Warriors

Can the Warriors Return to Winning Ways Without Thompson?

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Just hours before last week’s draft, reports surfaced that Klay Thompson suffered a severe lower leg injury playing in a pickup game in Southern California. The reports had a grim tone and draped a cloud over Dub Nation for the duration of the evening. Hellacious rain came the following morning in the shape of the least-exciting Woj-Bomb of all time– Thompson tore his Achilles tendon. The whole league was eager for Klay to return this season after missing last season with a torn ACL.

Draft night for the Warriors was supposed to be exclusively reserved for exuberance. The Big Three were coming back after a year-long hiatus and they added a young player with true superstar upside. They were going to remind the world what joy looks like on the hardwood, and how capable they were of contending even without Kevin Durant. Well, despite hitting a home run with the 2nd overall pick in James Wiseman, nobody mistook the evening as joyful.

Now, the world has to wait at least another season to see Klay back on the hardwood. And instead of going into this season excited about returning to contention and cultivating the next generation, the Warriors face more questions than answers. Let’s take a look at some of those biggest questions going into the season

Who are Steph and Draymond without Klay?

This is going to be…weird. With appreciation for and apologies to Kevin Durant, the trio of Steph, Klay and Draymond have defined the Warriors for the better part of the last decade. And, narrative aside, those three had the best net rating in the league from 2015 to 2017. That span includes Durant’s first year in The Bay.

Klay and Steph’s successes on the court seem inextricable from one another, just as much as Draymond’s does from either of them. Which leaves us asking the obvious question– what does a season of just Steph and Draymond look like?

Before last season, Klay had played in 96% of playable games, so any sample size without him is relatively small. But, it is worth noting that Curry and Green were the best two-man lineup in the game during the aforementioned stretch. Curry’s effect on his teammates’ efficiency when he plays is notoriously impressive, and Green in and of himself has been enough to anchor a top-five defense in the league for most of his career as a starter.

If Curry can put together another MVP-caliber season, Draymond can muster the energy to hold down an elite defense, and management can put together a decent supporting cast, this team’s ceiling might still be championship contention.

What is Wiggins’ role on a Klay-less Warriors team with actual playoff aspirations?

Part of what has made swallowing the pill that is Andrew Wiggins’ contract easier since acquiring him last year was the hope that he would thrive in a Golden State system where he wasn’t counted on as more than a third scoring option. No one was to benefit more from Curry and Thompson’s off-ball chaos and gravitational-pull than ultra-athletic Wiggins, who, as a result of both, would have had more cutting and driving lanes than he could have ever dreamed of during his time in Minnesota.

With Thompson out for the year, Wiggins is inevitably going to be counted on to take on more of an offensive burden. The title of most-reliable scorer after Steph is between him and newcomer, Kelly Oubre— neither of whom are ideal fits for that role. He’ll still play mostly off the ball, but the floor isn’t going to be as open as it would have been with Thompson, and his three ball is going to have to improve for the Warriors’ offense to take advantage of Steph’s gravity.

With a stable organization, great coaching and the best teammates he’s ever had, Wiggins will improve at least marginally. Thompson’s injury, however, threw a wrench in his development plan, and only time will tell if he will improve enough to handle increased responsibilities on a team with championship aspirations.

But, of course, it’s not all on Wiggins.

What will this team get out of 2nd Overall Pick James Wiseman?

The Warriors poor injury luck last season bought them James Wiseman in this year’s draft. At 7’1”, 250lb, Wiseman, a terrific athlete, has the tools to impact Golden State as a starter immediately.

On the defensive end, he has the length and quickness to protect the paint. However, he faces a learning curve adjusting to the physicality of the league. He also has the body to at least impede the AD’s and Jokic’s of the West. The Warriors have hopes that Wiseman has the defensive chops to switch out onto the perimeter on smaller players, an ideal which has been a staple of the team’s defensive success during Steve Kerr’s tenure.

Wiseman will thrive immediately as a roll man and lob threat on the offensive end at the very least. But the Warriors drafted him for more than that. During his very brief stint with the University of Memphis, (only three games) and in high school, he showed some true offensive talent on the perimeter, with some flashy ball handling skills as well as a decent shooting stroke.

Wiseman has superstar upside, but can he contribute immediately as a scorer on the block? Can he protect the paint and battle with the elite bigs of the league? For the Warriors to contend in Thompson’s absence, the answer to all of these questions has to be a clear “yes.”

What does the rest look of this team look like?

The Warriors first move post draft/Thompson-injury was trading a strangely protected 2021 first round pick to the Oklahoma City Thunder for Kelly Oubre. Oubre, 24, had a career year across the board last season (including 18.6 ppg with 35% shooting from three), and, at 6’7” with a 7’3” wingspan, he demonstrated clear defensive ability during his time with the Suns.

The underlying message of this trade? The Warriors have no intention of throwing this season away. Owner Joe Lacob said as much in an interview with Tim Kawakami of The Athletic, and literally put his money where his mouth is by taking on the astronomical tax bill that comes with absorbing Oubre’s contract (per ESPN’s Bobby Marks, picking up Oubre increases the Warriors tax bill from 66 to 134 million.)

The Warriors now have a projected starting lineup of Steph, Wiggins, Oubre, Green and Wiseman, with two legitimate bench players in Kevon Looney and Eric Paschall. Looney, when healthy (which is rather rare), is a quality starting-caliber center. And Paschall, who made the All-Rookie First Team last year, gives the Warriors some quality depth behind Draymond and Wiggins as a forward.

So…

While this is a nice group, the Warriors are still in dire need of playmaking outside of Steph and Draymond. Steph is 32 years old and the team cannot rely on him being on the court 38 minutes a game to reach the playoffs. Unless Bob Myers and Steve Kerr truly believe Nico Mannion, the team’s second-round pick from Arizona, can immediately plug in as a backup and create offense for others, the team needs to look at using one of their exceptions at targeting a decent guard, who can spell Steph and create offense for others.

The Warriors still have a $9.3M Disabled Player Exception (from the Thompson Injury), the Tax-Payer Mid-level Exception worth $5.7M, and a couple million left on their Trade Exception used in the Oubre deal. To stay afloat among the titans in the West, Golden State is going to have to be aggressive in pursuing players using all of these assets.

Which brings us to our final question.

Where do the Warriors stand now?

Listen. Klay Thompson was one of the best 25 players in the NBA just a year and a half ago. He was arguably the league’s second-best shooter, an elite perimeter defender, and a guaranteed 20-point minimum every night he played. He fits seamlessly in Golden State’s system, and was improving in virtually every aspect of his game.

Long story short, healthy Klay is the perfect complement to Steph Curry in every way. With him, the Warriors were ready to stand, chests high, among the league’s elite teams. Without him, even with the addition of a talented player like Oubre, expectations need to be tapered.

The Warriors’ return to contention this season hinges on all of the previously mentioned moving parts falling into place. If they do, the Warriors might be able to contend this year. If they don’t, this team will have to fight to make the playoffs.

The Outlook

The West is better than it was when the Warriors were last in the mix. There are genuinely 14 teams with playoff aspirations (the lone dissenter here being the Thunder who have blown up their roster in a heist for control of the next six drafts). In the circus that is the Western Conference, the Warriors aren’t a lock to be in the top eight, let alone among the top of the pack. Right now, they sit well below the last year’s contenders in the Lakers, Clippers, Nuggets and Rockets (assuming James Harden isn’t moved.) All of those teams have either made moves to improve or essentially stood pat.

The Warriors are bracing to enter a dog fight for one of the bottom four playoff spots. The Blazers added Robert Covington. The Jazz still have Gobert, Mitchell and Conley. The Suns added Chris Paul and Jae Crowder. The Mavericks have the future face of the league. The Pelicans and the Grizzlies are as talented as any young teams in the league. The Spurs are the Spurs and the list goes on and on. Warriors are most likely going to have to fight like hell.

There’s a world where Steve Kerr reminds us how creative he can be with a fluid roster, and this team surprisingly flourishes like the 2014-2015 iteration. In that same world, Steph is among the leaders in the MVP race, Draymond makes an All Defensive Team, Wiseman wins Rookie of the Year and the Warriors’ championship window reopens for the foreseeable future.

There’s also a world in which this roster struggles to defend and shoot, takes a long time to gel, and fails to reach the postseason.

Until we see the product on the floor, both scenarios are equally likely. Only time will tell in Golden State.

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About Matt Cardoza

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