Sports

The Warriors Got Back on Top by Evolving Their Title-Winning Template

Klay Thompson isn’t back. James Wiseman has yet to make his season debut. Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody have done nothing notable. Still the Warriors are on a 70-win pace, Draymond Green leads the NBA’s top-ranked defense, and Steph Curry is the betting favorite to win MVP. The Warriors are back, folks.

That fact became clear after Golden State traveled to Brooklyn and stomped the Nets while the crowd showered Steph with MVP chants. And the return of Thompson and the development of young guys could make them even more dangerous. But the Warriors are 12-2 and in position to contend for a championship because Curry is even better than he was the last time the Warriors were on top.

Now 33 years old, Curry is still doing what he’s always done on offense. He’s just doing more of it. Over Curry’s final 18 regular-season games, with a playoff spot on the line, Steve Kerr ramped up Steph’s usage to get him 15.6 attempts from 3 per game, up from 11.6 earlier that season and 10.7 over his previous five seasons. This season, Curry is launching 13.4 shots from 3 per game, which exceeds the all-time record of 13.2 set by James Harden in 2018-19. And he’s making them at a 40.6 percent clip—far better than Harden’s 36.8 percent in his record season.

Steph has evolved. So has the entire team. For some time, it seemed the Warriors were losing their grip. They went from being innovators with their pace and 3-point shooting to falling to the middle of the pack as other teams began to play faster and shoot more. Kerr wasn’t adapting his system. Players were leaving or retiring. Bob Myers couldn’t find good young players. The rest of the NBA caught up, frankly. But things began to shift last season and now it’s all coming together because the Warriors have dramatically shifted their habits.

This season, Golden State is pushing pace with the league’s quickest average possession time, the most fast-break points per game, and the second-highest rate of 3-pointers, at 47.6 percent of its total shots. The roster is littered with shooters like Otto Porter Jr., Nemanja Bjelica, Damion Lee, and Jordan Poole. These aren’t big names, but they fit. Shooting is everywhere on the court, and Steph looks like a more seasoned playmaker, delivering passes a beat sooner, with a touch more precision. Perhaps it’s an illusion and he’s merely benefiting from the superior talent around him. Either way, Curry and his new teammates have a connection. Especially the guy starting in place of Thompson.

Poole does plenty of scoring himself off the dribble, but he also scores off a pass by Steph about once per game, which is second on the team behind Draymond’s 1.3 per game. Curry receives so much defensive attention when he has the ball, it usually means someone is open. But it’s on the player without the ball to create a passing lane for the ball handler. Curry and Poole have been in sync in these moments, and Poole regularly relocates to positions where Curry can find him.

Poole can deliver, averaging 17.1 points per game and playing a more seasoned style with matured shot selection and passing. Poole hasn’t even shot well yet, at 28.9 percent on 8.1 tries from 3 per game. But there’s plenty of time for him to catch fire like he did toward the end of last season and this preseason. Though Thompson’s return will dig into his shots, Poole is a candidate right now for the Most Improved Player of the Year.

Poole isn’t the only player thriving. All of the Warriors’ shooters can cut and pass at a high level, making them perfect for a motion offense that revolves around Curry. The Warriors once again have telepathetic ball movement, assisting on 69.9 percent of their passes. That’s the league high this season and the highest since the 2016-17 Dubs posted a 70.5 assist percentage.

In recent seasons, Kerr ran a similar system but the new players brought in after the 2019 Finals couldn’t adapt. The losing along the way was beneficial, though: In addition to rebuilding their supporting cast, the Warriors added three lottery picks in Wiseman, Kuminga, and Moody.

One or more of those young guys could be trade bait for a veteran that could become available. But keeping them could help in the short term, not just in the long term. Moody hasn’t shown anything yet, but the Warriors drafted him hoping he’d turn into their own Mikal Bridges. Kuminga is the guy they need to help right now. At 6-foot-8 and 210 pounds with long arms, Kuminga has the size, strength, and athleticism to be a versatile on-ball stopper. Kuminga has already had some excellent moments on defense containing opposing stars. On offense, the 19-year-old is basically been an interior player who’s finishing inside and making the right pass if needed. He looks solid.

Wiseman remains sidelined following offseason surgery on a torn meniscus. But his presence is important. The big man adds a new element to the title blueprint as a rim-running threat who can also screen for Curry. The Warriors don’t run much pick-and-roll, but they began doing more of it when Wiseman and Curry shared the floor at the end of last season. It’s another potential layer for the offense.

Standing between the Warriors and another trophy are dominant interior players. During their dynastic run, the Warriors didn’t need to stop any bigs near the level of Nikola Jokic or Joel Embiid or Giannis Antetokounmpo. Wiseman was nowhere near ready for the task last season, but there’s still hope for him.

The Warriors should have some confidence in their ability to turn things around for their young players given the successes they’ve had recently up and down the roster. It’s not just Poole who got better. Andrew Wiggins is good now. Seriously! On offense, he takes smarter shots than ever while looking competent off the dribble. He’s also an excellent defender, especially on the ball, and versatile enough to switch a team-high amount of screens in Kerr’s switch-heavy scheme. Wiggins is the Warriors’ new Harrison Barnes.

If Golden State can help Wiggins become a consistent defender, why can’t the same happen with Kuminga? If Poole can get better at reading the floor, why can’t Wiseman? The Warriors sputtered for a bit, but they’re on a win streak with their recent acquisitions via the draft and free agency.

But their old tricks still work, too. Andre Iguodala is back, helping grease the wheels of the offense in the half court with his passing, screening, and intelligence. And the always steady Kevon Looney remains at center, setting picks and keeping the ball moving.

Shaun Livingston is gone, leaving them without a good defender who could make plays off the dribble alongside Curry and Green. But Gary Payton II has put his own spin on the role. He’s 6-foot-3, but plays like a big on offense as a screener and interior finisher. Instead of shooting from midrange like Livingston, he is scoring at the rim. He’s passing too, often finding open shooters off cuts and rolls. On defense, he lives up to his namesake. Payton logs 3.8 steals per 36 minutes, which ranks first in the NBA of players to log at least 100 minutes. That’s ahead of elite defenders like Matisse Thybulle (3.4) and Alex Caruso (3.1). GP2 is an absolute menace.

The Warriors found Payton II in the G League. It’s the second year in a row they’ve invested minutes into a find from the NBA’s minor leagues, after Juan Toscano-Anderson became a fan favorite last season as a productive, energetic two-way wing.

Playing with unselfish stars like Steph and Draymond breeds winning. Green doesn’t beg for shots. He sets the tone on defense on a nightly basis, locking down players across positions and helping the Warriors earn the best defensive mark in the league. At this point, he is the front-runner to win Defensive Player of the Year.

Curry is having the best defensive season of his career, as well. Against the Nets, he put the clamps on Harden and had Warriors fans shouting his name as an All-Defensive team candidate.

Curry has plenty of competition for one of the four guard spots on ballots, but he’s had some impressive stops this season, and he just seems notably more active and engaged. Determined—that’s the vibe of this Warriors team as a whole.

It shows in the numbers for Curry. According to Second Spectrum, he’s one of 135 players this season to log at least 100 possessions defending an opposing ball handler running a pick-and-roll. On those plays, the Warriors allow just 0.77 points per pick-and-roll, which ranks ninth of all 135 players. Curry and his teammates are playing lockdown defense. There are no major weak links on this team.

It’s fair to question whether Thompson can return to his prior form on defense following such catastrophic injuries. But he has support around him to take primary assignments. Thompson has long been an excellent defender at his position, so he’ll still likely be a positive for this unit.

The Warriors currently have 11 regular rotation players, not counting Thompson, Wiseman, Kuminga, and Moody. This team is deep. Maybe deeper than ever. They can play big. They can play small. They can play fast. They can slow it down in the half court and still make the defense dizzy with their passing. The Warriors can match up with any team but not all teams can match up with them.

Some teams have also been forced to adjust to the new rules designed to limit non-basketball maneuvers. But Steph and the Warriors never drew fouls like Harden or Trae Young did. From 2014-15 through 2020-21, the Warriors attempted 21.4 free throws per game, which ranked as the 26th-most in the NBA. This season, they’re posting 21.2 free throws per game, which now ranks fourth. They moved up 22 spots in the rankings despite a decimal difference. Golden State hasn’t had to go through the same adaptation process to the new rules, and it could continue to benefit from the change if foul-drawing remains down throughout the season.

Despite getting off to the best start in the NBA, the Warriors still have so much room to get better. Young players could develop, or get traded for someone who can help immediately. (On that note: If Payton can excel next to Draymond, imagine what Ben Simmons could do in that role.) But even without making a single move, the Warriors feel almost complete.

Thompson’s return to the floor is approaching. Reports say he just began practicing five-on-five again. And once he does suit up, the playing style and the expectations will feel familiar. More teams are constructed and conditioned to play against fast-moving, shot-happy teams like Golden State. But the Warriors have also evolved beyond the template they created long ago. After taking two years to rebuild themselves, the Warriors are the prohibitive championship favorites once again.

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