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How to Beat the Warriors

Imitation won’t be enough. To topple the giant, teams will need to look at the defending champs and then dig even further into the past.

Ringer illustration/Getty Images
Ringer illustration/Getty Images

After a long summer of topless championship parades, free-agency meetings in the Hamptons, Snapchat mishaps, and gold medals, the NBA is finally, truly, really, almost back. The start of training camp marks the beginning of our NBA Preview.

We kick things off with Warriors Week, an in-depth look at one of the most interesting assemblages of basketball talent ever. We’ll have a different theme each week, as well as the usual league coverage. So check back often. Basketball never sleeps, and neither do we.

The Warriors have the potential to become one of the greatest basketball teams in history, but they aren’t invincible. “Nobody can deny the great talent that they have. But we’re not going to just lay down and die, I’ll tell you that,” Celtics GM Danny Ainge said days after Kevin Durant joined Golden State. It’s a sentiment shared across the league. Front offices understand the challenge, but they won’t time their teams’ rise by waiting out the Warriors juggernaut. Superpowers have been toppled time and time again in sports history. One turned ankle, one ball stuck to the side of a helmet, or one slip in the ring can change the competitive landscape in an instant. Teams don’t want to miss their chance when improbability strikes.

The Warriors gutted their depth to create space for Durant, leaving a core of KD, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala, and Shaun Livingston. With Zaza Pachulia and David West filling the holes left in their front line, the Dubs could steamroll during the regular season. But opponents are building for the playoff battles. Golden State’s weaknesses — its dearth of bigs and its lack of depth — can be exposed by following the blueprint established by teams in last year’s playoffs and building off it.

Curry is Houdini in sneakers: Lock him in maximum security, and he’ll find a way to escape to unleash a 3. But teams can’t panic when he walks on water; defending Curry is about limiting easy opportunities with physicality and versatility within a switching scheme. During the season, the Spurs were one of the first teams to prioritize switching their bigs onto Curry. Others copied the formula, including the Cavaliers, most memorably with less than a minute remaining in Game 7 of the Finals.

Kevin Love is widely considered a porous defender, and yet the Cavaliers switched him onto Curry for the most important possession of the series. Why? The alternative, more traditional methods of pick-and-roll defense play right into the Warriors’ greatest strengths. The more common style involves “dropping” Love to the paint, but that leaves Curry ample space to jack an open 3. The other is a hedge, or a blitz, which isn’t used as frequently in today’s league since it puts two defenders on the ball, leaving another player wide open. Curry is elite in isolation situations, scoring 1.07 points per possession (94th percentile), per Synergy, but that’s preferable to his pick-and-roll scoring (1.11 points per possession) and playmaking.

Tristan Thompson’s efforts in the Finals were worth all of his $82 million contract. He inhaled rebounds like Kirby, forced the defense to collapse on his rim runs, and played with contagious energy on his switches. The Cavs had a plus-8.8 net rating when Thompson was on the floor, the highest mark among Cavs rotation players in the series. Thompson’s defensive rebounding was particularly important, since the Warriors rip hearts out with second-chance points. Last year’s Lineup of Death (Curry, Klay Thompson, Green, Iguodala, and Harrison Barnes) recorded an astounding 59.3 effective field goal percentage on shots attempted after offensive rebounds, per NBA Wowy. By limiting their second chances, teams can limit their open looks. When the Warriors secure an offensive rebound, they create a situation tailored to the skill set of their lineup. Their bigs have the passing vision of guards, and the lightning-quick releases of their perimeter shooters are uniquely suited to capitalize on scrambling defenders. A defensive possession isn’t truly over until the rebound is secured, so elite rebounders can sometimes compensate for their defensive limitations elsewhere.

Teams are mining for versatile bigs capable of defending Curry like Thompson can. Six players drafted over an 11-pick stretch in 2016 fit the potential mold of a high-energy, rebounding big man with feet light enough to switch: Ante Zizic (23rd, Boston), Brice Johnson (25th, L.A. Clippers), Pascal Siakam (27th, Toronto), Ivica Zubac (32nd, L.A. Lakers), Cheick Diallo (33rd, New Orleans), and Damian Jones, whom the Warriors selected with the 30th pick. But if teams are training their young big men to become thorns in the Warriors’ side, they’ll need to develop the ability to switch off-ball as well as they do on-ball. Why? Because Curry is just as impossible without the ball in his hands. He scores a remarkable 1.49 points per possession in spot-up situations, 1.20 off screens, and 1.18 via dribble handoffs, all of which rank above the 90th percentile of all NBA players, per Synergy.

Teams can try switching off-ball screens to stay glued to Curry, even if that means putting a lumbering defender on him. It usually isn’t ideal, but it’s preferable to getting swallowed by a screen that frees up Curry for an open look when the defense can’t communicate an adjustment in time. Here’s what it looks like when an off-ball switch works:

Three Wolves — Ricky Rubio, Zach LaVine, and then Greg Smith — defend Curry as he races through two screens. Without the switches, Curry is likely launching a 3 from the top of the key. Instead, he receives the ball at the logo and the play eventually results in a travel. Switching along the baseline and sidelines can help stagnate the Warriors offense; by baiting their players into re-screening, a team can wear down Curry by forcing him to sprint through screens over and over.

As is the case with switching bigs, not every team can play this style. That’s why you keep hearing about how 3-and-D wings and forwards who can defend multiple positions are like gold in today’s game. Savvy teams are arming themselves with a wealth of them, enabling switch-heavy lineups that can ably cover all of Golden State’s stars. Teams like the Pistons, Celtics, and Bucks, among others, are equipped to play this style. Dallas’s signing of Harrison Barnes has been rightfully questioned due to his offensive limitations, but he completes a trio with Wesley Matthews and Justin Anderson, all of whom can seamlessly switch assignments onto bigs or guards. While the Mavericks paid top dollar for Barnes, high-end role players like Jae Crowder and DeMarre Carroll have been harvested for cheap, and there are others out there waiting to be found.

The Warriors’ addition of Durant further complicates this switching plan, though. KD will punish any smaller defender by driving or posting, scoring a colossal 1.23 points per possession on post-ups last season, per Synergy, a better rate than Dirk Nowitzki’s and LaMarcus Aldridge’s. To prevent that, Curry’s defender might be forced to fight through Durant’s screen instead of switching.

Here’s what this play looked like with Durant and Russell Westbrook. Tony Parker drops under Durant’s screen, leaving Westbrook open to shoot a 3 off the dribble, a shot he converts at just a 28.5 percent rate. That’s not such a bad bet for the defense. But Curry drains 42.8 percent of his 3s off the dribble. Give Curry any space at all, and you’re dead. That’s why it’s still necessary to have at least one lockdown perimeter defender like Ricky Rubio, Patrick Beverley, or Avery Bradley, who can stay attached to Curry’s hip, pester him through screens, and smother his airspace without straying from their team’s fundamental defensive tenets. It’s an even greater bonus if the guard is sturdy enough to switch onto larger players, but there aren’t a lot of players out there capable of that. If a team has a chance to grab the next Tony Allen, it’d better seize it.

When it comes to formulating a game plan against the Warriors, mimicking Golden State’s style is merely a baseline. No other team can realistically assemble a roster with the level of offensive interchangeability that the Warriors possess. Luckily, they don’t have to. The league is changing, but modern teams can draw inspiration from the past to make the Warriors play to their strengths.

The mid-’90s Sonics were ahead of their time. In an era dominated by big men post-ups and isolations, Seattle madly raced around the court, trapping and switching. Just look at how the team defended Michael Jordan in the 1996 NBA Finals:

The Sonics were second in defensive rating and led the league in steals by a wide margin behind that frantic style of play. They lost the series to Jordan and the Bulls, but lessons can be learned from their team construction — highlighted by two ferocious perimeter defenders in Gary Payton and Nate McMillan, and a versatile forward in Shawn Kemp — and how it was utilized on the floor. The league has changed since hand-checking was eliminated once and for all in 2004, allowing speedy scorers to roam free. But Seattle’s defensive style was all about denying space by any means necessary. Teams today might not be allowed to defend like that anymore (they’d foul out within minutes), but they can approximate that same level of disruptiveness with long-limbed and active defenders.

The Sonics’ swarm mentality lives on in the Celtics, and it was instrumental in their 109–106 win over the Warriors in April. Boston has a blueprint to follow; Crowder said as much weeks after Durant signed with the Warriors in July.

“We were the only team in the NBA to beat both [Cleveland and Golden State] on their home court. The only team in the NBA, the Boston Celtics,” Crowder said. “We told [Durant] that. We played him clips from both games and told him basically the scouting report of how we guarded Steph and Klay — our entire game plan, basically. That’s what made me mad. We fucking told him everything we do to beat these guys, and we beat them, and he went and joined them. … [Maybe we] shouldn’t have told him everything, but who the fuck thought he was going to Golden State, realistically?”

The Celtics might’ve spilled the beans, but not too many teams in the league actually have the horses to adopt some of the Sonics’ more demanding tactics. Boston does. Marcus Smart, Avery Bradley, and Terry Rozier are all feisty guards who fly around the court, and Crowder and Jaylen Brown blend strength with agility.

Here, the Celtics apply pressure to Curry as he attempts to enter the paint, forcing him to swing the ball to less threatening teammates. This kind of trapping style is an intriguing option for teams this season if they can successfully bait the Warriors into making anyone other than Curry, Thompson, or Durant beat them. That’s easier said than done, but like a cornerback blitz in football, it would be deployed as a situational wrinkle within a scheme to shake things up. The most obvious candidate within Golden State’s new and improved Lineup of Death is Green. Draymond shot 38.8 percent from 3 last season, but teams will be daring him to shoot all season long, especially in lieu of the other options on the floor. Of course, Green’s accuracy from deep could also be an anomaly: He shot just 31.4 percent on 704 attempts (regular season and playoffs) in his first three seasons. Green has had instances, like in the 2015 Finals, when he overdribbled and forced shots in the paint against solid rim protection. He shot 47.4 percent on drives to the rim last season, per SportVU, an average figure, especially when considering the talent around him. Green has also scored an unremarkable 0.75 points per possession on isolations and post-ups combined. Iguodala is a league-average, 35.1 percent 3-point shooter with the Warriors. Teams need to pick their poison against the Warriors, and giving Iguodala the Tony Allen treatment or Green the space to operate could be easier to stomach than leaving Durant one-on-one on the post or trapping Curry in the pick-and-roll.

With a skilled, playmaking big man like Al Horford, Boston is also capable of taking a page out of the book of one of the NBA’s great team constructions lost to time. The 1999–00 Trail Blazers possessed a collection of talent that could have conceivably neutralized Golden State had they played in this era: They had Scottie Pippen, whose all-around ability inspired many of the NBA’s modern weapons and would’ve been every bit as effective today; Damon Stoudamire, a firecracker scoring guard; and knockdown shooters in Steve Smith and Greg Anthony. Those Blazers had talent on the perimeter, but they didn’t play small. The team had one of the biggest front lines in basketball in 6-foot-11 Rasheed Wallace and 7-foot-3 Arvydas Sabonis, both of whom could post up and space the floor. Wallace was the team’s emerging star and Sabonis was its best facilitator, despite being nearly a foot and a half taller than his point guard.

The low post was the Blazers’ watering hole. Today, Wallace and Sabonis’s combination of size and skill would’ve made for a difficult matchup against Golden State’s preferred style of switching. If the Warriors did switch, either of the two could brutalize a smaller player inside. If they drew a double, they were skilled enough to kick the ball out to an open shooter. The whole reason teams lean on the pick-and-roll is because it puts two defenders on the ball. If teams bring that principle back into the post and force teams to double, its impact could be significant. Teams won’t funnel the ball inside like they used to, but applying the strategy selectively with the right personnel would force the Warriors to put a big man of their own on the floor.

The Lineup of Death had a bonkers plus-47 net rating last season, so it’s usually a positive (or at least a sigh of relief) for the opponent any time they’re not all on the floor. Last year, the fifth man (Barnes or Iguodala) was usually replaced by Andrew Bogut. Bogut didn’t play over 18 minutes in any of the first four games of last season’s Western Conference finals series against Oklahoma City, but with the Thunder up 3–1 and controlling the boards with their slew of big men, the Warriors turned to Bogut for 27-plus minutes in the must-win games 5 and 6. Bogut was a brick wall all season, allowing only 0.70 points per possession on post-ups and isolations, per Synergy. He was one of the indirect casualties of the KD acquisition and was replaced by Pachulia, a competent defender who hustles hard and rotates well, but lacks Bogut’s shot-blocking ability and bulk. Zaza could be an easy target this year for teams following the bruising formula of the Thunder.

The Mavericks and Spurs will also be trotting out skilled Twin Tower–lineups this season, but those bigs — Bogut and Dirk on Dallas, Aldridge and Pau Gasol on San Antonio — are getting older. The Clippers’ Blake Griffin–DeAndre Jordan duo can challenge the Warriors, but Doc Rivers needs to increase Blake’s playmaking role to make it actually work. The onus could land on the rising teams, like the Wolves and Nuggets, to take down Golden State in the coming years with game plans built around their prized big men. Denver’s Nikola Jokic played point guard in his youth, and those positional skills have manifested in his 6-foot-10, 250-pound frame; he is the only qualifying rookie center in the past 40 years to post an assist percentage above 18, per Basketball-Reference. The Wolves have Karl-Anthony Towns, who will force teams — including the Warriors — to adjust to him like Shaquille O’Neal and Tim Duncan did in their primes. Sure, it might seem premature to say that, but Towns averaged 28.3 points, 15.1 rebounds, 4.0 assists, and 1.9 blocks per 100 possessions after the All-Star break last season. Only nine qualifying players have matched that threshold over a full season, per Basketball-Reference, and at least seven are current or future Hall of Famers.

The Warriors are in the back of the minds of every NBA executive, since there’s a high probability they’ll need to get through them to win a title. That’s true for teams competing for a championship this season and teams that’ll peak in two or three years, because the Warriors don’t seem to be going away.

Think what you want about Joe Lacob’s “light-years ahead” comments, but he was at least partially right. The Warriors were ahead of the curve, but what they’re doing isn’t completely original: Mike D’Antoni’s Seven Seconds or Less Suns started a trend over a decade ago that the Warriors took to the extreme. Teams won’t beat the Warriors by playing exactly like them on the court, but they might be able to by adapting a similarly innovative mind-set in the front office: Learn from the past in building for the future.

Dynasties need their own adversaries to be truly memorable. The league can only hope other teams start catching up.