On a beautiful afternoon at San Diego’s UCSD campus, the Golden State Warriors completed a vigorous preseason practice, the kind that inspired an attending Tom Thibodeau to smile. With the elation of a man riding a skydiver’s endorphin rush, the former Chicago Bulls coach beamed, “That was a great practice! A great practice!”
What were the Warriors doing that made the defensive mastermind glow with glee? Among other things, Golden State was rehearsing how to deal with switches on offense. Last year saw Golden State’s defense take switching, the act of trading defensive assignments once screened, to a championship level. Now the Warriors must prepare as the league gives them a taste of their own medicine.
Stephen Curry is the focus of these switches, as defenses attempt to solve the puzzle of denying him 3-pointers out of pick and roll. Defenses can’t afford to cede any space to Curry, so the increasing preference is just to guard him with the screener’s man — as the Cavs often asked Tristan Thompson to do in the Finals. With that in mind, Tuesday’s opening night makes for an interesting strategic showcase.
Pelicans head coach Alvin Gentry helped build the offense Curry ran last season. Pelicans defensive guru and Thibodeau protégé Darren Erman coached Curry for three seasons under the Mark Jackson regime. Both have devoted countless hours to contemplating Curry and the pick and roll. It’s hard to think of two coaches better suited to the task of slowing him. They also happen to currently coach the big who guards Curry better than anyone.
Curry kills power forwards in one-on-one coverage. Slaughters them. With his threatening shot and change of speed handle, he makes them gyrate with the clumsy self-consciousness of a dad on the Jumbotron dance cam. There are two notable exceptions, though. Serge Ibaka, who’s gotten better over the years at handling Curry straight up, and Anthony Davis, who didn’t need years to get good at it. Davis guarded Curry beautifully in their first-round playoff matchup.
In the Warriors-Pelicans first-round series, using Davis out on the 3-point line hurt New Orleans’ defensive rebounding and rim protection. That’s a major downside, but what options are better? Switching Davis onto Curry is a weapon that other teams don’t have, and the alternatives are bleak. For example, one of the most common Curry-containing approaches is to blitz him with a double-team, which leaves a defense vulnerable to a Warriors four-on-three advantage. That’s a defensive strategy tantamount to letting your foe shoot open shots. Curry’s so deadly that many teams accept this trade-off.
Draymond Green, who has started to exploit switches by punishing smaller guards in the post, has expressed that Gentry might try this blitzing. It was the Clippers’ tactic against Golden State back when Gentry was on their bench, and it suits Gentry’s philosophy of not letting the opponent’s best player beat you. My personal expectation is that we see a mix of coverages, including the Davis switch.
If it happens, we get to see how Golden State’s offense has evolved — or hasn’t. It’s Curry’s preference to dance with the ball in these situations where he’s facing a big, to play the part of David slaying Goliath. Coach Steve Kerr eschews this iso-ball, cajoling Curry into moving the rock. “We have a philosophy that if teams want to switch bigs on Steph instead of going isolation basketball, we’d rather Steph just move it on and keep our flow of our offense going,” interim coach Luke Walton said. “Steve has a saying: ‘Everything comes out in the wash.'”
What does “Everything comes out in the wash” mean? Without speaking for Kerr, I believe it means you find advantages if you move everyone around and run your offense. In the specific example of a big switched onto a smaller player, the entire defense can be discombobulated — a big is where a guard should be and a guard is where a big should be.
“If Anthony Davis switches on [Curry] and we keep on moving, at some point Anthony Davis is a big, he’s going to want to help on somewhere else,” Walton explains. “Now you’re helping off of Steph Curry and that’s how we like to attack.”
If Curry moves the ball, as Golden State’s coaches prefer, he’s tracked by an uncertain behemoth whose instincts are to linger back to the paint once the pressure’s off.
That’s how Curry gets a wide-open 3 after being momentarily quadruple-teamed in the above clip. Many bigs can summon the resolve to guard a smaller, quicker player for five dramatic isolation seconds. They’re a mess when the ball is moved and they must focus for longer. It’s not necessarily because bigs are clumsy or oblivious. It’s more that players have a painstakingly developed sense of what their territory is and how to patrol it. Having a big run an entire possession defending Steph Curry is like if your defensive lineman suddenly had to play safety: He could be a physical specimen but he’s still going to get lost out there.
It’s possible Davis handles these situations effortlessly because what situations doesn’t he handle effortlessly? That’s part of the fun here. We’re not quite sure what Davis is capable of, but we know he’s already handled the one-on-one defense. Can he track Curry off the ball like Tony Allen? Can the Warriors devise something clever to take advantage of the situation regardless? We’ll find out if the Pelicans switch. If they don’t, other teams will certainly test Golden State with aggressive switches on Curry. If their preseason tickling of Thibodeau is any indication, the Warriors will be ready.