevin Durant’s scoring last year with all else being equal, and now he’s gone. Thompson’s shooting was both a spacing lubricant and a ceiling-raiser that nobody in the NBA can possibly replace. Green will need to be a scoring threat in ways he hasn’t been since 2016.
And then there’s Russell, who’s fit with this Warriors team remains as unclear as it was when the Warriors stunningly signed him this summer. On the one hand, he needs more reps to make the intuitive reads the Warriors’ motion offense requires when sharing the court with Curry. But on the other hand, the Warriors are so short on shot creation outside of Curry that they also need Russell to morph back into his pick-and-roll-all-the-time self to prop non-Curry units up. So far, that’s yielded the worst of all worlds: he’s not helping Golden State enough in his new role, but he’s also not good enough in his old role to keep the Warriors’ shallow roster afloat. To put it mildly, Russell’s integration will be a work-in-progress.
There’s at least hope the offense keeps on rolling along. Asking Draymond Green to save the Warriors’ defense looks like a much taller order.
Green may be a defensive genius, but his intuitive brilliance gets wasted when the rest of the team isn’t on his level. With Kevon Looney nursing a hamstring injury and Thompson out for a while, there’s nobody on the roster that possesses anything close to Green’s adaptive defensive mind.
That lob against the Lakers was one obvious example. Green’s intelligent trap on James is useless because Evans and Chriss don’t rotate to close Davis’ space in the short roll. In past years, those help defenders would be standing here before James even completes the pocket pass:
But it’s hardly the only time Green’s been let down by teammates that can’t read the game like he can. Green’s ability to switch onto any position has less of an effect when the player he’s switching with is small and weak. You can live with Thompson or Shaun Livingston guarding the big man Green switches off, or at least fronting him with a third smart and long player lurking behind him. It’s a much different story when Russell is the guy switching with Green.
And that’s assuming Green and his new teammates even execute the switch seamlessly. One of the nice things about piling up so many reps with other long, smart wing players is they can quickly recognize Green executing one of his patented switches or roams. But that’s not a skill that comes easily to the Warriors’ other role players, and their lack of experience together only compounds the issue. Russell in particular has been brutal matching up, and Chriss, Green’s frontcourt partner in Looney’s absence, has bounced around the league precisely because he reads the game too slowly on defense. (This is true no matter how vigorously Green defends Chriss and/or bashes his previous organizations).
Combine these factors with Green’s, um, propensity to display his frustration, and this doesn’t profile as a setup where one great defender can make a bunch of bad ones look competent. Green functions more like a sweeper that addresses problem areas a team can’t script than a goalie that aligns the players in front of him to force the offense a certain way. With so many weak and unaware defenders sharing the floor with him, there’ll be too many leaks for one man to plug. (I shudder to think how those holes get patched up when Green isn’t on the court).
Maybe this is an overreaction to the Warriors’ rough preseason. It’s preseason, after all. I’m gonna say it again to check my own instincts: it’s only preseason. Looney should return soon from a hamstring injury that knocked him out of preseason, and he’ll be a major boost to the defense in particular. Curry will have a handful of games where he can’t miss and nothing else matters. Green can lock in for possessions at a time when the game is close and take away the other team’s best player. Thompson is coming back ... sometime.
And again, it’s just preseason. It’s. Just. Preseason.
But if the Warriors are hoping to channel some version of their old selves to push them through this 82-game grind, I fear that will be an impossible task, even for two stars as tough as Curry and Green. Too much has changed for any of us to derive a lot of meaning from the name on the front of the jerseys.