(Written For Blue Man Hoop)
Mike Malone, the Golden State Warriors assistant coach, will reportedly become the head coach of the Sacramento Kings next season. Malone is considered to be the “X’s and O’s” brain that compliments Mark Jackson’s motivational skills.
Though television footage of the Warriors’ often shows Malone diagramming plays, there is little concrete evidence as to the extent of Malone’s influence on the Warriors’ plays, schemes, and system. The Warriors’ coaching staff expands far beyond Jackson and Malone. The systemic innovations recently enacted may have been created by Malone, to whom public sentiment attributes them, but was just as likely created through a process of intellectual cooperation.
Even if they cannot be fully attributed to Malone, the creation of several important changes to the Warriors’ defensive and offensive strategies coincided with the beginning of Malone’s tenure.
The job of a coach is to put players in the best possible position to succeed. This may require players to deviate from their preferred roles or even their personal strengths but, as the San Antonio Spurs have shown, is often designed to limit the weaknesses and accentuate the strengths of players at an individual level to the benefit of the team.
In 2010-11, the season before Malone and Jackson joined Golden State, the Warriors started David Lee and Andris Biedrins at power forward and center. Neither of these players is even remotely quick, but the Warriors’ required them to hedge hard and recover on the majority of pick and rolls they defended.
Though it may look like a trap, this was the Warriors’ standard pick and roll defense in the 2010-11 season. Many of the Warriors’ big men, Lee and Biedrins especially, were being forced into a position of weakness by the Warriors’ defensive strategy. Apart from Ekpe Udoh, the Warriors’ big men were generally unable to recover back to their man off the hard-hedge. Also, the high-hedge leaves only one big defensive player in help position, forcing the remaining big to defend both his man and any guards that beat the hedge or roll men driving before the hedging big can recover.
Beginning with arrival of Malone and Jackson, the Warriors transitioned to a defensive strategy better adapted to the abilities of their personnel.
Notice how David Lee sags all the way into the paint on this high pick and roll. Instead of hedging the screen and getting stuck 27 feet from the rim, Lee drops into the key, denying the drive and willingly surrendering a mid-range jump shot.
To limit the damage wrought by their big men’s lack of lateral mobility, the Warriors’ often defend pick and rolls with the “Ice “coverage. In Ice, the guard attempts to prevent the ball-handler from using the screen, while the big man stays below screen-level on the side to which the ball handler is being forced. Notice how Stephen Curry has jumped in front of Tony Parker to prevent him form using Tiago Splitter’s screen while Andrew Bogut stays in the paint to contain penetration. While miscommunication may lead to wide open driving lanes and more defensive pressure is placed on the guards, Ice allows the Warriors’ big men to effectively contain pick and roles.
Another addition to the Warriors’ pick and role defense under Malone’s tenure is increased help from wing defenders. In the image, Klay Thompson has dropped into the paint, leaving his man in the corner open, in an attempt to contain Splitter’s role. This strategy has been effective in limiting the productivity of opposing role men. According to mysynergysports.com, the Warriors allowed only 0.9 points per play to role men, the second best rate in the league. The results of this strategy are entirely beneficial. The commitment to shutting down role men often leaves opposing shooters open in the corners. Imagine Tony Parker driving a few steps towards the left elbow, forcing Bogut to commit to containing him. Parker could then pass to a rolling Splitter. Thompson would attempt to deny Splitter’s path to the basket, and Kawhi Leonard would likely be wide open in the corner. That and similar scenario’s play out several times per game versus the Warriors, who surrendered the most three point attempts and corner three point attempts per 48 minutes this season.
Injuries, trades, and draft picks have left the Warriors’ roster in constant flux over the last two seasons. Thus, the direct impact of Malone is difficult to discern. The removal of Monte Ellis and addition of Andrew Bogut likely had a large impact on the Warriors’ offensive playbook. However, the extent of this impact may not have been revealed through Bogut injury issues.
From set plays like the one above to entire offensive systems, the Warriors have undergone significant change during the last two seasons. Sets such as the now-famous elevator play clearly suggest a dedication to taking advantage of the players’ strengths.
It is unlikely that Malone controlled the Warriors X’s and O’s to extent often reported. Even if that were the case, do not expect a significant decline in the quality of the Warriors offensive and defensive sets, for though Malone may leave, he has already imparted his knowledge upon the rest of the staff, likely filled with equally brilliant basketball minds.