Golden State has found its groove again on defense, and their newest addition is a major reason why.
While this era of Warriors basketball realistically began way back in October of 2014, the Warriors never really became The Warriors until they created the so-called “Death Lineup” in the Finals eight months later. The Death Lineup wasn’t fully unleashed on the rest of the league until 2015-16 when it — and unanimous MVP Stephen Curry — catalyzed the Warriors to the greatest regular season of all time.
One 3-1 comeback and another 3-1 collapse later, and the Warriors found themselves one MVP richer. The addition of Kevin Durant clearly made the 2016-17 Warriors more talented than their 73-win predecessors, but it never felt like last year’s team achieved consistent dominance until the playoffs. This season, Golden State may have found that next level.
After Curry went down in early December with an ankle sprain, the Warriors looked primed to sleepwalk through the remainder of 2017. But, through increased effort and Zaza Pachulia’s slightly more fortuitous injury, the Warriors have gone 9-1 without Curry and stumbled their way into their next un-guardable lineup.
Ezra Shaw - Getty Images
The original Death Lineup was so unstoppable because no team truly had the manpower to combat it. Trotting out Stephen Curry and four guys 6’7”-6’9” alongside him unleashed the Warriors’ offensive potential while giving them valuable defensive versatility. The positional size and length of Draymond Green, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, and Harrison Barnes may have sacrificed rim protection, but allowed the Warriors to switch and contest everything.
Replacing Barnes with Durant last season should have made them even better. The 7’0” Durant made “small-ball” a misnomer and added the lacking rim protection with a career-high 1.6 blocks per game last season. But, for what was a clear increase in offensive firepower and defensive versatility, the Hamptons Five lineup failed to recreate the overwhelming success of the original.
|2015-16 Death Lineup||172||142.0||95.0||47.0||72.3%||+166|
|2016-17 Hamptons Five||224||122.4||98.4||23.9||59.1%||+123|
Don’t get me wrong, those are still outstanding numbers. But the lineup wasn’t as explosive as it should have on paper. It ultimately didn’t matter as Golden State steamrolled through the playoffs, but something was missing from what should have been the best lineup of all time.
Jeff Chiu - Associated Press
In a move that had Bulls fans tearing their hair out this summer, Golden State purchased the rights to the 38th overall pick from Chicago for $3.5 million in cash considerations. With that pick, the Warriors found that final piece: Jordan Bell.
Bell looked like a young Draymond Green at the University of Oregon and Golden State didn’t hesitate to grab him when they got the chance. Green quickly took his doppelganger under his wing and, for better or worse, crafted him in his image.
After the dunk that endeared him to everyone other than Steve Kerr and Mavericks’ coach Rick Carlisle, Bell struggled to find a foothold in the rotation. Before December, Bell played 15+ minutes just once: in a 49-point blowout of the Bulls. But Pachulia’s shoulder injury a few weeks ago opened the door for Bell who has started and played at least 20 minutes in each of Golden State’s last seven games.
Bell completed what has become a devastating frontcourt of Durant, Green, and Bell (DGB). Those three have played just 49 minutes together this season, but they have an outstanding defensive rating of 82.7 and an overall net rating of 27.5 in that time. Every one of those minutes has come in the past few weeks without Steph Curry, but it hasn’t mattered. They’ve been amazing.
While the former MVP and reigning DPOY are what truly make the threesome great, Bell has complemented them perfectly. Substituting Bell for Iguodala in 2018’s version of the Death Lineup will provide all the length, speed, and shooting of the original, but with more rim-protection than ever before.
Right now Golden State is averaging 8.6 blocks per game and is on pace to break the NBA record for blocks in a season. DGB lineups are averaging 13.3 blocks per 100 possessions which means they are almost as far ahead of the Warriors as Golden State is ahead of Detroit, the worst shot-blocking team in the league.
That level of rim-protection is inherently impressive, but there may have still been some skeptics given the caliber of opponent Golden State has faced with Bell as the starter. If those people existed on Sunday, they likely don’t today.
Cleveland came into Christmas as the league’s fourth-highest scoring team and the second-best overall offense. Against the Warriors, the Cavs shot just 25% on two-point attempts. Their overall 31.8% from the field wasn’t just Cleveland’s worst game of the year, but the fifth-worst shooting performance of any team this season. Everywhere LeBron James & Co. went, multiple Warriors were there waiting to contest every shot.
The swarming defense frustrated the Cavs all afternoon and they were never able to find their groove. Cleveland is used to creating mismatches by setting screens to get LeBron or Kevin Love onto a smaller defender, but the DGB lineups are so versatile that this tactic rarely worked.
As a team, Golden State had eight blocks and seven steals against Cleveland, seven and five of which came from Durant, Green, and Bell.
While the end-of-game controversy may be the lasting memory of the 24th Warriors-Cavs meeting since 2014, the success of the DGB lineups may be the most important. It may not be devastating every night, but it is clearly another weapon Steve Kerr can utilize when the time is right.
The only question remaining as to how great this lineup can be is how well the other MVP fits into it. The Warriors are built around Curry and his success is the ultimate barometer of the team’s, but I have no doubt he will fit in wonderfully.
Every one of the 49 minutes that Durant, Green, and Bell have played together this season have come with Thompson at the two and either McCaw or Iguodala running the point. While he isn’t the pure defender of either McCaw or Iguodala, Curry’s offense will take that lineup to its greatest potential.
We will have to wait a little longer to see it used every night as Kerr is sticking with Pachulia as the starter for now. Opponents can temporarily breathe a slight sigh of relief, but if Bell continues to play as well as he has over these past few weeks, his time will come sooner rather than later.
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- Stephen Curry
- Klay Thompson
- Harrison Barnes
- Monta Ellis