It’s not always easy to pinpoint the moment the honeymoon ends; fond feelings tend to dissipate slowly, for lots of different reasons, rather than all at once. For the 2022-23 Warriors, it likely came the moment Draymond Green’s fist connected with Jordan Poole’s jaw. If we’re restricting it to live game action, though, you could probably do worse than “with just under three and a half minutes left in the third quarter against the Magic.”
With Golden State holding a nine-point lead Thursday night, Stephen Curry dribbled the ball across the timeline against Franz Wagner. He looked for a screen from James Wiseman … and he kept looking, as the 7-foot-1 center Golden State selected with the No. 2 pick in the 2020 NBA draft waited at the right elbow.
Steph nods for Wiseman to come up, and then becomes demonstrative, angrily hopping as he waits for the young fella’s arrival. Orlando triggers a quick switch, with Wendell Carter Jr. stepping out to pick up Curry, so Wiseman slips the screen and cuts to the basket … but turns his back to the play as he starts diving toward the rim, rather than flipping his hips and opening up to make himself a target for Curry to hit on the roll. By the time he’s got post position against Wagner, there are 11 seconds left on the shot clock; there’s a help defender (Chuma Okeke) stationed in the strong-side corner, just a step-and-swipe away from disrupting any entry pass; and Curry has mishandled the rock, dribbling it off his leg.
As Steph goes to corral it, Wiseman gets demonstrative, too, shaking his head in apparent frustration — possibly over a misfire in the execution of the play call. With little else happening — Poole slowly walks up from the corner, JaMychal Green and Moses Moody exchange places on the weak side, nobody creates an advantage — Curry just dances on Carter and puts up a late-clock stepback 3 that clangs off the rim. Wiseman, who’d spun inside in search of offensive rebounding position, gets pushed under the basket by Wagner, who cleans up the miss and gets Orlando out on the fast break.
In fairness: This individual play didn’t cost the Warriors the game or anything. (The Magic actually didn’t even score here; as rookie bulldozer Paolo Banchero rumbled out in transition, Moody beat him to the spot, drawing a charge and regaining possession.) Golden State still held the lead — though, unbeknownst to the Dubs, Orlando had just begun what would become a game-changing 38-14 run. And even after squandering that advantage, the Warriors still had chances to win late, knotting the game in the final minute before some two-way excellence from Jalen Suggs slammed the door, sending the hosts to a 130-129 win.
Viewed in a certain light, though, that play looks something like the disconnect at the heart of Golden State’s “two timelines” approach made manifest. The fraying patience of a veteran core that has won four championships in eight seasons by playing a specific brand of basketball that the new guys haven’t quite nailed yet; the exasperation of a high-lottery youth movement struggling with the expectation that they become smooth, seamless cogs in someone else’s machine — and do it right freaking now.
The defending champions sit at 3-6, on a four-game losing streak, with those losses coming to teams with a combined record of 11-24. They rank a dismal 25th in points allowed per possession, putting opponents on the free-throw line at the league’s highest rate … which is a particularly big problem when your offense is closer to league-average than top-of-the-pops, especially when the starters hit the bench.
No team in the NBA has had a greater disparity between its first and second units this season. The Warriors’ starting five — Curry, Green, Klay Thompson, Andrew Wiggins, and Kevon Looney — have been arguably the league’s best lineup, outscoring opponents by a whopping 60 points in 109 minutes. And yet the Warriors, as a team, have been outscored by 31 points this season. The chasm is remarkable: Every Warriors starter has a positive plus-minus, and every reserve is in the red.
That includes Poole, whom Golden State inked to a four-year extension worth up to $140 million before the start of the season, and whose encore to a breakout 2021-22 campaign has been extremely rocky. The 23-year-old guard’s 3-point and free-throw percentages are way down, and his turnover rate is way up, which has made him a shaky stand-in during those vital periods when Steph needs to take a seat. Last season, the Warriors scored 111.4 points per 100 possessions when Poole played without Curry, according to Cleaning the Glass — a bit below league-average, but solid enough to hold down the fort while the two-time MVP got a breather. Thus far this season, that’s down to just 99.2 points-per-100 — league-worst territory.
If Poole can’t prop up the offense, the second unit’s best chance of remaining competitive is tightening up on defense … which brings us to Wiseman, who presents similar issues now to the ones he posed early in his rookie season.
Opponents get back more than 35 percent of their misses when Wiseman’s on the floor, a higher offensive rebounding rate than the league-leading Grizzlies’ mark. They don’t shoot at the rim that often, but they shoot 68.5 percent when they do; that includes a scorching 71.4 percent clip with Wiseman as the closest defender, 78th out of 88 players to defend at least 25 up-close shots this season, according to Second Spectrum. He continues to struggle with his defensive positioning — sagging back too far in drop coverage, a step out of place when he comes up to the level, overzealous on pump-fakes, you name it — which has contributed to a troubling penchant for hacking: Wiseman’s been whistled for 6.8 personal fouls per 36 minutes of floor time, the highest rate of any player in the NBA to log more than 100 minutes.
As tantalizing as his size, athleticism, and physical tools are, Wiseman is a 21-year-old who has — between college, the G-League, and the NBA — played a grand total of 52 games and 1,046 minutes of basketball since the fall of 2019, with a pandemic and injuries and myriad challenges to overcome along the way. It’s hard to blame a big man with so little experience for not already becoming an effective contributor at the highest levels.
But it’s also hard to blame those who wish that a player picked before LaMelo Ball — or, if you’re going like-for-like positionally, a switchable defender like Onyeka Okongwu or a pick-and-roll connector like Obi Toppin — seemed like he had a better grasp of how to play the Warriors’ way. Especially considering Golden State is trying to defend a championship in a brutally competitive Western Conference and can’t necessarily afford to give its young players the floor time necessary to develop that feel and seasoning without hampering its chances of winning. (In a related story, Jonathan Kuminga, the No. 7 pick in the 2021 draft, has played just 65 minutes this season, with three DNP-CD’s.)
“It’s been a tough couple games for James,” Warriors head coach Steve Kerr told reporters. “But I’m a believer. I love his talent, his attitude. But there’s no shortcuts.”
To be clear: None of this is really a surprise. This is the path the Warriors chose when they (driven in part, perhaps, by fear of adding to an already obscene luxury tax bill) allowed a handful of contributors from last year’s title team — Otto Porter Jr., Gary Payton II, Nemanja Bjelica, Juan Toscano-Anderson, Damion Lee — to walk in free agency. They decided to throw the kids into the deep end and find out if they could swim. So far, though, the Warriors are drowning in the youngsters’ minutes … which has Kerr leaning toward changing which lifeguards are on duty.
“We’re gonna have to make some adjustments, make some changes,” Kerr told reporters after the Orlando loss. “We’ve had nine games now. We’ve had a decent look at combinations, so it’s time to try something different. … Everybody’s gonna get a chance to play. We’ve got guys who are dying to get on the floor. We’ve got to find combinations that click. We’ll discuss that as a staff and we’ll figure that out.”
Evidently, Kerr’s first step in getting everybody a chance to play is removing most of the guys who are already playing:
Maybe Kuminga gets a second chance and runs with it. Maybe some reinforcements on the wing — a longer look at two-way guard Ty Jerome, the return of Donte DiVincenzo, the eventual debut of Andre Iguodala — help settle things down a bit off the bench. Maybe Poole gets hot from 3, stabilizing the second-unit offense, and everybody gets a bit more comfortable in the mix-and-match, vets-and-kids groupings. Maybe everybody — from the seasoned vets to the green newcomers — stops fouling so damn much.
For now, though, the Warriors find themselves in a new and uncomfortable position: with Curry healthy and looking about as good as he’s ever looked — averaging 31-7-7, shooting 59 percent inside the arc and 41 percent beyond it — but still not winning. You don’t lose a title nine games into the season, but it can get late awfully early in the West. If Kerr doesn’t find either the right combinations or the right buttons to push to get more out of the old ones, and fast, the frustration and the losses might only continue to mount — and that post-parade honeymoon will feel like a distant, faded memory.