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Can the Warriors Be Two Teams At Once?

Golden State’s veteran starters have played like champs. Its promising young core, however, has gotten blown off the court, raising questions about whether the franchise can execute its ambitious two-timeline approach.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The defending champion Golden State Warriors have a bulletproof starting lineup headlined by one of the greatest players in NBA history who’s operating at a higher, more dominant level than he ever has before. He’s flanked by two future Hall of Famers with unimpeachable winning credentials, the platonic ideal of a role-playing center, and a former no. 1 pick who has reinvented himself as a perfect two-way complement. Line the Warriors up against any team in the West for a seven-game series and they would likely be the favorite. At the same time, they currently have a 4-7 record that puts them at 12th place in the conference, disqualifying them from even those imaginary playoffs.

These are strange times for an ongoing dynasty. Many of the biggest questions surrounding the Warriors’ post-Durant revival were asked and answered with a title. Yet on a nuts-and-bolts level, you can feel the strain of a team mounting a championship defense 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 thus far. The stars are in alignment for Golden State, but so much more has to go right these days just for the Warriors to take care of regular-season business. They’ve already lost four games—out of the 11 they’ve played in total—in which Stephen Curry scored at least 30 points. Earlier this week, it took 47 from Steph, dramatic changes to the back half of the team’s rotation, and a mid-game lineup shift just to eke out a three-point home win over the Kings.

It’s standard operating procedure for a championship team to round into form gradually over the course of the following season, as the glow of its accomplishments fade and the competitive hunger builds. Yet in this case, Golden State’s veterans are already playing hard and logging serious minutes because the rest of the roster leaves them no other choice. When the battle-tested starting lineup of Curry, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson, Andrew Wiggins, and Kevon Looney has been on the floor in full, Golden State has outscored opponents by 72 points in 123 minutes, according to NBA Advanced Stats. In the 408 other minutes the Warriors have played with any other combination of players this season, they’ve been trounced by 109 points.

Some of those groupings hold up better than others, but there’s a common theme: The younger the lineup composition, the worse it tends to perform. It’s not enough just to throw Curry out there with some of Golden State’s greener rotation hopefuls; James Wiseman, Jonathan Kuminga, and Moses Moody have underwhelmed to the point that Steve Kerr has shifted Kuminga’s and Moody’s minutes around and pulled Wiseman from the rotation entirely.

It should be noted, again and again, that Kuminga and Moody are just 20 years old, and Wiseman 21. None of this is a final word on their careers, or even their development this season. Golden State did, however, base the logic of its entire rotation on the idea that the team’s younger core would deliver in the present tense. Stocking the bench with burgeoning talent was an admirable attempt to prepare the franchise for life after Steph, or at least life after Steph’s prime. Yet in relying almost exclusively on unseasoned prospects to fill out the second unit, the Warriors have drawn an even starker line between the players who can manage the every-night rigors of NBA basketball and those who aren’t yet up to the task.

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

In the lead-up to the 2018 draft, Green—while advising the front office on who the team should select in the late first round to help defend yet another title—offered a pearl of wisdom that became a piece of Warriors lore. “There are 82-game players,” Green said, as recounted by Warriors assistant GM Larry Harris, “then there are 16-game players.” Draymond wanted the latter—a teammate he could trust to hold up over not just one series, but four of them. A gamer who could survive and advance. The Warriors are in a fairly different place in 2022. What they need, desperately, are 82-game players. This is a team that will need help getting through a long December road trip. It needs more realistic avenues to keep the minutes for Curry, Thompson, and Green in check—to not have to roll out a playoff rotation just to wrap up a run-of-the-mill regular-season win. It needs some kind of roster fail-safe in the event that any of the team’s core players has to miss even a few minutes of action, much less a few months.

Golden State needs so much more, frankly, than the next generation of Warriors has been able to give. Things are already dire enough that Kerr has relied on cast-offs Ty Jerome and Anthony Lamb over his trio of lottery prospects, even though Lamb is so new to the team’s concepts he has to be literally directed into the right spots. Notably, Jerome and Lamb are neither 16-game players nor 82-game players; due to their two-way contracts, they can be active for only 50 of Golden State’s regular-season games and aren’t eligible to appear in the playoffs at all unless their deals are converted. They are strictly a means to tread water, and to wring an extra 20 to 30 minutes out of a bench with painfully limited options.

It’s clear already that the reigning champions are an incomplete project—one very much in need of serious internal growth or external remedy between now and the end of the season. Getting Donte DiVincenzo (who is expected to return on Friday) back from injury could help paper over some of the problems, but projecting a 25-year-old guard still finding his own way with a new team as its potential savior feels a bit heavy. Andre Iguodala will return at some point, and could make a real difference as an on-court chaperone for some of the youngest 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 in JaMychal Green (who joined Wiseman as a DNP-CD against the Kings this week) or stretch out Looney’s minutes further, at the cost of going small? That these even feel like possible—and even preferable—solutions speaks to where the Warriors now find themselves, and how easily this could have been avoided.

After all, this is a situation at least partly of Golden State’s own making. The Warriors effectively dissolved the bench that helped navigate the team through the 2022 playoffs, and overestimated just how ready Wiseman, Kuminga, and Moody were to compete. It’s obvious that the Warriors could use now-Raptor Otto Porter Jr. or now-Blazer Gary Payton II (although he’s still recovering from an offseason surgery) to punch up its bench again after doing that very thing in the NBA Finals. Yet under the circumstances, even Juan Toscano-Anderson (now a Laker) or Damion Lee (now a Sun) might feel like a crucial source of institutional knowledge on a second unit bereft of it. 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 missing all that 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 weather 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 out the string for another few months and hope to find its way. It’s just not so early that the Warriors can deny what they’ve been: a defending champion that, three weeks in, doesn’t really look the part.