Can the Warriors Be Two Teams At Once?

The defending champion Golden State Warriors have an impenetrable starting lineup led by one of the greatest players in NBA history who is operating at a higher, more dominant level than ever before. He is flanked by two future Hall of Famers with impeccable winning credentials, the Platonic ideal of a role-playing center and former no. 1 pick reinvented as the perfect two-way complement. Match the Warriors up against any team in the West in a seven-game series and they’d likely be the favorites. At the same time, they are currently 4-7 which puts them in 12th place in the conference, disqualifying them from even that imaginary playoff.

These are strange times for an existing dynasty. Many of the biggest questions surrounding the Warriors’ post-Durant resurgence have been asked and answered by the title. Still, at the base level, you can feel the strain of a team building a championship defense with just five reliable rotation players—six if you count the troubled Jordan Poole, who posted one of the worst plus-minus marks in the entire league so far. The stars have aligned for Golden State, but a lot more has to go right these days just for the Warriors to take care of the regular season. They’ve already lost four games—out of 11 they’ve played—in which Stephen Curry scored at least 30 points. Earlier this week, it took 47 from Steph, a dramatic overhaul of the back half of the team’s rotation and a midgame lineup change just to pull off a three-point home win over the Kings.

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It’s standard operating procedure for a championship team to gradually round into form over the next season, as the luster of its accomplishments fades and its competitive hunger grows. Still, in this case, Golden State’s veterans are already playing hard and logging serious minutes because the rest of the roster leaves them no choice. When the tested starting lineup of Curry, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson, Andrew Wiggins and Kevon Looney was on the floor in full force, Golden State outscored opponents by 72 points in 123 minutes, according to NBA.com. In the year 408 else minutes the Warriors have played with any other combination of players this season, they have been outscored by 109 points.

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Some of these groupings hold up better than others, but there is a common theme: the younger the squad, the worse it performs. It’s not enough to just drop Curry with some of those hoping for a greener Golden State rotation; James Wiseman, Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody were susceptible to the point that Steve Kerr changed Kuminga and Moody’s minutes and pulled Wiseman from the rotation entirely.

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It should be noted, again and again, that Kuminga and Moody are only 20 years old and Wiseman is 21. None of this is the final word on their careers, or even their development this season. Golden State, however, based the logic of its entire rotation on the idea that the team’s younger core will produce results in the present tense. Stocking the bench with rising talent was an admirable attempt to prepare the franchise for life after Steph, or at least life after Steph’s prime. Yet by relying almost exclusively on inexperienced players to fill out the second unit, the Warriors have drawn an even sharper line between players who can handle the day-to-day rigors of NBA basketball and those who are not yet up to the task.

Warriors forward Draymond Green and guard Jordan Poole
Photo: Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Ahead of the 2018 draft, Green — while advising the front office on who the team should select in the late first round to help defend another title — offered a pearl of wisdom that has become part of the Warriors’ story. “There are 82 players playing,” said Green, ace recounted by Warriors assistant GM Larry Harris, “then there are the 16-game players.” Draymond wanted the latter – a teammate he could trust to last not just one series, but four. A player who could survive and thrive. The Warriors are in a pretty different place in 2022. What they desperately need are players for 82 games. This is a team that will need help getting through a long road trip in December. More realistic ways are needed to keep the minutes for Curry, Thompson and Green in check — so they don’t have to introduce a rotation in the playoffs just to wrap up a regular-season win. He needs some sort of roster spot in case any of the team’s key players have to miss even a few minutes of action, let alone a few months.

Golden State needs a lot more, frankly, than the next generation of Warriors could provide. Things are already bad enough that Kerr has relied on the discarded Ty Jerome and Anthony Lamb over his three lottery prospects, though Lamb is so new to the team’s concepts that he has to be literally directed in the right places. Namely, Jerome and Lamb are not even players who play 16 games nor 82-player game; because of their two-way contracts, they can only be active in Golden State’s 50 regular-season games and have no playoff rights at all unless their deals are restructured. They are purely a means of treading water and getting an extra 20 to 30 minutes out of the bench with painfully limited options.

It’s already clear that the reigning champions are an unfinished project — in dire need of some serious internal growth or external healing between now and the end of the season. The return of Donte DiVincenzo (who is expected to return Friday) from injury could help solve some of the problems, but predicting the 25-year-old guard will still find his way with a new team as its potential savior feels a bit difficult. Andre Iguodala will be back at some point, and he could make a real difference as an on-court companion for some of the youngest Warriors. He also appeared in just 31 games last season, and shouldn’t be slated for more than limited regular-season action as he approaches his 39th birthday. Maybe there’s a better way to work with JaMychal Green (who joined Wiseman as DNP-CD against the Kings this week) or extend Looney’s minutes further, at the cost of going small? That these even seem possible – and even desirable – solutions speaks to where the Warriors find themselves now and how easily it could have been avoided.

At the end of the day, this is a situation at least partially of Golden State’s own making. The Warriors effectively dismantled a bench that helped the team through the 2022 playoffs and overestimated how ready Wiseman, Kuminga and Moody were to compete. Obviously, the Warriors could use now Raptor Otto Porter Jr. or now the Blazers’ Gary Payton II (though still recovering from offseason surgery) to hit their bench again after doing so in the NBA Finals. Still, under these circumstances, even Juan Toscano-Anderson (now Lakers) or Damion Lee (now Suns) could feel like a key source of institutional knowledge in the second unit that deprived him. Meanwhile, the 15th and final spot on Golden State’s roster remains open.

Golden State will inevitably play better than this. But how, right? AND how much? The Warriors aren’t missing much from their rotation, but what they need, they need badly. There will be opportunities for Wiseman, Kuminga and Moody to become something closer to the players the team needs them to be — even if they have to endure a few nights out of the rotation along the way. There will be trades available to the Warriors if they want them, including offers that will force Golden State to choose between its present and its future. The Warriors have options, and more importantly, they have time. It’s early enough in the season for Golden State to play for a few more months and hope to find its way. It’s just not too early for the Warriors to deny what they were: a defending champion that, three weeks later, doesn’t quite look the part.



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