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Tribune News Service
Tribune News Service
Shayna Rubin

How Gary Payton II can change the Warriors’ entire defense for the better

Gary Payton II’s imminent return could turn the Warriors back into a defensive juggernaut just in time for the playoff push.

Can one player change an entire defense? In Payton’s case, yes.

“We all know what GP is capable of on the defensive end,” Draymond Green said on his podcast last February. “Can plug GP right in, and he knows the system like the back of his hand.”

The 30-year-old will practice Saturday and could make his Warriors debut this season for Sunday’s pivotal game against the Minnesota Timberwolves, his first action since Golden State conducted a complex four-team trade to acquire him from Portland at this year’s deadline. The trade nearly fell through as the Warriors training staff discovered during his physical that Payton was dealing with core soreness after an offseason surgery.

But there’s a reason the Warriors opted to trade their No. 2 overall pick James Wiseman for Payton — a league misfit re-cast as an essential part of the team’s championship defense last season. Not only will Payton have very little learning curve to hurdle once he returns, coaches believe he is one of the best defenders in the Warriors’ scheme and his elite point of attack defense can transform what’s been a mediocre defense into the dominant defense to which they’re accustomed.

That won’t just improve one-on-one defense against slippery guards.

His ability to force turnovers, cut off passing lanes and pick ball-handlers’ pockets can ignite Golden State’s transition offense and lighten the burden of Andrew Wiggins’ extended absence.

“He’s so good on the ball, but he’s also good off the ball and playing the passing lanes,” coach Steve Kerr said. “Felt like last year we got out a lot more in transition off steals than we have this year and Gary is also a great finisher in transition. And we’re either last or near the bottom in transition points per possession this year, which should not be the case.”

The Warriors’ 1.13 transition points per possession and 21 points off turnovers per game on average rank somewhere in the middle of the league.

“Some of it is that we’re turning it over in transition,” Kerr said. “Some of it is that we settle for threes at times and Gary is a guy who, last year, gave us a lot of transition dunks and layups.”

The Payton ripple effect can shore up some of the over help-defense issues the Warriors have had. Inconsistent point-of-attack defense and lack of size has forced the Warriors to pile on defensive help in the paint that give opponents open shots from the perimeter.

The defensive over-help can open up opportunities for opposing teams from 3 — a lapse that’s inexplicably bitten the Warriors most on the road. They have a 115 defensive rating ranks just below league average (114) and their 121.4 defensive rating on the road ranks third worst in the NBA.

Payton may be 6-foot-2, but he has hands and length to stop penetration like a long wing. And while Donte DiVincenzo has been a good point-of-attack defender, it can be argued Payton is among the best at it in the NBA — alongside the likes of Milwaukee’s Jrue Holiday and Chicago’s Alex Caruso.

Trust in Payton means guys like Green and won’t have to over help on defense. Payton’s presence will also help a guy like Klay Thompson, who Kerr has been using primarily as a forward this season to guard bigger bodies. (Thompson was better equipped to defend guards pre-surgeries.)

The Warriors could have used a healthy Payton these last two months to lift themselves out of the Western Conference traffic jam. As of Friday, they’re teetering on the playoff boundaries; they’re the No. 6 seed a game back of the No. 4 seed and a game away from the play-in bracket.

But they have to be pleased with the idea of Payton matching up against any of their potential first-round opponents — if they can avoid the play-in. If the Warriors face the Phoenix Suns, Payton can pick up Devin Booker. If they face the Memphis Grizzlies, Payton has plenty of experience defending explosive point guard Ja Morant. He could also find himself defending Kyrie Irving, the newest Dallas Maverick. If they play the Sacramento Kings, Payton would be the best defender to contain explosive guard De’Aaron Fox.

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