The issues that separate the 2022 champion Golden State Warriors from the middling 2023 edition are coming from the back of the rotation.
The Golden State Warriors enter their Wednesday tilt at the Minnesota Timberwolves 26-24 and on a three-game winning streak. This is their third time this season being two games above .500, a high-water mark they hope to surpass with a win on Wednesday.
It’s an unflattering position to be in when compared to where they were last season. GSW was 37-13 at the 50-game mark of the 2021-22 season. They began this season 3-7 through the first ten games, evened out to 10-10 through the first twenty, and have straddled the break-even line ever since. By comparison, the Warriors had a 9-1 open to 2021-22 that eventually became an 18-2 start, a 53-29 final record, and a NBA championship.
These are confounding circumstances considering that Warriors Season 76 and Season 77 have the same core six players: the starting lineup of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Andrew Wiggins, Draymond Green, and Kevon Looney along with sixth man Jordan Poole. In fact, their collective offense is even better than last year, jumping from 93.7 points per game in 2022 to 103.7 ppg this year. Green is the only player in this Big Six that hasn’t experienced a year-over-year scoring average increase.
So if the core of a defending champion is still holding up their end of the production bargain, what gives? Well, to understand the misfortunes of the 2023 Golden State Warriors is to understand the importance of reliable role players to a title-contending rotation, especially on the defensive end.
The 2022 offseason proved to be a detrimental one for the Warriors. While the team had a number of defections from its bench, the biggest ones came with the losses of their seventh-through-ninth men.
During the playoffs, the three players to average double-digit minutes outside of the Big Six were Otto Porter (19.5 minutes per game), Gary Payton II (16.9 mpg), and Nemanja Bjelica (10.0 mpg). Porter and Bjelica were change-of-pace frontcourtmen from Green and Looney thanks to their abilities to stretch the floor offensively. Meanwhile, Payton II was a tireless versatile defender that always seemed to deliver a bucket at just the right time. He shot a hot 65.9 percent from the field (72.4 from 2, 53.3 from 3) and had a team-high 3.4 steal percentage during the postseason.
However, all three of these players dipped after they raised the Larry O’Brien trophy. Payton went to Portland, Porter signed with Toronto, and Bjelica shipped off to Istanbul. So how would the Warriors fill the 21.4 points per game and 7.8 defensive box plus-minus that these three brought during the 2021-22 regular season? As evidenced by the differences in records between seasons, the 2023 auditions have had middling returns.
Free agent acquisition Donte DiVincenzo has held up the best so far as he attempts to fill Gary Payton II’s vacancy. A 2021 NBA champion with Milwaukee, DiVincenzo has brought more playmaking and 3-point volume than Payton II, but less defensive prowess and 2-point scoring efficiency. DiVincenzo is averaging 1.2 more points than Payton did last season (8.3 to 7.1), but is conceding 1.9 points in defensive box plus-minus (1.5 to GPII’s 3.4).
Second-year player Jonathan Kuminga has the athleticism and versatility to fill Otto Porter’s role. On the surface, Kuminga is doing fairly well, with his 2023 scoring average and Porter’s 2022 being identical at 8.2 points per game. Jonathan is even apparently shooting 3.0 percent better than Otto did to do it (49.4 percent versus 46.4 percent). However, the comparisons fall apart from there.
For one, Porter was a better rebounder and 3-point shooter than Kuminga. Porter’s 37.0 3-point percentage, 14.2 total rebounding percentage, and 2.4 steal percentage outclass Kuminga’s 31.1, 8.9, and 1.1 in those respective categories.
Secondly, Kuminga’s 2023 numbers are a step down even by his own standards. His regular season minutes have increased while his scoring production has dropped. Kuminga went from 9.3 points on 51.3 percent shooting in 16.9 minutes per game his rookie year to 8.2 points on 49.4 percent in 19.1 minutes this year. While this output is still admirable, by his rookie benchmarks and in context of his team’s needs, Kuminga is in a sophomore slump.
Filling the Nemanja Bjelica gap has proven to be the tallest task for Golden State. JaMychal Green was brought in to handle the job. However, injuries have kept JMG from carrying out his duties.
J. Green had a 14-game inactive stretch from late December through mid-January. It was initially due to health & safety protocols, but that ailment was promptly followed by a right lower-leg infection. Fortunately, he has since returned. However, he has still struggled this season in certain aspects of the game even when he is fit to play.
Green and Bjelica have similar per game numbers, which would be a good sign. Beyond the surface, though, while Green has been a superior finisher (65.1 percent on 2’s to 54.9 percent) and offensive rebounder (11.4 offensive board percentage to 6.1 percent) to Bjelica, Nemanja was a much better outside shooter and passer. Bjelica’s 36.2 percent from long-range and 19.8 assist percentage dwarf Green’s 29.8 and 6.6 percent in those respective categories.
Notably, JaMychal has chalked up his exterior shooting struggles to a nagging wrist injury that also hampered him last season with the Denver Nuggets. He shot a career-low (barring his 0-for-6 rookie campaign) 26.6 percent last year, making this year’s output a technical step up.
It was Porter and Bjelica’s floor-opening abilities of 3-point shooting and passing IQ that unlocked another dimension for the Warriors during their title run, and Kuminga and JaMychal Green have shown a lack of those facets this season.
It should also be noted that two-way players Anthony Lamb and Ty Jerome are also taking up a bulk of minutes. Lamb is eighth on the team in minutes per game while Jerome is tenth. Great for them individually. Their combined 40.7 percent shooting from 3-point range is a boon for the Warriors, with Lamb providing good size (a 227-point forward) and defensive energy (0.4 DBPM) and Jerome bringing a little more playmaking to the table (19.8 assist percentage).
However, it’s also a little odd that so many minutes are being entrusted to players whose availability is limited by design. Their roles are also redundant in the grand scheme of title contention, with the Core Six and DiVincenzo already possessing Lamb’s and Jerome’s skillsets at a higher caliber.
With all this turnover at the back of the rotation, team pace has increased. The Warriors jumped from 15th in 2022 to first place this season. Their offensive rating has held steady, going from 16th in ’22 to 15th in ’23. However, GSW’s defensive rating has taken a massive hit, plummeting from second-best in 2022 to 16th this season.
As mentioned earlier, Golden State’s seventh-through-ninth men accounted for 21.4 points per game and 7.8 defensive box plus-minus during the 2021-22 season. This year’s projected replacements have combined for 22.7 points per game, but a 0.5 defensive box plus-minus. While Gary Payton II, Otto Porter, and Nemanja Bjelica are nowhere near household names, their skillsets proved valuable in upholding the production of the core six, allowing this team to compete on a nightly basis and ultimately win the title.
With the trade deadline approaching, the Golden State Warriors’ front office have to determine if they truly believe DiVincenzo, Kuminga, and JaMychal Green can gel well enough down the stretch to deliver the two-way production that has been lacking during this middling 2022-23 campaign.