As the Golden State Warriors blew an 18-point fourth-quarter lead to the Denver Nuggets on Thursday night, a telling moment occurred midway through the comeback.
With just over five minutes remaining, the Warriors inbounded the ball to Brandin Podziemski, who let it roll to bleed the clock. Nikola Jokic noticed, so he picked the rookie up at full court to force him to touch the ball to start the timer. The Nuggets needed every second they could get. Then, as Podz crossed half court, Jokic got bumped and flailed his arms, trying to draw a foul. Warriors head coach Steve Kerr called a timeout and immediately started shaking his head while shouting directly at Jokic, perhaps out of frustration again with his attempts to draw a foul. But considering what happened five minutes later, Kerr’s loss of cool seems less about Jokic’s antics and more about the bitter acknowledgment that Golden State’s reign is over.
NIKOLA JOKIC ARE YOU SERIOUS pic.twitter.com/tAIbDgi9JE— CJ Fogler account may or may not be notable (@cjzero) January 5, 2024
At the buzzer, Jokic hit a miraculous 40-foot bank shot to complete the comeback and win the game for the Nuggets, who are now 25-11 and a half game back from the top seed in the West. Over his past four games, Jokic has attempted 44 shots and made 39 of them—Wilt Chamberlain–level stuff. Meanwhile, the Warriors have a below-.500 record and the 11th seed. If the season ended today, Golden State wouldn’t even be in the play-in tournament.
As the Nuggets began digging into the Warriors’ lead, it was rather striking to see the differences in philosophy between the two teams. Kerr couldn’t find any minutes for Jonathan Kuminga over the final quarter and a half, even though Kuminga was playing great as he continues the best stretch of his career. Conversely, on the Denver side, Michael Malone benched his proven veteran Michael Porter Jr. in crunch time in favor of a second-year backup, Peyton Watson, who seized the opportunity by playing excellent team defense and hitting a massive 3-pointer late in the fourth:
Malone has a willingness to gamble on youth and energy in high-stakes moments, while Kerr largely leans on only his veterans. The Nuggets invest in player development. It was Christian Braun last year. It’s Watson this year. It’ll be Julian Strawther next. As Nuggets general manager Calvin Booth told me last offseason: Helping their youth blossom is all part of the plan to hopefully build a dynasty.
“There’s a reason we didn’t hand them jobs to start the season. It doesn’t work that way. If you did that, you’d have a revolt. You have to honor the work that the veterans have done,” Kerr said two weeks ago about his decision not to play his young players straight out of training camp. The dynamics of Golden State’s locker room are undeniably different from those of Denver’s. However, as the Warriors continue to falter, losing their grip on leads month after month, a question arises: Is Kerr’s loyalty to his aging stars costing the team?
The clutch 3 by Watson is partially evidence that it is, but the issues run even deeper. Here’s how the play begins:
Throughout the final quarter, the Nuggets kept running what’s called a double drag, which is essentially when two players simultaneously set an on-ball screen. Here, the Nuggets are doing that for Jamal Murray. And there’s a lot going wrong here for Golden State. Steph Curry is out of position since he’s not glued to his assignment, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Klay Thompson is unable to stay in front of Murray. And though it didn’t really influence the result here, for whatever reason Dario Saric is tasked with defending Jokic.
As Murray dribbles into the paint, Trayce Jackson-Davis helps off Aaron Gordon from one corner, and Chris Paul helps off Watson in the other. CP3 offers zero resistance to prevent penetration in the paint, and he’s far too slow and far too small to contest Watson’s jumper.
The result? A game-changing 3. Here’s the full play again:
Following a slow start to the season, Watson has been making 45 percent of his attempts from 3 per game since mid-December. This improvement is happening in part because the Nuggets are empowering him to shoot without the fear that he’ll get pulled for a veteran.
It’s the opposite for the Warriors: Kuminga should have been in the game at this moment. He could have been either defending Watson, providing far more size as the low man and when defending the closeout, or defending Murray, using his length to deter him from driving into the lane. If Kuminga were on Murray, then Thompson similarly could have been more effective as the key help defender on the play. Kerr’s reluctance to leverage Kuminga’s physicality and athleticism in a game dominated by the Nuggets’ size is baffling. Not just from a player development perspective, but because schematically, the Warriors were getting roasted. When the Nuggets weren’t running double-drag screens, they were simply feeding Gordon to use his size advantage:
Gordon, who finished with a season-high 30 points, was overpowering every defender on the Warriors. In the clip above, he buried Curry to draw a foul. Again, in this situation Kuminga would have offered greater resistance. Instead, Kerr watched Steph run around all game, chase wings with weight on him, and get more and more fatigued late in the fourth.
Curry could have used the help on offense, too. The Warriors were rarely able to get into the paint on Thursday. Against Denver, Kuminga was the only player able to bully his way to the rim. His five baskets included three dunks, a layup, and an and-1 in which he plowed through Murray:
The clip above was Kuminga’s final offensive possession. So why was he not called on in the fourth as the lead was being blown? “[Andrew Wiggins] was playing great, and we were rolling,” Kerr said after the game. “And at that point [putting in Kuminga] didn’t feel like the right thing to do because he’d been sitting for a while. So I stayed with the group that was out there, and obviously we couldn’t close it out.”
Right. Except Kerr did make subs late in the fourth, like putting Saric in for Wiggins, CP3 for Podz, and Jackson-Davis for Kevon Looney. Besides, Malone inserted Watson back into the game with just a few minutes to go. The defending champions, who also have a veteran-laden roster, are giving nightly minutes to a pair of second-year players and a rookie.
“It’s tricky,” Kuminga told reporters when asked about his minutes. “Since I’ve been here, we don’t have just five guys that we know that they’re supposed to be on the floor whenever it’s closing time. It’s a little weird. I’ve been here for three years now, I’m used to it. I’m never surprised when I see a lineup change at the end of the game or even in the game. It’s a culture thing.”
The once glorious culture of the Warriors has disintegrated, though. But Kerr continues to coach his team as if it’s still in its heyday without holding his veterans accountable. Even aside from the Draymond Green drama, it’s taken half a season for Klay to come to terms with the fact that his prime years are behind him. Wiggins has regressed by falling back into the same bad habits that plagued him in Minnesota. CP3 operates like a security blanket for the Warriors because he’s so turnover averse, but he no longer offers the ability to get to the basket or score with volume. Should the 38-year-old Paul really be playing as often as he does and closing games?
Kuminga’s minutes have fluctuated all year. Earlier in the season, Jackson-Davis was buried behind Saric and Looney, and Podziemski wasn’t even playing ahead of Cory Joseph. They didn’t break into the rotation until injuries and the second Draymond suspension forced Kerr’s hand. Moses Moody still hasn’t broken through despite his flashes as a two-way wing. Kerr recently said that Moody is “the victim of our depth as a team.”
But this isn’t just about aging stars or developing kids; it’s about a culture that has failed to adapt and a coaching strategy stubbornly rooted in past glories. Here’s what I wrote in November, the night after the Warriors squandered a 24-point lead to the Kings:
Kerr’s once-revered coaching style, which balanced individual freedom and systemic discipline, now appears to be failing, with no accountability for veterans’ declining performances…Not giving minutes to excelling young players is taking the easy way out, rather than playing the young guys and managing the fragile egos of his older players. All Kerr is doing now is sending a message that hard work will not be rewarded with chances, and production during limited opportunities will not be rewarded with more minutes. Because on Kerr’s Warriors, tenure is all that matters.
Things are a little different now. Kuminga, Jackson-Davis, and Podz are receiving regular minutes. But there is no consistency to the rotation or to the roles and responsibilities of young players who need clarity. With Thompson’s decline and Draymond’s indefinite suspension, Kerr’s job is anything but enviable. Yet it’s undeniable that his decisions this season have exacerbated the issues, fueling Thompson’s stubbornness and Green’s recklessness. And watching it all fall apart is Steph.
Even at age 35, Steph is still, without a doubt, capable of leading a championship contender, averaging 27.7 points on 41 percent shooting from 3. He is being attacked on defense more than he has since he was a young player, and he’s asked to carry the offense without support.
Will Warriors general manager Mike Dunleavy Jr. make some tough decisions to get him help? Kerr will be a free agent himself this offseason, so things could start there. Or perhaps there will be a big trade before next month’s deadline. With young players and multiple future first-round picks to offer, the Warriors can get creative. Looney, Paul, and Wiggins are the obvious candidates for a move. It’d be tough to stomach trading Thompson. Green should be on the table at this point. As I wrote earlier this week: Couldn’t a team view him as the final piece to their championship puzzle, providing the Warriors with assets to flip into another core player?
Maybe the run is over, though. Maybe this summer Kerr will retire and Thompson will leave. Maybe Draymond will get dealt. Maybe Steph will remain to see the transition through to the next stage. Maybe he’ll exit and the Warriors will begin to tank. The future is unpredictable, except for one fact that Golden State’s former general manager Bob Myers recognized six years ago: “I definitely know this is ending. I don’t need any reminders. The narrative is ‘This will go on forever.’ On the record, it can’t. Nothing does, especially in a sport where the competition is so great.”
As Jokic’s Hail Mary banked in on Thursday, perhaps Curry and Kerr were left pondering the same inevitability: Nothing can last forever.