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The Warriors Could Be Dangerous With the Right Tweaks

Golden State no longer has a superteam, but it still has a superstar duo in Steph and Draymond. The problem is that the rest of the team’s starting lineup doesn’t really fit around them.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Steph Curry has had some incredible offensive performances this season, but the Warriors didn’t start looking like a playoff team until Draymond Green returned to the lineup after testing positive for COVID-19. Draymond always has been the hidden engine of their success. Even in the rare games when Steph can’t buy a basket, like his career-worst 2-for-16 shooting outing in a win over the Raptors on Sunday, Draymond’s ability to make his teammates better on both ends of the floor gives them a chance. The two can still make magic together. The question for Golden State now is how to fill out the lineup around them.

Draymond put together a vintage performance against Toronto, totaling a near triple-double with 10 points, 10 assists, and 9 rebounds. The sluggish player who looked out of shape in his season debut two weeks ago was gone. His chemistry with Steph would have made Patrick Mahomes and Travis Kelce proud. The two Warriors fit so well together because their unique skill sets allow them to flip the normal way of doing things. The guard is the receiver and the big man is the quarterback in Golden State. Even though Steph missed most of these shots, no one else could have set him up for them quite like Draymond:

Draymond was even more important to the team’s defense. He was all over the floor on Sunday, making the extra rotation and seeming one step ahead of the offense. He’s the walking personification of the “plays that don’t show up in the box score” cliché. You can find these plays in almost all his games. Draymond doesn’t get statistical credit for the shots he contests in this clip, but they are the kinds of efforts that ultimately win games:

He has been doing those things since Golden State became a historically great team in 2015. But he’s no longer the player that he was in those days. The big change is the 30-year-old’s scoring. Draymond is averaging 4.0 points on 30.4 percent shooting this season, which can’t be blamed on his return from COVID, considering the trend goes back six seasons. The player who averaged 14.0 points per game while shooting 38.8 percent from 3 in Golden State’s 73-win season is gone. He has shot 29.5 percent from 3 on 3.2 attempts per game since. No one guards him on the perimeter anymore for a reason.

His decline has made spacing the floor a bigger challenge for the Warriors, especially without Klay Thompson. Steve Kerr has to be careful when putting together lineups because it’s easy to crowd Steph when he’s playing with too many nonshooters. It’s even more difficult given the complex nature of Golden State’s read-and-react offense, one that Kerr already has been simplifying to make the team’s newcomers more comfortable. As has been the case all season, there were multiple times on Sunday when Draymond was literally pointing to spots on the floor where teammates should either pass the ball or go themselves:

Poor spacing has been one of the big subplots of the Warriors’ season. Their starting lineup of Steph, Draymond, Andrew Wiggins, Kelly Oubre Jr., and James Wiseman has a net rating of minus-16.7 in 83 minutes because Steph is being swarmed with impunity. Oubre is trapped in a brutal shooting slump that shows no signs of ending, while none of the other three shoot well enough to force defenses to respect them out on the perimeter.

The Warriors have been kept afloat by some unfamiliar names on their bench. It’s no coincidence that their four leaders in net rating are reserve guards Mychal Mulder, Kent Bazemore, Damion Lee, and Brad Wanamaker. That’s four of their best shooters not named Steph. All played at different times in the second and third quarters on Sunday, when Golden State trounced Toronto’s second unit and helped the team pull out the win.

The problem for Kerr is that his shooters don’t have the length of his starters. Lee (6-foot-5) is the only one above 6-foot-4. The Warriors were at their best when they played shooters with length around Steph and Draymond, particularly Klay and Kevin Durant. They didn’t have to sacrifice defense for offense or vice versa. But as Rick Pitino once said, those players aren’t walking through that door this season. This version of Golden State has to live in the world of trade-offs.

There’s also an off-court element to Golden State’s lineup decisions. The players who aren’t playing well next to the Warriors’ stars are ones the team has invested a ton of resources in. Wiseman was the no. 2 pick in this year’s draft, Wiggins has two years remaining on a max contract, and the Warriors spent $82.4 million in salary and luxury tax penalties to acquire Oubre. Who wants to be the person to walk into owner Joe Lacob’s office and tell him that the player he spent a literal fortune on is getting benched?

It’s still too early in the season to make those kinds of decisions, although Oubre might benefit from playing on a second unit where he would be surrounded by shooters instead of being asked to be one. But the harder decisions involve Wiseman. While he has shown flashes of elite offensive talent as a rookie, the 19-year-old is still a long way away from being a helpful player on defense. A big and athletic center like him changes the whole dynamic of the team. Golden State always has used traditional big men to buy minutes for Draymond before he plays as a small-ball 5 when it matters. But you don’t spend the no. 2 pick in the draft on a player who won’t play in crunch time. How Draymond and Wiseman fit together up front is the most important story line for the franchise this season.

The net ratings of each player in the rotation next to Steph and Draymond don’t mean much now, given the small sample size involved. But it’s a key trend to watch over the next few months:

Minutes With Steph and Draymond

Player Minutes Net Rating
Player Minutes Net Rating
Oubre 128 minus-2.1
Wiggins 118 minus-10.7
Wiseman 101 minus-14.7
Looney 34 plus-20
Lee 31 plus-12.3
Bazemore 22 plus-21

While Steph and Draymond are no longer spring chickens, they can still play at a high level together. The tough part for the Warriors is that it’s hard to know how long that can last. Both are undersized players with a million miles on their bodies and extensive injury histories. They are good enough to compete for a title now, but they may not have enough time to wait on their younger teammates to catch up. Golden State could be a dangerous team come playoff time. It will come down to what lineup decisions Kerr makes over the next few months.