After three minutes of preseason play against the Los Angeles Lakers on Wednesday, Draymond Green slipped on the three-point line to intercept a LeBron James-Anthony Davis pick-and-roll. He raised his right arm to block LeBron's view and reached out to make room for a pocket bounce pass. It's a maneuver that Green has done millions of times over the years with numerous brilliant Warriors wing defenders.
With LeBron being LeBron, it's not enough to stop the Pocket Pass on Davis. Even the smallest crack is susceptible to the punctual delivery of LeBron.
But when Green turned his head to see Davis react to LeBron's pass, he was disgusted with what he saw. The help defense, so often synced with Green's highly effective freelancing, was poorly positioned and slow to respond to a Lakers maneuver that Green himself sees asleep. He stared daggers in the general direction of Jacob Evans and Marquese Chriss, clapping his hands angrily. He knew that the piece was doomed to failure when the Lakers passed him.
It was just a sequence in a preseason game. (Let me emphasize again: It was just a sequence in a preseason game ). But at that moment, the totality of the off-season makeover imposed by the warriors hit me like a ton of stones. The Lakers had just completed the signature sequence of Golden State's multi-title run – and pushed one generation point forward to overcome a trap and create a 4-on-3 situation – with such ease , In the meantime, the player popularizing the maneuver was looking desperately, knowing he could easily spot the threat, but not his new anonymous teammates.
The moment symbolized a lasting reality that will take a while to process. The name on the front of the jersey still says "Warriors," but those are not the Warriors you know. Maybe they still have Stephen Curry, Green and Steve Kerr. At some point, they even get Klay Thompson back from injury. But two stars and a famous coach do not make an NBA team alone and everything around these players has turned down fundamentally for the worse.
Wherever it matters most, the warriors were forced to a complete 180. The Revolutionary Defense, which formerly operated as a unit with a collection of the smartest wing defenders of equal size in the history of the League, is now challenging a notoriously demanding player to prop up a collection of young, under-sized and unsuspecting teammates. The location-less offense, which posed an infinite threat to the defense, now relies heavily on a hands-free point guard that performed more traditional pick-and-roll than the entire team last year. The organization that has made Strength In Numbers their hunt group is starting the season with four NBA rotation players and a salary cap that makes it nearly impossible to make even the smallest roster transaction. (The warriors have set themselves a hard upper limit by signing and trading for D'Angelo Russell and are currently sitting less than half a million dollars below that threshold).
All this puts far too much pressure on Curry and Green to be offensive and defensive alone.
The former is more plausible, as we have years of evidence that the presence of Curry alone removes the warrior's offense when he's on the court. There will be nights when Curry can not be missed, and nothing the defense will do will matter. We have already seen such a night against the Timberwolves in this preseason.
Nevertheless, this game will not be as nice as in previous years. Golden State was just as dependent on Kevin Durant's last year's win as everyone else was the same, and now he's gone. Thompson's shooting was both a distance lubricant and a ceiling elevation that nobody in the NBA can replace. Green has to be a scoring threat in a way he has not been since 2016.
And then there's Russell, who fits in with this Warriors team, as unclear as it was when the Warriors staged a stunning contract this summer. On the one hand, he needs more repetitions to allow for the intuitive readings that warriors' movement crime requires when he divides the playing field with curry. On the other hand, the Warriors have so little experience of creating shots outside of Curry that they need Russell to turn themselves back into his pick-and-roll self and build non-curry units. So far, this has brought the worst of all worlds: he does not help Golden State enough in his new role, but he's also not good enough in his old role to keep the shallow squadrons of the warriors afloat. To say the least, Russell's integration will not be complete yet.
There is at least the hope that the offense will continue. To ask Draymond Green to save the warriors' defense looks like a much bigger task.
Green may be a defensive genius, but his intuitive brilliance is wasted when the rest of the team is not at his level. While Kevon Looney has a hamstring injury and Thompson goes down for a while, there is no one on the list who owns anything close to Green's adaptive defensive spirit.
This attack against the Lakers was an obvious example. Green's intelligent trap for James is useless as Evans and Chriss do not turn to close Davis' field in the short role. In recent years, these helping defenders have been here before James even completed the pocket pass:
But it's hardly the only time that Green has been left by teammates who can not read the game as he can. Green's ability to move to any position has less effect if the player he moves with is small and weak. You can live with Thompson or Shaun Livingston and protect the big man Green turns off, or at least confront him with a third intelligent and long player lurking behind him. It's a different story when Russell is the guy who switches to Green.
And on the assumption that Green and his new teammates even run the switch seamlessly. One of the nice things about having so many reruns with other intelligent players is that they can quickly spot Green when he's running one of his patented switches or roams. However, this is not a skill that is beneficial to the warriors' other role-players, and their lack of experience together only makes the problem worse. Russell in particular has been brutally beaten, and Chriss, Green's frontcourt partner in Looney's absence, has prevailed in the league just because he reads the game in defense too slowly. (This is true, no matter how vigorously Green defends Chriss and / or his previous organizations .)
Combine these factors with Green's tendency to show his frustration, and this is profiled not as a setup where a great defender can make a lot of bad players look competent. Green works more like a sweeper dealing with problem areas that a team can not create than a goalie who puts the players in front of them to force the offense in a certain way. With so many weak and unsuspecting defenders sharing the word, there are too many leaks for a man to clog. (I shudder to think how these holes will be repaired if Green is not on the pitch.)
Perhaps this is an overreaction to the warriors' harsh preseason. After all, it is preseason. I'll say it again to check my own instincts: it's just preseason. Looney was soon to return from a thigh injury that threw him out of the preseason, and he will give a big boost to defense in particular. Curry will have a handful of games in which he can not miss anything and nothing else matters. Green can take possession of the game at the time the game is over and take the best player from the other team. Thompson is coming back … someday.
And again it's just preseason. It is. Just. Preseason.
But if the warriors hope to channel a version of their old self to push them through this 82-game challenge, I fear that this will be an impossible task, even for two such tough stars as Curry and Green , It has changed too much for each of us to derive great meaning from the name on the front of the jerseys.