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Warriors hoping that the puzzle is coming together
A big week with games against Western Conference opponents highlights Golden State's uncertainty - and opportunity
The middle is still wide open in the NBA’s Western Conference, and as the Golden State Warriors hover around .500, there’s plenty of room for hope… and concern. But even though it hasn’t all come together consistently the Warriors’ blueprint is starting to emerge.
This is a big week for Golden State. First up is tonight’s game against the rebuilding but dangerous Oklahoma City Thunder, then the Timberwolves and Nuggets in a back-to-back in Minnesota and Denver on Wednesday and Thursday.
Andrew Wiggins looks like he’s cleared to play, but the weirdness around James Wiseman continues. Or maybe it’s not all that weird, but definitely unfortunate.
WHO: Golden State Warriors (25-24) at Oklahoma City Thunder (24-25)
WHEN: Monday, January 30th, 2023 // 5pm PDT
Are the Warriors sneakily close to having it figured out?
The Warriors are far from stable, but there are some gentle whisperings of a solution floating in on the wind. The Warriors have won three of their last four games, and even though there are still some lingering injuries to contend with, it feels like the puzzle pieces are coming into alignment.
With their proven core of veterans, the bulk of minutes in any potential playoff series are covered. According to Cleaning the Glass, the Warriors’ starting five unit is one of the best in the league. With a safe +19.8 point differential per 100 possessions (the “diff” column below), it’s in the 92nd percentile out of all qualifying lineups. That’s pretty nice - before you even start counting the rings that are all out there at once.
That the Warriors have the luxury of knowing that the starting five can hang with any team is a nice luxury - and one that Golden State sorely needs. Especially in the regular season though, there’s a tough reality to face: that five man unit is nice and all, but it’s not enough.
When you look at the total minutes played this season, it might surprise you to know that Jordan Poole Leads the team so far. A lot of that is health-dependant, but even with all the injuries, there’s a pattern starting to emerge. Coach Steve Kerr isn’t above having favorites, but more often than not it’s for a reason.
Anthony Lamb is a special case. On one of the teams two-way contracts, there’s a limit to the number of regular season games he can appear in; and it’s far from clear if the Warriors will opt to keep him or Ty Jerome with their final roster spot - whenever the time to lock that in may come. One way of the other though, both Lamb and Jerome can’t be on the playoff roster unless there’s a contract change or two.
Poole is a lock in the playoff rotation. He’s had some shaky moments this season, but the team is comfortable enough based on his performances in last year’s playoffs that they’ll give him a lot of room to make mistakes. One of the reasons that the Warriors are so seemingly resistant to adding another big man is the unspoken assumption that when it comes down to it, Poole will be on the court over another big. In fact, Poole is one of the league leaders when it comes to bench players that finish the game - having finished over 50% of the games that he didn’t start.
Now healthy, Donte DiVincenzo has cemented his spot as the team’s pesky energy defender and stabilizing presence off the bench.
That gets us to seven or eight names.
As noted throughout the season, the Warriors are just looking for one other guy to emerge from the middle class of the bench and command minutes. It looks like Jonathan Kuminga could be turning into that guy right in front of our eyes.
Eric Apricot already broke down his hot scoring to close out the third quarter of the team’s last game, but there are a lot of critical ways that Kuminga can help this Warriors team.
You don’t necessarily need a graphic illustration to understand that the Warriors, a team that is dead last in free throw attempts, could use a guy that pressures the rim like Kuminga. The image below is from Cleaning the Glass, so it excludes garbage time, but take a look at the overall shape of this picture that shows the percent of shooting attempts that he’s fouled on.
Not only is Kuminga above average (remarkable for a low minutes player as young as he is), but look at the individual data points. He’s so hard to stop, he picks up so many fouls sometimes, that the graph falls all out of perspective. As one of my favorite old Golden State of Mind signature lines said: there’s no such thing as off the chart, you just need a bigger piece of paper. Kuminga stretched that paper way up into the air with one game where he was fouled on 60% of his shots.
As the trade deadline looms, it feels more and more certain that the Warriors front office isn’t going to tear up their future for any short term roster improvements. They may not need to, if all the puzzle pieces fit together.
It’s time to knuckle down and stack some wins. Starting tonight!