Are the Rockets the Biggest Potential Threat to the Warriors’ Dynasty?
Photo credit: USAToday Sports. Pictured: James Harden, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kevin Durant
- After dropping two home games in the first round to the Clippers, a fair question emerges: Are the Warriors vulnerable?
- And if so, are the Rockets the most likely team to beat them? Or is there a better team suited to knocking off the defending champs?
As difficult as it is to predict when a great team will turn into a dynasty, it’s just as difficult to predict that dynasty’s demise, assuming the cast of characters remains.
So it is with the Golden State Warriors, winners of the last two NBA titles and three of the last four overall. Were it not for a Game 7, miraculous 3-pointer from Kyrie Irving, there would be kids entering kindergarten who have never seen a non-Warriors championship.
That sort of team — a true dynasty — deserves the benefit of the doubt. When they were down 3-2 to the Rockets last year, they were still about even money to win the title. They, of course, rallied and took home another trophy.
Last season, the Warriors finished ‘only’ ninth in defensive efficiency after being first, fourth, and second in the previous three seasons. But most analysts gave them the benefit of the doubt entering the playoffs, and they were rewarded: Golden State posted the best defense in last year’s postseason.
This season, with a core now entering or already in their 30s, it’s tempting to give the benefit of the doubt yet again.
The Warriors ranked ninth in defensive efficiency in the regular season, but the team will start trying in the playoffs and become one of the best units, right?
At least through five games of their first-round series against the LA Clippers — an admittedly small sample — that hasn’t been the case.
In non-garbage time this postseason, the Warriors are allowing 113.0 points per 100 possessions — 11th out of the 16 teams. They’re 11th in effective field goal percentage allowed and dead last in free throw rate allowed.
Warriors’ Defensive Rank by Shot Area, Regular Season vs. Playoffs
In the Clippers’ two wins, here’s how they shot against the Warriors at the rim:
- Game 2: 18-of-19 (94.7%)
- Game 5: 15-of-15 (100.0%)
Last season, the Warriors were about average in rim protection metrics and finished that way in the playoffs. This season, they ranked 24th in the regular season in field goal percentage allowed at the rim; in the playoffs, they’ve ranked 14th. Lou Williams has gotten into the lane whenever he wants, and Montrezl Harrell has dominated the Warriors bigs inside.
There have still been moments where Draymond Green, easily the Warriors’ best rim protector, has risen to the occasion and provided that lift:
Draymond Green sees that KD is out of position after lunging, so he leaves his man to cut Gallinari off and saves two points pic.twitter.com/3jk61cXZig
— Drew Shiller (@DrewShiller) April 22, 2019
If Draymond doesn’t leave his man to help, Montrezl Harrell would have had a wide open path to the basket. Instead, Harrell misses the tough layup because Draymond contests him at the rim pic.twitter.com/KJBBdnmI2r
— Drew Shiller (@DrewShiller) April 22, 2019
Other times, like in Game 5, the help defense has been nonexistent:
Klay Thompson gives a half-hearted swipe at the ball, and Kevin Durant and Green don’t even take a step from the weakside.
Here, Stephen Curry goes for a lazy, bail-out swipe in the lane and then is too late to help down after Kevon Looney moves over to pick up Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. That’s about as easy as it gets.
Some of the issues, as you seen in the videos, are about effort. That can be fixed. But that analysis also ignores a key fact about this team, which is that it has become so reliant on the genius of Green to create an elite defense nearly by himself.
Green is still brilliant and has risen to the occasion even in this series. But as an undersized big approaching 30, when does he lose a step — and how important is that step to the Warriors defense and title chances? You could make the argument watching this Clippers series that it’s perhaps the most important factor in the Dubs winning again.
Further, the Warriors have been terrible at boxing out and hitting the defensive glass, leading to a multitude of Clippers tip-ins and second-chance opportunities at the rim. They are fundamentally getting beat inside — even against an No. 8 seed that wasn’t elite there all year.
It remains to be seen whether the defense — specifically the rim protection and defensive rebounding — is going to be their Achilles’ heel, their fatal flaw. But, if it is, what does that mean for the rest of the playoffs?
The Warriors’ Biggest Potential Threat Isn’t the Rockets
The answer is that it might not matter for a while. Everyone is viewing the Rockets as their biggest competition for the title, but Houston’s offense doesn’t necessarily attack the rim with abandon. This season, the Rockets rank 26th in frequency of shots at the rim, taking them on only 33.3% of their possessions.
The No. 2 seed in the West, the Nuggets, also ranked in the bottom 10 in shots at the rim in the regular season. Neither of those teams changed when they played the Warriors.
- Denver’s shot frequency at the rim vs. Warriors: 28.0% (22nd out of 29 teams)
- Houston’s shot frequency at the rim vs. Warriors: 24.3% (28th out of 29 teams)
The Nuggets really struggled to score as a result in their four games against the Warriors this season, posting a miserable 99.2 Offensive Rating. The Rockets fared well, but a big part of that was less about shooting and more about getting to the line, which they did on an impressive 24.7% of their possessions. Will that strategy hold up in a playoff setting?
That leads us to one team this year that finished the regular season first in Net Rating (+9.1), third in Offensive Rating and second in Defensive Rating. But, more importantly, it’s a team that ranked second in shots at the rim.
The Milwaukee Bucks.
Further, while the Bucks weren’t an elite offensive rebounding team in the regular season, they did grab 35% of their misses in two games against the Warriors — the second-best mark against Golden State this year.
Antetokounmpo, the likely 2018-19 NBA MVP, isn’t LeBron James. But he’s maybe the closest we’ve seen to LeBron’s dominance attacking the rim. Even with the best help defense in the world, this is nearly impossible to defend:
Even when help is adequately there, he’s shown a great improvement in his passing ability:
Look at Antetokounmpo’s percentile score over the past three seasons as the pick-and-roll ball-handler:
It’s easy to look at last year’s playoffs and think the weapon needed to defeat the Warriors is James Harden, Chris Paul and the Rockets’ scheme. But given the Warriors’ struggles defending the rim, wouldn’t that weapon be Giannis and the Bucks?
Of course, we need all the necessary caveats: Giannis is 24 years old, he’s never been to a Finals, this is his first true season as a title contender, Mike Budenholzer has a questionable playoff history, etc. And the Bucks still have to get through a gauntlet of their own in the East; Irving, Joel Embiid and Kawhi Leonard will all have something to say about a Milwaukee Finals berth.
But for as much has been made about the Rockets and Celtics building their teams as Warriors antidotes, Golden State’s biggest threat might be Giannis and the Milwaukee Bucks.