The Warriors bench has been a complete mess and a major factor in their slow start. What’s not working and how do they fix it?
The Golden State Warriors championship defense is off to a rough start. After a 130-119 loss to the Phoenix Suns, they’re 6-9 and a league-worst 0-8 on the road. Steph Curry has arguably never been better, Jordan Poole and Andrew Wiggins have both continued their success from last season. But the Warriors’ bench has been an abject disaster and a major factor in their slow start.
The graph below, from PBPStats.com, shows the Warriors’ distribution of minutes this season by the number of starters on the floor. The net rating of each grouping is denoted by the color — darker red is a more positive point differential, darker blue is more negative.
To translate visual into numeric, the Warriors are plus-24.8 per 100 possessions with their five starters on the floor, minus-13.3 with four starters and minus-2.7 with three starters.
As I see it, there are basically two issues here. The first is the disastrous performances by lineups with four starters on the floor. These units account for about a fifth of the Warriors’ total minutes on the season and they’ve been absolutely blasted. They’re particularly worrying because in most cases we’re talking about lineups where Jordan Poole is replacing either Kevon Looney (for a small-ball, Death Lineup style attack) or replacing Klay Thompson (in a rough approximation of the starting lineup’s approach).
Jordan Poole is not the problem for the Warriors bench
The thing is, those two lineups have produced dramatically different results. The starters with Poole in place of Klay are the third-most used lineup on the season (31 total minutes) and are plus-7.6 points per 100 possessions. Poole in place of Looney is the second-most used lineup (64 total minutes) and they’ve been outscored by opponents by an average of 4.5 points per 100 possessions. Most troubling is that group — a small ball, shooting and creation-heavy approach — has scored just 104.5 points per 100 possessions, which would equate to the worst offense in the league across the entire season.
So, two different approaches, two different outcomes. A conventional look with Poole in place of Thompson is working. A small ball approach with Poole in place of Looney is not.
It would be easy to look at those two outcomes and summon some questions about the efficacy of Draymond Green, since his two-way skill set has been the scaffolding for the success of those lineups for years. However, while his game hasn’t been quite as sharp as in years past, the defense for this unit has been very good. And, with such a small sample of minutes, we can actually pin the offensive problems down mostly to a single variable that has nothing to do with Green at all — while this lineup has been on the floor together, Klay Thompson has made just 5-of-22 from beyond the arc.
Thompson’s 3-point shooting numbers are way down this year and he’s been somewhat open about struggling to find his rhythm. But he’s shooting a much more respectable 35.7 percent in his minutes with any other grouping besides this lineup, and it’s hard to argue that there is anything specific about this group of players that is depressing his shooting numbers. All else being equal, if Thompson was making his 3-pointers at the same rate as he did last season, this lineup would be plus-3.2 per 100 possessions rather than minus-4.5. Even if he was just making his 3s at the same rate as he was in all other lineups this season, they’d have a positive point differential.
All that is to say, what we’re seeing right now is heavily influenced by small sample size. At some point, Klay Thompson’s shooting numbers are likely to progress to the mean and when that happens, the lineups with four starters and Poole should look a lot better.
That leaves us with the issue of the deeper bench units to address.
But the Warriors are still hurting for depth
Here it’s a bit easier to point to individual struggles.
James Wiseman has already been sent to the G League for meaningful reps, with a heavy focus on the defensive end of the floor. He has done a decent job as a finisher and rebounder but he still needs a lot of work with his positioning and awareness at both ends of the floor. In 147 minutes so far this season, he had more turnovers (8) than steals and blocks combined (5) and was racking up fouls at a rate of 6.5 per 36 minutes. None of which are unexpected for a 21-year-old who had played just 39 career NBA games and missed all of last season with injury.
Moses Moody’s shooting numbers have been fairly pedestrian and he’s also likely due for some progression to the mean — (11-of-33 on open and wide-open 3-pointers so far this season). JaMychal Green has been nowhere near as dynamic or versatile as Nemanja Bjelica or Otto Porter Jr. were last season. Donte DiVincenzo has battled injury and the Warriors have had to hand backcourt minutes to Ty Jerome and Anthony Lamb (both of which have actually been reasonably effective but are probably not long-term solutions).
And then there is Jonathan Kuminga who has been in and out of the rotation as questions have been raised about his work ethic and commitment.
Kuminga was a surprisingly large piece of the Warriors’ rotation as a rookie, appearing in 70 games, starting 12 and averaging 16.9 minutes per game. His numbers aren’t all that different this year but he’s undoubtedly been less effective and whether it’s production or personality, Steve Kerr has seemed more interested in exploring other options than he was last season.
Looking at all these pieces, there are some reasons to think things will improve. Moody’s shooting percentages should go up. DiVincenzo should get healthy. Wiseman and Kuminga should get better with more experience, even if it means more time in the G League. But another veteran might help stabilize things and the Warriors would be wise to keep their eye out for trade targets as the season progresses.
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