BY MASON BISSADA
The Golden State Warriors are walking into foreign territory, entering the 2019-20 NBA season as anything other than the championship favorites for the first time in three years. The postseason and offseason were not kind to Golden State, as only two of the five players that make up the infamous “Hamptons 5” lineup will be returning on opening night. For fans, the sequential wounds of the Kevin Durant Achilles tear, the Klay Thompson ACL tear, the devastating Finals loss to the Toronto Raptors and the nearly-as-devastating (if not predictable) loss of Durant in free agency felt like multiple proverbial kicks while they were down. Still, many are optimistic that a core of two-time MVP Stephen Curry and former Defensive Player of the Year Draymond Green is a formula for success. But two players does not a basketball team make, and there are quite a few new faces to whom fans will have to adjust, along with their season expectations.
Though not positionally, D’Angelo Russell is the Kevin Durant replacement, being the return the Warriors received in the sign-and-trade of Durant to the Brooklyn Nets back in July. Russell is in no way a similar (or as efficient) player to Durant, but it will be his job to keep the offense afloat when Curry is on the bench. Russell is a probing guard with a reliable jumpshot and excellent court vision who ran a playoff-level offense last year with the Nets. He relies heavily on screen-and-roll action to generate offense, something the Warriors have been averse to in the Steve Kerr era, though the head coach has said this will change to better fit this year’s personnel.
Defensively, Russell is a bit of a liability, easily losing his man on screens and back-cuts. He is also rather unathletic in terms of moving his feet. A Curry-Russell backcourt will be a feast for opposing offenses, particularly ones with dynamic scoring guards (looking at you, Portland).
Speaking of Curry, he is still a top-five player in the NBA, and is the most prolific offensive weapon a coach could ask for. Curry’s floor spacing, off-ball movement, dribble-penetration and court vision can turn any offensive lineup into an elite scoring group, which the Warriors likely will be in the minutes that Curry plays. The issue will be the minutes that he doesn’t.
If Curry does earn an MVP narrative, it’s going to be similar to that of Russell Westbrook’s 2016-17 campaign: A sixth-seeded team being carried by one superstar that would be a lottery team without him. If the Warriors can outscore teams on a nightly basis as Curry pulls off another 30+ points-per-game average on 50/40/90 shooting-percentage splits as he did during his unanimous MVP run, he’ll be heralded as a God among men. The 50/40/90 efficiency is unlikely, however, as defenses will design their entire scheme around stopping Curry, seeing as the Warriors only have one other scoring threat in their starting lineup. Were it not for Russell, defenses might try box-and-1 defensive alignments to stop Curry as the Raptors did in the Finals.
While much of the offensive burden is being placed on Curry, the entirety of the defensive burden will be placed on Draymond Green. Green will turn 30 this year, with five straight Finals worth of mileage on his tires. When engaged and in shape, Green is still one of the most impactful defenders in the league. He can guard every position, switching onto guards with ease and defending low-post threats with boulder-like stubbornness. His long arms and sneaky athleticism make him an excellent rim protector and weak-side shot-changer. However, Green will not be able to play free-safety as often as he did when he was playing alongside other versatile defenders like Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala and Durant. In the past, Kerr would often place Green on the opposing team’s worst offensive player (think Tony Allen in the 2015 playoffs), allowing him to roam freely and contribute helping defense wherever it was needed. This year, Green will likely have to guard the opposing team’s best player from the jump out of necessity, which may be taxing in the long-term. Green will have to maintain the level of fitness he was at in last year’s playoffs in order to raise Golden State’s defense above the league average.
“We don’t have as good of defenders as we had,” Green said matter-of-factly at Media Day. “I don’t think that’s any surprise. But at the same time, we’ve just got to find our identity. You know, before our identity was switching. That may not be our identity anymore.”
Starting alongside Green in the frontcourt will likely be Kevon Looney, one of the few holdovers from last year’s roster. Looney has grown into a legitimate starting-calibur center whose defensive mobility has flown a bit under the radar. Last year, Looney was often the best traditional option at the 5, even when DeMarcus Cousins was healthy. Looney has never played more than 18 minutes a game, so look for fatigue to be a factor as his role increases.
The other option Kerr may resort to as the starting center later in the season is new acquisition Willie Cauley-Stein. Cauley-Stein is currently recovering from a left-foot sprain that will likely keep him out for the first few games of the season, but when he returns, he’ll bring an athletic lob threat that the Warriors haven’t had since JaVale McGee left for Los Angeles. Cauley-Stein averaged 11.9 points and 8.4 rebounds on 56.6% true shooting as the starting center for the Sacramento Kings last season, and projects to be a decent rim-running pick-and-roll partner for both Curry and Russell.
A third option could be Marquese Chriss, whom the Warriors originally brought in as a training camp stop-gap in the wake of the Cauley-Stein injury. Chriss flourished both in practice and in the preseason, averaging 9.4 points, 8 rebounds and 3.4 assists on a whopping 66.8% true shooting in just 22 minutes of action. The Warriors clearly believe in Chriss, as they cut returning forward Alfonzo McKinnie (who was projected to start before the preseason began) in order to give Chriss their final roster slot. Chriss, still only 22, was a lottery pick who has bounced around the league in his first three seasons. If he can finally actualize his potential in a more stable situation, he may become found money for Golden State.
The talent dip becomes truly evident when focusing on the final starting slot and the bench behind it. The starting small forward position, which was once held by Durant and which will eventually be held by Thompson, will likely be filled for the time-being by Glenn Robinson III, who started three of the Warriors’ five preseason games. Robinson III is a 6’6 wing and a dunk-contest-winning-level athlete. In his three years with Indiana before a lost year in Detroit, he shot 39.4% from 3-point range, a number the Warriors would love to see continue into the upcoming season. The problem is that Robinson is hesitant to take those three’s, averaging just 1.5 attempts over that same span. Defenses will be made aware of this hesitance and may treat him as a non-shooter despite the percentages.
Behind him are names such as Alec Burks, Damian Lee and Jacob Evans. All undersized wings that are capable of scoring on second units but have never made a rotation-level impact in the NBA. None of these names necessarily fit the profile of a conventional Warriors swingman-type, though those types are few and far between across the entire league. The D’Angelo Russell sign-and-trade triggered a hard salary cap for the Warriors, prohibiting them from spending money on players with true two-way capability. Until Thompson returns, the Warriors will have to live with what they’ve got.
Jordan Poole, drafted #28 overall by the Warriors, is a 6’5 guard out of Michigan. Poole is an athletic scoring wing who is not shy about pulling the trigger from behind the arc, something the Warriors will value given their lack of spacing with Thompson sidelined. Poole attempted 39 three’s over the span of his five preseason games. Regardless of the number of makes (13), Poole’s willingness to shoot should keep defenses honest and give Curry and Russell a bit more space to operate. Poole looks to be getting the bulk of the backup shooting guard minutes, at least to start the season.
Eric Paschall, drafted #41 overall, is a 6’7 power forward out of Villanova. As a four-year college player at age 22, Paschall has had time to fully grow into his body, weighing in at 255 pounds. Paschall projects as a Draymond Green-lite type, bringing some switchability, a decent looking jumpshot and a malleability in terms of his position. He’ll be fighting for minutes, as the Warriors front court is slightly deeper than their guard/wing rotation.
The Klay Dilemma
Thompson’s ACL tear is a complex issue. The Warriors have stated that there will not even be an update on his recovery until after the All-Star break, and General Manager Bob Myers made it clear that this does not mean he’ll return after the break. It just means there will be an update. The Warriors will be 55 games into their season by that point, and will have a vague idea as to where they stand in the Western Conference in terms of talent and playoff seeding. If they are not a clear-cut playoff-caliber team that looks like one All-Star away from being a title contender, it would stand to reason that they will not rush Thompson back and may even state publicly that he is ruled out for the remainder of the season.
Kerr has spoken on this particular topic, stating recently that Thompson was unlikely to play this season and later emphasizing the term “unlikely,” thus leaving the door ever-so-slightly ajar.
Projections and Predictions
Various NBA publications, writers and tweeters have pegged the Warriors to finish somewhere in the 6th-8th seed range of the Western Conference (ESPN has them as the 6th seed with 49 wins), far removed from the 60 win range Warriors fans have been accustomed to during the Steve Kerr era. But if one were to look up and down this Golden State roster, these predictions begin to seem reasonable, if not a bit generous.
This team has not only lost a ton of its past talent, it has also lost its intelligence. The Warriors as presently constructed will not be able to run the beautiful-game, Spursian-style motion offense that has perplexed teams for half a decade. An offense like that requires a certain type of player that the Warriors just don’t have beyond their top three players.
“Having lost a lot of passers,” Kerr said at Media Day, “a lot of veteran basketball players, Andre, Shaun, Kevin, even going back a couple years with Zaza and David West, our roster has really been filled with passers. And so it made a lot of sense for us to get the ball moving… [The new players] haven’t done it yet at this level. If you don’t have that kind of passing, then you tend to rely on more specific sets. So that’s what I would look for with this team as we go. We’ll figure out what we have.”
With their offense relying heavily on Curry and their defense relying heavily on Green, the Warriors need to pray to the basketball Gods that these two injury-prone stars (Curry has played an average of 66.3 games per season over the last three years; Green 70.6) can stay relatively healthy. The Warriors will likely be an underdog in any game in which Curry does not play.
This could easily become a bye-year for the Warriors. The hard cap has limited them in terms of acquiring assets midseason, and they will also owe their 2020 draft pick to the Brooklyn Nets as part of the Durant sign-and-trade if the Warriors finish with a top-10 record in the league. If Thompson’s recovery isn’t progressing rapidly and Golden State decides it’s just not their year, look for them to attempt to keep their pick, rest Curry and Green as often as possible and throw in the towel for the season.
It is with this very possible outcome in mind that I’m predicting the Warriors will win 43 games and finish just outside of the Top-8 in the Western Conference, missing the playoffs for the first time in eight years. At full strength, even without including Thompson, there are probably not eight teams in the conference that are better than Golden State. But the West has never been deeper, and the Warriors just don’t have the depth to sustain any sort of absence from Curry or Green. Compound that with their limited floor-spacing, lack of defensive versatility and a plethora of unproven role players, and the Warriors may find themselves on the outside looking in. It is also worth noting that Golden State has one of the smartest front offices in basketball, and they’re wise enough to realize that chasing the 8th seed and running their players into the ground just to be swept by one of the L.A. juggernauts is not beneficial for the long-term success of the franchise.
The Warriors themselves will be playing wait-and-see along with their fans when gauging the quality of this team. However, as it stands now, there is more that can go wrong than go right. Time will tell if this team can defy the odds.