You can’t win without defense
Draymond Green lights a fire, but is it enough?
BY DAVID THORPE
The reigning NBA Defensive Player of the Year, Marcus Smart, is one of the NBA’s grittiest veterans. He has played in 17 playoff series and won most of them—a role model for anyone who wants to win in the NBA. He also has the league’s 83rd-highest salary, earning just over $17 million this season.
Smart plays the same position as Jordan Poole, who signed a four-year extension in October. Poole makes a lot more than Smart does—almost $29 million. Soon, he’ll make $35 million. According to Dunks and Threes, Smart has an EPM of plus-1.5 this season. In the same advanced statistics, Poole is at minus-0.4, and can often be seen on video blowing defensive assignments.
Teams talk about winning as a business strategy, but they mostly spend on scoring. And when they spend that way, it can be hard to get impressionable young players, eager to get paid, to really dial in, Marcus Smart-style, on the defensive end.
One of the mysteries of this year’s NBA season is the underperformance of the Golden State Warriors. They have most of the parts of a recent dynasty. Stephen Curry, when healthy, has been incredible. They still have Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, Kevon Looney, Andrew Wiggins, and almost every key player. But even when healthy, they’re just not winning this year at anything like the same rate.
Which is a story about defense.
Remember when Green punched Poole at work? At the time, many speculated that Poole’s new contract extension—which would make it hard for the Warriors to fit the defensive-minded Green’s next extension under the salary cap—might have been one of the instigating factors. With that financial decision, the Warriors brass sent a message to the youngest players on the team: They might love defense, but they’d pay offense.
A mantra begins to seep into players’ heads: “Defense doesn’t matter.”
Yet, defense has to matter. Staying attached to your driver, chasing your man over a ball screen when he’s a strong shooter off the dribble, forcing them to drive with their weaker hand when a teammate yells out, “WEAK!” All of that matters … if you want to win.
The Warriors made a clear offense-first choice in paying Poole over Green. They drafted James Wiseman to protect the rim, and we wrote they should obsessively focus on shot-blocking and dead-simple offense like dunking, but then the Warriors fell in love with developing his entire offensive arsenal. Wiseman lost focus, and now they still need someone to protect the rim. Their current option, Looney—a defensive standout in their last two Finals appearances—will make less over his whole contract than Poole will make in one season of his extension.
So what we really get down to here is whether a team truly values defense. If it does, then the front office populates the team with those players and hires coaches with a curriculum that leads to much better defensive play—and they pay for that as well.
That’s one way to make defense sexy: Make winning all that matters. That’s something the Warriors have failed to do this season.
Getting players to buy in
Anyone can talk about defense. Coaches say a lot of perfect things about the virtues of defense in press conferences. None of it actually matters unless they get their guys to care.
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