The Golden State Warriors Cleverly Reinventing Themselves to Leap Back to the Top of the NBA Heap

The Golden State Warriors built a dynasty on the back of a dynamic offense, led by Stephen Curry, that punished opponents into submission. At least that was how the narrative went. With offense down around the NBA this season, the Warriors are winning again, and it’s not because they are simply scoring other teams to death. Instead, the Warriors have the stingiest defense in the NBA. Moreover, they’re on pace to be one of the top-ranked defensive teams of the 21st century.

With their 114–92 pummeling of the Charlotte Hornets on Nov. 3, the Warriors hopped past the Miami Heat into the No. 1 spot in the NBA’s defensive rankings. Now allowing 97.1 points per 100 possessions, Golden State is on pace for the best defensive rating since the 2003–04 Detroit Pistons won the NBA title while holding opponents to 93.1 points per 100 possessions. But if one looks at the dynasty era years, you find that the defense of the Warriors was overlooked.

The Golden State Warriors had the top-ranked defense during their 2014–15 title run

When Steve Kerr arrived to coach the Golden State Warriors, the team quickly rose from playoff team to contender. In 2014–15, the Warriors posted an offensive rating of 110.4, second-best in the NBA and trailing only the Lob City LA Clippers. But what separated them from the rest of the league was their top-ranked defense. Golden State won 67 games on the back of a defensive rating of 100.4.

The Warriors were sixth and second in defensive efficiency for the next two seasons, respectively, pairing that defensive prowess with the league’s best offense. Golden State slid back into the pack in 2017–18 and 2018–19, finishing 11th in defense, but still reached the NBA Finals both seasons, winning once.

Three titles in five years, all while having a defense around the top 10 in the NBA.

The switchability of Draymond Green made a lot of that possible. So too did the perimeter prowess of Klay Thompson. Curry’s offensive exploits overshadow what he does on defense, and while he’s not an All-Defensive caliber player, neither is he a one-dimensional sieve.

Their offense during their five-year run was phenomenal. Understandably, it garnered the lion’s share of the attention. But as the cliché goes, defense wins championships. The Warriors won three rings because they paid attention to that end of the floor as well.

The Warriors have their defensive mojo back

The Golden State Warriors have quietly climbed to the top of the NBA defensive rankings
The Golden State Warriors have quietly climbed to the top of the NBA defensive rankings. | Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

The Golden State Warriors collapsed to the bottom of the NBA in 2019–20. Injuries and the loss of Kevin Durant gutted the team, which finished a league-worst 15–50. They also dropped to 26th in the NBA on defense, allowing 113.0 points per 100 possessions. Their vaunted offense was worse, hitting rock bottom with a 104.4 offensive rating.

The offensive woes didn’t end despite Curry’s near-MVP performance. Golden State was just 20th in the NBA in offensive efficiency in 2020–21 but won 39 games and reached the play-in tournament on the strength of its fifth-ranked defense.

During their 6–1 start, the Dubs are offensively in the middle of the pack, ranked 16th. But their defense is cooking. Golden State is one of only three NBA teams, along with the Heat and Utah Jazz, holding teams to less than 100 points per 100 possessions.

The Warriors are pushing the pace, ranked third in the league with 102.76 possessions per game. Defensively, they are doing work at the arc, holding teams to 30.2% shooting from 3-point range. That trails only Utah (26.7%).

Are the Golden State Warriors legitimate contenders again?

That’s the big question for the Golden State Warriors. But given they’re still without Thompson and 2020 first-round pick James Wiseman, both still recovering from injuries, the Warriors appear poised to get better when those players eventually return.

Wiseman is closer than Thompson at this point. The 7-footer is cleared for full practice participation and asked for some time with the team’s Santa Cruz affiliate in the G League to get back in game shape more quickly.

As for Thompson, the team is eyeing a return sometime around Christmas. Getting the other Splash Brother back could be huge for the Warriors. It’s not a coincidence they’ve missed the playoffs both years he’s been sidelined.

The sample sizes are small. No one is ready to declare Warriors are back to their championship form. But the early signs from San Francisco are encouraging, just the same. With Curry in his age-33 season and Green and Thompson at 31, their championship window may not be open much longer. If the Golden State Warriors are going to get fourth rings for Curry, Green, and Thompson, it needs to be sooner rather than later.

Statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference and NBA.com.

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