Did The Warriors Ruin The Dynasty By Blowing The Draft? Part 5B: Losing Kendrick Nunn

We calculate how much to cry over this spilt milk

We laid out the constraints and boundaries of this analysis in the series master post, Did The Warriors Ruin The Dynasty By Blowing The Draft? An In-Depth Series. This also has links to all the articles in the series.

This is a bonus article, but an important one.

Ando asked:

Is there a way to include undrafted players (that later developed via free agency, G-League, etc.) in these analyses too?

You see this come up a fair amount, particularly when some player that went undrafted or unclaimed on waivers has a breakout game. “Why couldn’t the Warriors have picked that guy up?” The regret that really stings is when you actually had the player on your team, either on the roster or in training camp.

Let’s look at the players most mourned by Dub Nation that the Five Finals Warriors teams had in the organization, but let get away. Next up is Kendrick Nunn who was on the Warriors…

…and then not, to a lot of moaning and what-ifs from Dub Nation.

League-wide, Nunn became a fan darling and runner-up Rookie of the Year…

… and become a scapegoat during the Covid Cup tournament before having a big performance to help save the season in Finals Game 5.

How Did The Warriors Lose Kendrick Nunn?

Nunn seemed to come out of nowhere for the Miami Heat when he dropped 40 points in a 2019-20 preseason, the highest scoring preseason game by a Heat player in the last 20 years. He continued his hot play into the season:

The Heat’s undrafted rookie guard scored a career-high 28 points on 10-of-15 shooting in 33 minutes Thursday. Nunn’s 112 points to begin the season is the most through five games by an undrafted player in NBA history, surpassing Connie Hawkins’ 105 points to begin 1969-70. 

In addition, according to ESPN Stats & Info, Nunn is the first NBA player with 100 points in his first five career games since Kevin Durant in 2007-08 (113).

Some more highlights:

On December 3, Nunn was named Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month after averaging 16.4 points, 3.2 assists and 1.3 steals per contest. On January 2, Nunn became the first undrafted player in NBA history to win multiple Rookie of the Month awards. He won the Rookie of the Month award for a third time for his January performance. He was named to the Rising Stars Game at the 2020 NBA All-Star Game where he scored 16 points for Team USA

So… how did the Warriors miss this guy? Especially since he was on the Santa Cruz Warriors all previous year?!

Let’s consider three contributors:

1. Baggage

I think his personal baggage probably did not contribute much to the actual GSW decision to let Nunn go, but it’s important to at least acknowledge it, since it’s often ignored in casual accounts of his doing undrafted. Wes Goldberg wrote:

He went undrafted in 2018 despite coming off an impressive season at Oakland University in which he was the second-leading scorer in the country behind No. 5 pick Trae Young. The Warriors needed the league’s approval to sign Nunn after a domestic violence case resulted in his dismissal from Illinois in 2016. A woman accused Nunn of choking and pouring water on her. While Nunn agreed to a plea deal, authorities dropped two counts of battery, including the choking charges. 

After signing him to their summer league team, the Warriors invited Nunn to training camp, where he had an opportunity to earn a roster spot. However, deep with perimeter talent, the Warriors didn’t have room for Nunn on the regular roster. They signed him to their G League affiliate in Santa Cruz. 

So, the Warriors proceeded to give Nunn a spot on their 2018 training camp roster (which by the way was loaded, with Kendrick Nunn and Danuel House getting run and then getting waived) and then extended run in the G-League. So the baggage did make Nunn go undrafted, but the Warriors have given Nunn multiple chances since then.

2. Roster Spot Crunch & Tax

Here is the primary reason Nunn had to go: roster spots. For the 2018-19 season, the Warriors kept Nunn in the G-League as long as possible and used him in a Lou Williams microwave scorer role. Goldberg, again:

Miles encouraged Nunn to embrace a reserve role. The Warriors believed Nunn could have an impact off the bench like L.A. Clippers guard Lou Williams, projecting him as a sixth man who could score in bunches and close games. Nunn averaged 19.3 points on 47.3% shooting overall and 33.5% from 3-point range. 

David Aldridge adds:

“I pushed pretty strongly for a 10-day (NBA contract),” said Nunn’s agent, Adam Pensack.

But with the Warriors well into the luxury tax, spending even a 10-day deal for Nunn would actually cost Golden State a couple hundred thousand dollars more in tax payments. Nor was there a roster spot available at the time….

So after the G League’s playoffs ended, Nunn started looking around for an NBA deal. Some teams went the ‘you didn’t start in the G League; why would we sign you?’ route. “It was a pretty surface level analysis,” Pensack said. 

Let’s unpack this a bit. The Warriors actually had their 15th roster spot open into March 2019. But they finally used it on returning big man Andrew Bogut. Due to the injuries to DeMarcus Cousins and Damian Jones, the Warriors simply did not have a beefy big man for the playoffs. It’s hard to second-guess the Bogut decision.

The better decision to second-guess is whether the Warriors should have waived a player to make room for Nunn on the main roster, or for a two-way contract.

It was very unlikely that GSW would open a new spot for Nunn on the NBA team. His most direct competition was Damion Lee. And GSW were already struggling with the question of how to get Lee on the playoff roster (and in the end, they left Lee off). Lee is bigger than Nunn, a better defender (see below) who can flex between guard spots and play next to Steph, he can defend wings and guards, and he was shooting better at the time. Nunn would have been at best Lee’s backup.

While Nunn may seem like an overnight sensation in Miami, coaches in Santa Cruz worked with him to standardize his shooting stroke and be more decisive with his dribble. 

Once a streaky shooter who could not make 33% of his 3-point attempts in consecutive games in the G League, Nunn is shooting better than 40% in his rookie season. For a guard who used to bide his time with extra dribbles, now Nunn explodes into his first move, either toward the rim or rising up for a jumper. 

Also Damion Lee is Stephen Curry’s brother-in-law.

So, no way you’re going to waive this guy to take a flyer on Nunn, especially since the team need at the time was not scoring. You already had Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant quietly negotiating time with the ball and then Klay Thompson firing up any possible shot left over.

The only realistic move would have been to have given one of their two-way contracts to Nunn. These were held by Alfonzo McKinnie, Damion Lee and Marcus Derrickson. We’ve already discussed how Lee was ahead of Nunn. McKinnie actually got a noticeable number of playoff minutes, so despite lots of Warriors fan complaints, he was a contributor.

Marcus Derrickson is a 6-7, 249 lb big wing who hustles hard and can hit the three pointer (10-20 on 3s in 11 GSW games in some thrilling small sample size). We didn’t see much of Derrickson in the big leagues, so it’s easy in hindsight to say Nunn should have gotten his spot.

But for size and defense reasons, Nunn was always going to have an uphill battle to get a spot in GSW (more below). So, this would be at best for the role of backup to Damion Lee, who was backing up Quinn Cook, who was backing up Shaun Livingston, who was backing up Stephen Curry. We’re talking about backup to a player who didn’t even make the playoff roster. And a third backup point guard who can’t play next to Steph Curry… that is too inflexible for Steve Kerr.

Derrickson on the other hand would fill the roles of bruiser stretch power forward and wing, which could slot in backing up Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala. So, this looks like the wrong move in retrospect, since Derrickson got shed anyway in the 2019 offseason, and Nunn might have cooked in the 2019-20 horror movie of injuries, but it was understandable. From the Sun-Sentinel:

If there is a bitterness about being left to toil last season with the Santa Cruz Warriors, it is not visible.

“I felt pretty close with the Golden State organization, if it was going to see games during the year, or them coming down, seeing us,” said Nunn.

3. Size, Efficiency and Defense

Okay, let’s get to the reason that everyone is too polite to say. Yes, Nunn can heat up and get you difficult buckets. Yes, he can fill up the basket in volume. But there is more to the game.

Kendrick Nunn is 6’ 2”. Steve Kerr doesn’t like small guards. He tolerates 6’ 3” Stephen Curry because he can shoot and is the best point guard in modern history. But Nunn’s size means he is going to be a liability on defense unless he improves immensely, and he can’t be flexed to play alongside Stephen Curry.

So Nunn can fill up the basket, and MIA is +2.5 net rating with him on-court. But off-court they’re an even better +4.7, giving him an On-Off of -2.2.

Advanced analytics hate Nunn. Despite the flashy year full of awards, his Offensive Box Plus Minus is -0.9, his Defensive BPM is -2.2, his Value Over Replacement Player is -0.1, so they rate him below a replacement player (a level of player one can find any time for a minimum contract).

Cleaning The Glass rates his defense as quite poor across the board for guards.

ESPN RPM rates Kendrick Nunn as the #51 shooting guard out of 137, with an offensive RPM of -0.32 (below average) and a defensive RPM of 0.04 (#45 in the league).

All of these measures are flawed, but they all point in a similar direction: Nunn is not good on defense and his offense is inefficient. So, despite his many talents, it’s not a slam dunk that he would fit on the 2018-19 Warriors.

Warriors Move Grade: C

To sum up. Nunn is a good player with some excellent scoring talent. 2019-20 Warriors would have loved to have him thrilling the crowds, filling up the bucket for a tanking team.

But 2018-19 GSW was going Championship or Bust, and there was no room for Nunn on the roster. From a dynasty point of view, keeping Nunn would not have affected the 2019 Warriors playoff run. Even in 2019-20, with all the new confidence in the world, Nunn has struggled terribly in the playoffs, with no rookie wall and no big road crowds.

From the point of view of post-dynasty play, arguably GSW should have kept him by giving him a two-way contract at the start of the season instead of Marcus Derrickson, or perhaps waiving Derrickson in spring to give Nunn a two-way instead.

However, at the time, for what Nunn showed, it was a reasonable call to let Nunn look for a contract elsewhere. And when one takes a closer look at what Nunn has been providing, we see a player with great promise, who still has some questions about his game and role when you look past the rookie awards.

Nunn himself is at peace with GSW:

“I understood the business part of it,” Nunn reflected. “They loved me as a player, that’s why the signed me on draft night. So, I was thankful there. But the business side of it was I didn’t get the call-up like I wanted to, and they were trying to work things out.”