SAN FRANCISCO — The Golden State Warriors just played some of their best basketball of the season absent three rotation players who are indispensable to their hopes of winning another title. Chris Paul and Andrew Wiggins are likely to return from minor injury on Wednesday against the Portland Trail Blazers, while Gary Payton II will remain sidelined indefinitely with a calf strain, an update on his status coming later this week.
The Warriors' tightest numbers crunch, obviously, will come once Payton is healthy enough to take the floor. But Steve Kerr has already acknowledged that “good” problem will come into play Wednesday at Chase Center, with the prospective presence of Paul and Wiggins pushing the Dubs' number of surefire rotation-worthy players into double-digits.
“That’s what we are facing tomorrow. If everybody’s healthy, it’s just math. Not everyone’s gonna be happy,” Kerr said after Tuesday's practice. “It’s just the way it goes. We’ll adapt and we’ll have our rotation, and who knows how it plays out? Somebody could trip on a banana tomorrow at shootaround, I don’t know. Until we have to make a decision we won’t make one.”
Comfortably going 10 deep facing a young, rebuilding team like Portland at home shouldn't be too much of an issue for Kerr and his coaching staff. Barring an extremely disappointing letdown, Golden State should be able to accommodate allotting five bench players—one of Kevon Looney, Dario Saric or Paul plus Jonathan Kuminga, Moses Moody and Brandin Podziemski—real minutes versus the Blazers. Kerr has reached that far down the bench multiple times this season with his team fully healthy.
The much harder decision awaits upon Payton's return. No easy answer exists on paper given the way Moody and Podziemski, especially, have acquitted themselves in the season's early going, not to mention the still perceptible afterglow of the Warriors' 2022 championship run.
What's for absolute certain? As Kerr confirmed to ClutchPoints on Tuesday, the fully stocked Dubs won't be entering games with an 11-man rotation in mind at any point going forward.
Finding odd man out in Warriors' rotational numbers crunch
Let's start by the process of elimination.
Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson and Paul are future Hall-of-Famers, different levels of “shoo-in” for Golden State's healthy rotation. Wiggins reaching his peak 2022 form might be the single most influential prospect to this team reaching championship heights again. Dario Saric has been an absolute steal for the Warriors on a minimum contract, providing offensive space and passing and scoring dynamism it desperately needs no matter who's playing next to him on the interior.
That leaves four regular rotation spots left, even before accounting for franchise favorites Payton and Looney. Hold off earmarking one of them for the latter, at least for now. Payton, on the other hand, is essentially guaranteed a reserve role when healthy, a reality Kerr hinted at Tuesday while discussing the dire need for Golden State to juice its pace of play and transition frequency.
“I don't know the numbers pace-wise with him and without [Payton], but my guess or belief is that we play faster with him on the floor because we generate more turnovers and he really runs the floor. He's fast, he gets up and down the floor, he gets to the dunker spot so it gives us better spacing in transition,” Kerr told ClutchPoints. “So we really miss Gary, for sure. He's been fantastic when he's been out there, but obviously he's missed a lot of time. When he's out, other guys just have to step in and play well.”
Make it seven spots accounted for.
Could young guys be on lineup chopping block?
Other than Payton and Wiggins, the Warriors don't have an on-ball defender better equipped to play de facto stopper than Kuminga. His growth this season hasn't been as broad nor consistent as his eye-popping exhibition performance suggested it would be. But Kuminga's one-on-one defense, transition prowess, budding post-game and ability to pressure the rim and get to the foul line encapsulate the all-around athletic force Golden State lacks without him.
It's past time to expect a significant third-year leap from him at this point. Just more subtle steps from Kuminga toward being a positive two-way contributor game-in and game-out, however, would go a long way toward the Warriors scraping their ceiling this season. The reward of that possibility is well worth the risk of keeping Kuminga a permanent member of the rotation at the expense of some of his less gifted teammates.
Curry, Green, Thompson Paul, Wiggins, Saric, Payton and Kuminga—that's 80 percent of a maximum 10-man rotation. Who's left? Looney, Moody and Podziemski, the two latter of whom have pretty clearly out-played Kuminga over the first six weeks of the regular season. The Dubs are loaded with guards and small on the wing, though. Impactful as Moody and Podziemski have been on both ends, roster construction potentially leaves them on the outside looking in at the full-strength rotation regardless.
Moody has quietly made a similar jump to the one most assumed was coming from Kuminga. He's at 47.6% on wide-open triples, per NBA.com/stats, reliably spacing the floor while playing within himself offensively yet showing more off-dribble and two-point shotmaking verve than ever. Where the 21-year-old has really flashed is as an off-ball defender, his long arms, quick hands and keen anticipation making him the Dubs' most disruptive helper not named Green or Payton.
Moody would be a lock for a regular minutes save Podziemski staking his claim as a ready-made role player pretty much every time called upon during his NBA debut. Other than Green and Paul, two of the smartest players of their generation, no one on Golden State's roster processes the game on either side of the ball as fast as Podziemski. He's always screening, moving and seeking advantages offensively, offering early help and covering up teammates' mistakes defensively.
The Los Angeles Clippers tried targeting Podziemski with Kawhi Leonard multiple times in the first of their two-game set with the Warriors. Not only did Podziemski hold his own under that pressure cooker, but he bothered Leonard enough for the Clippers to almost completely abandon that strategy for Saturday's rematch in Los Angeles. So much for Podziemski's short arms and lacking lateral quickness ensuring he's a liability defensively in the NBA. The rookie has been rock solid at worst as a defender thus far.
What about Kevon Looney?
All of which brings us to Looney, who was benched for Saric in Saturday's last-second loss to the Clippers and got the so-called “Keith Bogans”—starting but playing just a single stint in the first and third quarters—48 hours earlier in the Bay.
Kerr elected against fanning the flames of increasing criticism regarding the veteran big man's performance this season when asked on Tuesday, insisting Looney has “played well.” Still, he couldn't help but indirectly acknowledge Looney's waning impact on winning, a development Kerr—not inaccurately, by the way—chalked up to the Warriors' labors at large.
“I think our team has struggled and when the team struggles it's harder for role players to really star in their role, and Loon is a core guy but he's a role player,” he said. “I think when we kick it into gear and that first group is really playing well, I think what Loon is doing will shine. But as long as we're struggling or making some mistakes, Loon's value to the team isn't as obvious.”
Thompson and Wiggins have begun emerging from their early-season offensive depths. The same goes for Paul, who shot 55.6% from deep on nearly four tries per game in his last seven appearances before going down with injury.
The less those guys look like their normal selves, though, the harder it is for the Warriors to manage playing Looney next to another non-threatening shooter like Green or Kuminga up front. Looney just isn't anywhere near the airtight switch defender he was during the Dubs' most recent title run, either.
The bottom line
Maybe Kerr copping to Looney's less “obvious” value is an indication Golden State could make him that unenviable 11th man when the time comes. He certainly wouldn't ruffle feathers in the locker room should that prove the case, and has the mental fortitude needed to stay ready when the Warriors face Nikola Jokic or Joel Embiid or are getting dominated on the glass mid-game. That same reason is why Kerr could just un-flip such a big switch if the light don't turn on.
For a team that needs all the ancillary scoring and shooting punch it can get to support Curry and all the athletic oomph possible behind its four thirtysomething Hall-of-Famers, making Looney a spot rotation player intrigues on the surface. But he's still an awesome screener and split-action passing hub, plus a valuable positional defender and organizer. Can the Dubs really win with Green and Saric as their top-two centers, Wiggins, Kuminga, Payton and Moody alongside them at de facto power forward?
It's probably worth a shot considering the quality and versatility of the Warriors' depth, their inability to find an identity a quarter of the way into the regular season and more teams across the league being comfortable downsizing. It's not like Looney's going anywhere or his game and attitude are changing. He'll be the same presence no matter what happens here, as evidenced not just by his revered team-first perspective but rite-of-ritual move to the bench for small-ball when times get tough in the postseason.
The most plausible scenario, though? Recent championship pedigree and Kerr's well-known affinity for veterans winning out, with Moody or Podziemski taking that 11th-man backseat instead until the Dubs push their chips in for a consolidation trade or once again reset the roster around Curry and Green going into 2024-25. Go figure.