Can the Warriors Be Two Teams At Once?

The defending champion Golden State Warriors have a bulletproof starting lineup headlined by one of the greatest players in NBA history operating at a higher, more dominant level than ever before. Flanked by two future Hall of Famers with undeniable winning credentials, the Platonic ideal of a role center and a former no. 1 option that has redefined itself as a perfect two-way complement. Line up the Warriors against any team in the West for a seven-game series and they’d likely be the favorite. Meanwhile, they currently have a 4-7 record that puts them in 12th place in the conference, eliminating them from even those fantasy playoffs.

These are strange times for an ongoing dynasty. Many of the biggest questions surrounding the Warriors’ post-Durant resurgence have been asked and answered with a title. However, on a game-by-game basis, you can feel the pressure of a defending champion team with just five reliable rotation players – six if you count the struggling Jordan Poole, who has posted one of the worst plus-minus marks in the entire league so far . The stars are aligned for Golden State, but a lot still needs to be done these days just for the Warriors to take care of regular season business. They’ve already lost four games — out of 11 total — where Stephen Curry scored at least 30 points. Earlier this week, it took 47 from Steph, dramatic changes in the back half of the team’s rotation and a mid-game 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 wind down in form over the course of the next season as the luster of their accomplishments fades and competitive hunger grows. However, 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 has been fully on the floor, Golden State has outscored opponents by 72 points in 123 minutes, according to NBA.com. At 408 but The minutes the Warriors have played with any other combination of players this season, they have suffered 109 points.

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Some of these groups hold up better than others, but there’s a common theme: The younger the lineup, the worse it tends to perform. It’s not enough to just throw Curry in with some of Golden State’s greener prospects. James Wiseman, Jonathan Cuminga and Moses Moody have been demoted to the point where Steve Kerr has swapped Cuminga 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. However, Golden State based the logic of the entire rotation on the idea that the team’s younger core will perform in the present time. Stocking the bench with emerging talent was an admirable effort to prepare the franchise for life after Steph, or at least life after Steph’s prime. However, by relying almost exclusively on undrafted prospects to fill out the second unit, the Warriors have drawn an even clearer line between players who can handle the day-to-day rigors of NBA basketball and those who have yet to rise to the task.

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

Ahead of the 2018 draft, Green—while advising the front office on who the team should select in the final round to help defend another title—offered a pearl of wisdom that has become part of Warriors lore. “There are 82-game players,” Green said, as well was recounted from Warriors assistant GM Larry Harris, “then there are 16-game players.” Draymond wanted the latter — a teammate he could trust to carry through not just one series, but four of them. A player who could survive and move on. The Warriors are in a pretty different place in 2022. What they need, desperately, are 82-game players. This is a team that will need help to get through a long December road trip. He needs more realistic avenues to keep the minutes for Curry, Thompson and Green in check—so they don’t have to start a playoff run just to complete an unusual regular-season win. Some sort of fail-safe roster is needed in case one of the team’s key players should miss even a few minutes of action, much less a few months.

Golden State, frankly, needs a lot more than the next generation of Warriors has been able to provide. Things are already dire enough that Kerr has relied on the rejected Ty Jerome and Anthony Lamb for his three lottery prospects, even though Lamb is so new to the team’s ideas that he should be literally staged in the right places. Notably, Jerome and Lamb are not 16-game players neither Players 82 games. Because of their two-way contracts, they can only be active in 50 of Golden State’s regular season games and are not eligible to appear in the playoffs at all unless their deals are converted. It’s strictly a means to tread water and squeeze an extra 20 to 30 minutes out of a counter with painfully limited options.

It’s already clear that the reigning champions are a work in progress—one that needs some serious internal development 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 the paper with some of the problems, but the projection of a 25-year-old guard still finding his way with a new team as the potential savior it feels a little heavy to her. . Andre Iguodala will be back at some point and could make a real difference as an on-court companion for some of the younger Warriors. He also appeared in just 31 games last season and shouldn’t be projected for more than limited regular season action as he approaches his 39th birthday. Maybe there’s a better way to work JaMychal Green (who joined Wiseman as DNP-CD against the Kings this week) or spend more of Looney’s minutes at a small cost? That these solutions even feel possible — and even preferable — speaks to where the Warriors are now and how easily this could have been avoided.

After all, this is a situation that was at least partially of Golden State’s own making. The Warriors essentially dismantled the bench that helped navigate the team to the 2022 playoffs and overestimated how ready Wiseman, Kuminga and Moody were to compete. It’s obvious the Warriors could use now-Raptor Otto Porter Jr. or Blazer Gary Payton II (although he’s still recovering from offseason surgery) to get their bench back up after doing that very thing in the NBA Finals. However, under those circumstances, even Juan Toscano-Anderson (now a Laker) or Damion Lee (now a Sun) might feel like a critical source of institutional knowledge on a second unit without her. Meanwhile, Golden State’s 15th and final roster spot remains open.

Golden State will inevitably play better than this. But how, exactly; And how much? The Warriors aren’t all that lacking in 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—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, time. It’s early enough in the season for Golden State to play another few months and hope to find its way. It’s just not too early for the Warriors to deny what they’ve been: a defending champion who, three weeks in, doesn’t really look the part.



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