Three championships in the last seven seasons. Five-straight NBA Finals appearances. The greatest regular season in NBA history. Those are the legacies that come to mind when we envision the Golden State Warriors.
More recently, the Warriors have been a team to miss the playoffs the last two seasons. They went 54-83, only notching more wins in the Western Conference than the Minnesota Timberwolves. They have made three lottery selections, seen 17 players start ten or more games and had dozens come and go on their rosters.
The precipitation of their downfall was pretty clear: a Kevin Durant departure and massive injuries. General Manager Bob Myers worked to milk everything he could out of the Durant decision to leave: signing-and-trading for D'Angelo Russell, then flipping him for Andrew Wiggins and the pick that turned into Jonathan Kuminga. In a vacuum, that's as good of a haul as you ever see from a sign-and-trade.
The injuries have been a major wrench in plans, however. Klay Thompson has torn two ACLs and missed the last two years as a whole: the last game he played was in the 2019 NBA Finals against the Toronto Raptors. Injuries to Steph Curry and Draymond Green bottomed them out a year ago. Those injuries pushed the Warriors down the standings, netted some high draft picks, and lead to James Wiseman and Moses Moody selections.
Now, the Warriors are in a strange spot. They still have the collection of championship-caliber talent atop their roster in Curry, Green, Thompson and to some extent Wiggins, all of whom are in or soon-to-be-leaving their primes. They also have young lottery players in Wiseman, Kuminga and Moody who are on separate timelines, requiring reps to reach their potential but unlikely ready to help a championship group.
What does juggling both agendas mean for this season? Golden State may be the hardest team to peg in terms of projecting their outcome. Can the young guys do enough to keep up with making them a good team? Will Steve Kerr be able to balance their development with a win-now core? How healthy and productive is Klay Thompson? Would the Warriors try to move their young guys in favor of a win-now option mid-season?
Entering this season, the Warriors are going to try to thread needle between their ponies and thoroughbred stallions. Of all the paths to walk, this is the one with the highest risk and, ultimately, the highest reward.
The Win-Now Group
At full strength and performing in the ways we've seen them capable, the quartet of Curry, Green, Thompson and Wiggins is among the most talented core groups in the NBA. The MVP Curry has shown no signs of slowing down. As the lone wolf last year, he averaged 32 points, 5.8 assists and 5.5 rebounds while going an absurd 42.1% from 3 on nearly THIRTEEN attempts a night. He can still anchor a championship-level offense and is the alpha that is a unique cover for any team.
Draymond Green, his long-time pal and table-setter, is the linchpin of the operation. Green's frontcourt playmaking, defensive brilliance to cover Curry's shortcomings and overall competitiveness propel the Warriors to greatness. Averaging 8.9 dimes a game last year, he's still a major weapon in this offense despite his shortcomings scoring the ball and just might be the greatest help defender of all-time.
Surrounding these two is a 26-year-old Wiggins who is vastly underrated on the national scene. The recipient of 'empty stats' criticism, Aaron averaged 18.6 points and 2.9 assists while shooting over 38% from 3. He's a tremendous two-way player who is perfect in the role of a slashing, mismatch-posting, closeout-attacking wing who can handle a top defensive assignment. He's mighty expensive for that role, but that doesn't mean he provides no or negative value to this organization. He was excellent after the All-Star Break.
The wild card is Thompson, who will likely go 28 months or longer between game minutes. Two knee surgeries like he's undergone can ruin a player's career. While Klay's game was never built on athleticism, slowing him down will alter his impact in many ways. There was a time when Klay would guard opposing point guards if it was beneficial to Curry. It's hard to envision that scenario again. Thompson's tireless movement served as not only the purveyor to his offensive output but the perfect partner for Curry's game.
On paper, this quartet makes a great deal of sense from when we've last seen them. My fear isn't that Klay Thompson will be ineffective or merely a shell of himself, just that he'll be different. I'm surprised the Warriors haven't attacked their roster construction with role players from a standpoint of letting Klay run the 3 more, going smaller to anticipate the likely loss of quickness he'll have. Were I in the front office, that would be the constant point of concern I'd raise.
The roster as it's currently built doesn't give too much wiggle room. Sure, the Warriors could try to go small and play Klay, Wiggins and Draymond at a super-small 3 thru 5. I'm not sure if someone has established themselves as the fifth perimeter option to round out the group, though. Bigs like Wiseman and Kevon Looney make it hard to find robust minutes for Klay at the 3 if they're going to play, and free agent signings Otto Porter Jr., Andre Iguodala and Nemanja Bjelicia all push Klay closer to the backcourt.
On their own, I love every one of those guys on the minimum in the last reincarnation of this Warriors scheme. Porter and Iguodala are switchable enough, seasoned veterans and have the size profile to fill the roles we've already seen succeed under Kerr. Bjelicia adds a dynamic element as a frontcourt floor spacer their bench desperately needed. It's the lack of contingency for Klay that gives worry. While Draymond might be the linchpin to their on-court production, Thompson is the linchpin to their roster. He has to be able to play the 2.
If the Curry-Thompson-Wiggins-Green-Looney unit is their certified starting group, that's a unit that can clearly take the Warriors to the playoffs and beyond when at full strength. Sprinkle in the veteran role players and they're built to have some success in the playoffs. A lack of backcourt experience, and the need to find minutes for their three prized draft selections certainly complicates how they allocate minutes and what they prioritize this regular season.
The Development Kids
The 2nd overall pick in 2020, James Wiseman has played 42 games against competition above the high school level. At a position notorious for having a slow, long trajectory to NBA success, the level of patience surrounding his young career is dumbfounding. Part of that is the confines of the situation: a coach so used to winning and a core who doesn't want to be cost anything through Wiseman's growing pains. The other part is simple overreaction: Wiseman averaged 19.3 points, 9.7 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per 36 minutes as a rookie, while also shooting over 30% from 3. He's a giant ball of upside.
Traditionally speaking, young bigs taken in the lottery only get over the hump through playing time. DeAndre Ayton just cleared it in his third season: he logged 3500 minutes in his first two years, and that's while missing time due to a drug suspension. Phoenix was patient, let him learn by doing, and the results speak for themselves. The same can be said for Adebayo, logging 3200 minutes in his first two years despite early struggles and a reserve role.
Wiseman logged only 836 minutes with the Warriors before an injury derailed his season. If the amount of minutes per game he receives continues, it won't be until the middle of Year 3 when he reaches the 3500 minute plateau. Remember, he didn't play at all in college either, so ostensibly he's starting behind where guys like Adebayo and Ayton were.
From a developmental standpoint, Wiseman being slower to get to those minutes mark doesn't mean his upside his stunted or that he's behind schedule. The developmental plan may have an additional preface compared to others, but that's not an indictment on his ceiling. Any time you draft a raw teenage big who played in three collegiate games, you're setting yourself up to play the long game. Any lack of patience, even if it's driven by the desire to give Curry et al win-now toys would be the definition of futility.
So how do the Warriors carve out a meaningful role for Wiseman that doesn't cost them games? We could speculate the how, though it's vital they do actually try. Green will syphon off a few small-ball 5 minutes. Kevon Looney is good for 18-24 a night. The minutes are there to be had for Wiseman, though the patience must follow.
Speaking of patience, Jonathan Kuminga enters his rookie season in a similar boat: raw. Similarly athletically gifted and talented enough to dominate in a G-League setting, Kuminga might struggle to do all the little things that any NBA team needs in order to see the floor. There have been rumors from the very beginning about his need to spend time in the G-League to add seasoning, work on his defensive rotations and iron out his perimeter jumper.
Keeping Kuminga and Wiseman in small or nonexistent on-court roles might be the best thing to do for the Warriors right now. But Curry is signed through 2026, Thompson and Green through 2024 and Wiggins through next year. Cap space is a premium. Blink and these guys will be ready for their next contract and extensions. To let them sit here and not develop on-court is to simultaneously lower their probability of reaching their upside to receive the torch from the current group and disintegrate their outgoing trade value that could land another star.
There's a very real situation in which Thompson isn't the second star he used to be. A year from now, when Wiggins is an expiring contract, a package of he and one of these two young guns could land Golden State a true #2 star. But that only happens if they show enough growth to make that enough of a haul. As it's currently standing, Wiseman, Kuminga and Wiggins aren't enough to entice a team to trade them Bradley Beal or Damian Lillard. If it were, the deal would've been done already.
Toiling away on the bench and having Kerr continually prioritize winning regular season games over pushing through growing pains can be horrible for the franchise long-term. It can also stunt them short-term. There's a lack of centers on this roster to help if Wiseman isn't getting prepared for postseason minutes in 2022. He doesn't gain that role playing 12 minutes a night and never seeing a final stretch of a close game in the regular season. Kuminga has more patience, but a year from now he'll be exactly in Wiseman's shoes. The same decision will need to be made in the future.
What a delicate balancing act that is, valuing seeding and letting their high-flyers reach max altitude while also wanting to string along the younger guys. We've sensed the frustration from guys like Green, Curry and Kerr from the last two years of fostering growth. They're eager to soar again.
Moses Moody is the third man in this young group, and even he has some growing pains to come. The most ready-to-play of the three, Moody is your quintessential 3-and-D wing who rarely puts the ball on the floor, uses his length to bother his opponent and comes up with one or two under-the-radar plays a game that help his team win. He's a low-volume guy, stretches defenses and would give the Warriors their first additional wing shooter to be a threat off screens in the Curry-Thompson era.
But Moody is rail thin. He's yet to play against NBA competition and is a year out of high school. He isn't the fastest guy, meaning positioning and holding his ground become vital on defense. It's hard to include him in a trustworthy postseason rotation, as it is with any rookie.
We saw respectable strides from Jordan Poole last year, but right now he feels overleveraged in a sixth man scoring role. Juan Toscano-Anderson is a great energy 4-man who knocks down shots. You're probably in trouble if he plays more than 18 a night. Mychal Mulder couldn't defend a college walk-on one-on-one.
Therein lies the issue. Over the last two years of struggles, the Warriors have very few ready-to-go role players to show for their struggles. Usually the teardowns or major struggles produce a couple guys who surprise and earn their way to stick around with the big kids. Robert Covington, Jerami Grant, Richaun Holmes and TJ McConnell were all products of the 2014-2016 Process 76ers. Sure, none are still in Philadelphia, but they capitalized on opportunity and proved capable NBA starters or role players.
The Warriors walk away from the last two years with solid minutes from Toscano-Anderson, a late-season scoring uptick from Poole (14.7 per game after March 1st) and nothing else. Nico Mannion is gone to Italy. Eric Paschall was shipped off to the Utah Jazz. They failed to develop Alen Smailagic or Marquese Chriss. Ky Bowman and Omari Spellman were unceremoniously dumped. It's a fairly disappointing haul.
Where does that crunch the Warriors? The need for guys like Moody, Wiseman and Kuminga to play productive postseason minutes. It's hard to envision the Warriors getting to a title without it, otherwise they're the 39-33 team from a year ago with Klay Thompson. Better, but not a championship contender.
The only way Moody, Wiseman and Kuminga get ready for the playoffs is by playing a role in the regular season. That could result in fewer wins, a lower seed and less desirable postseason matchups. It's a tough spot to be squeezed into. It's the needle these Warriors are choosing to thread so delicately.
They're robbed of a backup plan. This has to go well: there are no other assets than these to get a star, and no other role players capable of pushing them over the top. Investing in the trio of youngsters is not only right, it's necessary.
Head Boys Basketball Coach, Boys' Latin School (MD).