After making an improbable run to the NBA Championship last season, the Golden State Warriors are battling to even make the playoffs and avoid the play-in tournament this season.
What has gone wrong? And can it be fixed in time for them to make another playoff run?
Defensive struggles, particularly on road
The Warriors had the best defense in the NBA last season according to Defensive Rating, allowing an estimated 106.9 points per 100 possessions. This season, they rank 19th with a 114.9 DRTG.
Meanwhile, the Warriors were middle-of-the-pack in pace last season, averaging 98.4 possessions per game to rank 13th in the league in pace. This season, the Warriors play the fastest pace in the NBA with 101.8 possessions per game.
Combine a below average defense with more possessions, and the end result is a Warriors team allowing 117.9 PPG this season, the sixth-worst in the NBA.
That mark is dominated by their struggles on the road, where the Warriors are allowing opponents to average a whopping 124.0 PPG. This is likely the primary reason the Warriors are 8-29 on the road, a 21.6 win percentage that is among the worst in the NBA. Only the Spurs, Rockets and Pistons (combined record of 53-164) are worse.
So, the next question is... what's different about their defense this season, compared to last?
Wiggins key to Warriors' defense
The Warriors' defense has always been anchored in the middle, with former Defensive Player of the Year Draymond Green working next to a more traditional center as the drivers of the defense.
This season continues in that vein, with Green and Kevon Looney both among the top-10 at their respective positions in Defensive Real Plus Minus (DRPM). DRPM estimates how each player's presence on the court correlates with the team's defensive scoring margin.
But, a closer look at the Warriors' primary perimeter players for this season and last provides some illumination for what's happened on defense.
A couple things stand out to me, and they require some context to fully grasp.
First, both Curry and Wiggins measured really well in DRPM last season, and both have really struggled this season.
Second, While Curry and Poole, roughly, have similar numbers of minutes this season versus last, this season Wiggins and Thompson have roughly swapped their minutes.
Now, some important context. Curry's DRPM score from 2021-22 is a huge outlier; he was 22nd among point guards in 2020-21, and typically finishes even lower in that measure. That tracks, because a) Curry is a point guard, the position that typically contributes least to a team's defensive value (but conversely the most to their offensive value) and b) Curry isn't a notably strong defender by other measures.
It's important to realize that RPM is measuring correlation, not causation. While it's possible for a very efficient shooter like Curry to help the defense because, after made shots, the team's defense is able to set itself, on the whole his 2021-22 result may have been more coincidental, and his 2022-23 score is more reflective of his norm.
With Wiggins, though, it's different. Before coming to Golden State he didn't focus on defense, and it showed in his results. But, Wiggins is 6-foot-9 and hyper-athletic, so his scouting report out of college was that he had the tools to develop into a Scottie Pippen-like defender.
And, once he came to the Warriors and focused on defense, it started to show. Wiggins was fourth among small forwards in DRPM in 2020-21, before finishing fifth in 2021-22. So, for Wiggins in Golden State, it's his 2022-23 defensive struggles that's the outlier.
Which leads to further context: Wiggins has battled various lower body injuries (groin/adductor, foot, ankle) this season, and attempted to play through them. The injuries, along with illness and personal concerns, have also caused him to miss a large chunk of the season. The result has been a less-effective Wiggins on defense when he's been able to play, and a large swathe of the season when he wasn't available at all.
And that segues into my final point of context: the minutes played on the perimeter. Last season, Klay Thompson missed most of the season as he was recovering from his Achilles/ACL injuries. So, in the first half of the season, the Warriors started Curry, Jordan Poole and Wiggins in the perimeter slots.
Later in the season, when Thompson was working himself back in, Curry was injured for a large swathe of time. During that time, it was Poole and Thompson starting next to Wiggins and the big men. The point is, though, that it was typically two of the usually weaker, backcourt defenders in the starting crew next to three stronger frontcourt defenders.
This season, with Wiggins battling injury when playing, it's been three relatively weaker perimeter defenders even when he's been available. And, when Wiggins sits, the Warriors play primarily a three-guard set with Curry, Poole and Thompson all on the court together.
Let's not forget... just last month, Golden State traded to bring Gary Payton II back to upgrade the team's defensive cohesion. Unfortunately, Payton is still dealing with injury, but the hope is that he will be able to return for the end of the regular season. If so, he could help move things in the right direction in the playoffs. But, ultimately, they need Wiggins' size and versatility on defense to really replicate what they had last season.
Having Wiggins as a third strong defender next to the big men, taking the tough defensive assignment on the opponents' best offensive players was a major reason why the Warriors were so strong on defense last season. With him attenuated, or out completely, the Warriors' unit can be exploited by opposing perimeter players.
Thus, the team defensive ratings this season.
This has also shown up in fantasy stats, where the Warriors rank among the 10 friendliest units in the NBA to both opposing point guards and opposing shooting guards in terms of fantasy points allowed.
And it's shown up in their team record, which is why the team that was favored to win the championship (and with the shortest odds for futures bets) when the season began is currently just a game out of the play-in and a couple games out of missing the playoffs entirely.
Fantasy and futures outlook
Wiggins is out indefinitely for personal reasons, and the last word from Steve Kerr earlier this month was that he remained without a timeline for a return and the team had "hope" he'd return by the end of the season.
Thus, for at least as long as Wiggins is out... and I have to strongly consider that he may not return this season at all... I have to evaluate that the Warriors are who they've been this season. As Bill Parcells once said, "you are what your record says you are."
So, my takeaways for fantasy purposes:
• When considering fantasy streamers or DFS, give a bump in value to guards that will be facing the Warriors.
• Make that bump even larger if the game will be played away from Golden State.
Takeaways for betting and futures:
• Daily betting, it's long-past time to stop expecting the Warriors to perform like a contender when they're on the road. Thus, for all lines, lean away from picking the Warriors ATS unless you're feeling lucky.
• For betting player props, similar to the fantasy takeaway, consider taking the over for most opposing guard props.
• For futures, despite their struggles, the Warriors still have the fifth-shortest odds in the NBA, and the third-shortest in the Western Conference, to win the championship (+1100). The team they've been has no business with odds that short, and because of their record, even if they make the playoffs, they would be the lower seed in every potential playoffs matchup.
Which means they'd have to win on the road in all three rounds to win the conference, and all four rounds to win the championship. Despite having them as my preseason favorites to win the West, right now I have to fade the Warriors in any futures championship scenario.
Now, if Wiggins returns to the court and shows that he is physically and mentally capable of playing at the level of the player that was legitimately in the conversation for Finals MVP last season, then everything could change.
But, until then, the fantasy and betting plays should all be geared into planning for the Warriors to be what they've been, and making your decisions accordingly.