After the Warriors stormed back to defeat the Thunder 121-118 in overtime on Saturday night to improve to 53-5 (16-0 against the top 10 teams in the NBA), and with NBA legend Oscar Robertson’s grousing fresh in everybody’s minds, our Kevin Draper and Albert Burneko exchanged some emails about how to stop Stephen Curry and the Warriors offense, or at least slow it down. Their exchange is below.
Draper: Let’s start by ruling out a strategy that a surprising amount of analysts clamor for, but that doesn’t actually work: Doubling Stephen Curry. It sometimes worked two years ago, but not anymore.
Over the past two offseasons, Curry has become a much better ball handler, especially under pressure. You’ve seen the crazy dribbling drills. He’s now able to keep his dribble alive under serious pressure while searching for an outlet, instead of picking the ball up and getting tied up, or having to jump and hopefully find an open body.
In the Warriors’ scheme, that open body is almost always Draymond Green, receiving the ball near the top of the key. If he wants he can rise for an open three—he’s shooting 40% from distance on the season—but more often than not he attacks the hoop in a 4-on-3 situation, against a defense pulled out of position. If Green were a normal power forward this would be okay, but he’s not: he is an exceptional playmaker. These 4-on-3s almost always lead to a layup or corner three attempt, which is an even better result than Curry uncorking a three.
So however you try and stop Curry, it must be with only one man defending him.
Burneko: Yeah, no argument there. The doubling/trapping routine that has become the consensus approach to defending Steph on high screens is suicide. But then the question is: Why do teams do it?
This is where the puzzle of trying to figure out a defense against Steph and the Warriors reminds me that I’m talking about human beings with finite physical and psychological stamina and limited tolerance for humiliation. From my couch, the least-suicidal defense seems fairly clear: crowd Steph, ride him over the screen at all costs, keep the screener’s man back a bit, stay at home on everybody else, and just happily surrender like a full half-acre of space between the three-point line and the restricted area to Steph and his roll man. Conceptually, in the abstract, it makes sense to sell out to chase Steph inside the three-point line and force him to make 50 floaters; he’s much more like a normal, conceivable 21st-century NBA point guard from 22 feet and in than from farther out.
This is where I think Oscar had something sorta right, or vaguely in the same solar system as a not-ridiculous thought: If Steph’s defender is picking him up on the inbound, and maybe not pressing him but staying close the length of the floor, running him off the three-point line probably becomes a bit ... well, not easier, but more plausible, and making him operate closer to the basket with a big guy in front of him seems like a worthy goal.
(What a world we live in: The goal of defending the NBA’s best player is to force him to take advantage of a mile of empty parquet inside the three-point line instead of shooting from the half-court circle.)
Maybe he gets frustrated! Maybe his points-per-possession shrinks juuuuuust enough to return Golden State’s offense to orbit! Maybe you have more opportunities to get behind him in transition because he’s not already 40 feet from the basket when he misses! Maybe some of his teammates get stiff and bored from not being able to go 4-on-3 and shoot open threes all game, and lose their edge on defense! Maybe maybe maybe!
The problem, I think, is that other than Steph himself, pretty much everybody on a basketball court during an NBA game is a human being. The discipline and precision and teamwork this approach requires is superhuman: if Draymond’s defender doesn’t call out the screen just right, if Steph’s man crashes into it instead of fighting like hell to get over the top, it’s a wide open pull-up from three, the exact thing it’s designed to prevent. And that’ll happen, right? Enough to be maddening at the least, and ruinous at worst. What defender has the wherewithal to be marooned on that island, alone with Steph and Draymond, over and over and over again, without having a nervous breakdown?
So, what, then? Switching? It seemed like the Thunder had some possessions where they did okay just living with mismatches, even when it was goober-ass Steven Adams picking Steph up 28 feet from the hoop. It didn’t exactly work—the Warriors scored on at least a few of those possessions, including the crazy flat-footed double-pump three Steph hit in Adams’s face, and we all know who won—but nothing exactly works against the Warriors. I think it’s pretty clear that no defensive scheme is going to turn the Warriors into the Wizards in any case. Whaddaya think?
Draper: I think the best solution is, essentially, death by a thousand cuts. The difference between the Warriors’ offense and a league average offense isn’t THAT big: it’s “just” 8.5 points per 100 possessions. So I think you have to fundamentally re-think your strategy. It’s not about shutting Curry and the Warriors down, it’s about getting them to miss one extra shot every 25 trips down the floor. That’s doable!
The thing you have to do is give the Warriors as few easy possessions as possible. Absolute ball security by your guards, and no And 1 mixtape shit. This cuts down on turnovers, but you also have to limit how much the Warriors run off misses. Shoot fewer three-pointers with their long caroms off the rim, and drive to the hoop more where you will (hopefully) be fouled and go to the line. Even when you miss, it’ll be easier to get bodies back.
After that, mix-and-match some of the following strategies, depending upon your personnel.
- Hound Steph Curry full court. The goal here isn’t to force an eight-second violation or turnover, but to get the Warriors to start their half-court sets with 15 seconds left on the shot clock, instead of 19 seconds. Also, Curry often drops the ball off to a big after being hounded. He’s still lethal off the ball, but an unplanned Andrew Bogut- initiated set with 15 seconds left is infinitely preferable to a Steph Curry-initiated set with 20 seconds left.
- Force the ball into Harrison Barnes’s hands. On nights when Barnes is shooting well? You’re fucked. But he is an average playmaker, at best, and even when given acres of space he’ll go into the slowest and least effective pump fake routine in the world instead of shooting or attacking. If you can push him into a 5-13 or 7-17 night, those are shots that Curry and Klay Thompson aren’t taking.
- Get Andrew Bogut out of the game. This obviously isn’t a panacea considering the Warriors remove Bogut of their own volition at the end of games to insert the Whirling Death Lineup, but you want to force the issue. He is great at timing blocks, but you can get into his body and force a couple of fouls on him, like with any big man. Most of the screens he sets on offense are illegal too, so if Curry or Thompson get free around one, a guard flopping into the screen and flopping hard can draw the call. His talented backup Festus Ezeli is out for awhile, and the offense doesn’t run nearly as smooth when Anderson Varejao or Marresse Speights are in instead of Bogut.
Burneko: These are good ideas! I’m for them. But I still want your prescription for that one crucial moment: Curry with the ball, getting a screen from Draymond at the top of the key, with Klay over here and Iggy over there and, oh, let’s say Barnes, uh, thattaway. Eventually, in pretty much any game in which Steph is not attacked by wild dogs on the court, there will come a crucial possession where this is what you must defend. You’re the coach of Generic NBA Team X (so, like, the Hawks). You need a stop. Here comes the screen. Are you switching? Trapping? Showing hard and trying to recover? SCHEME TO BEAT YOUR BOYS, DRAPER. DO IT.
None of these are sure—or even likely—to work; with all your experience watching these Warriors, which one gives you the best chance? Which poison are you picking? What outcome are you hoping to produce? Do you want the ball out of Steph’s hands, or in his hands inside the three-point line, or what?
(Also, as a side note, it’s kind of startling to realize that Klay figures into this basically as a stationary outlet. He’s damn good! If he were on pretty much any other team, he’d be a huge problem to solve, but Steph and Draymond have made such huge leaps over the past season-plus that he might as well be a generic D-and-3 guy; the Warriors rarely need him to do more than make himself available for a rotating ball. I can’t help thinking that the Warriors would be frighteningly undiminished if he switched places with Garrett Temple right now. Switch him with Garrett Temple right now, is what I am saying.)
Draper: This is probably the stupidest thing I’ve ever written, but you have to avoid getting caught up in how good Curry is. He is “only” shooting 47% from three-point land, and that number is surely lower in half-court and defended contests. If the best look the Warriors can generate is a semi-contested Curry three, that’s not a bad outcome! So I wouldn’t trap him or do anything radically different than usual: fight hard through any screen, and go over, not under, it.
One strategy that has been under-utilized is a switch heavy scheme. It’s difficult—tress running around guarding Curry is laughable—but on a single possession basis, I think it could work. Assuming the final play isn’t some frantic situation with just a few seconds left, like Curry’s winner against the Thunder, I would try having a small forward guard Green (instead of my center, as Green is technically the center in the Warriors’ Hyper-Kill-Death lineup). My center is now on Barnes or Iguodala, which is fine since they’re just hanging out in the corner. With a small forward on Green, when he sets the high screen for Curry the man guarding him can switch, and now a rangy 6'7" small forward is manning Curry instead of a lead-footed big man.
So that’s my plan. Straight-up defense on Curry, but put your best defender on Green for the switch. Sure, the Warriors will notice the switch and maybe Curry will devise something to get Barnes or Iguodala running free on your center, but at that point you have dictated the Warriors’ play, and that counts as a win!
Burneko: [After Golden State beats Atlanta, even without Curry and Iguodala.] Wait, never mind, let’s scrap all this. You can put Steph in street clothes and nail him to the bench and it doesn’t even matter, so let’s just crown their asses and be done with it.