After starting out the season looking like one of the worst teams in the league, the Golden State Warriors have ground out wins in seven of their last 11 games -- including a 22-point comeback over the Clippers and a thrilling 19-point rally past the Lakers -- and carry a very respectable 7-6 record into Wednesday night's home game against the San Antonio Spurs. If the postseason began today, the Warriors would be in.
That's not to say it's been anything close to smooth sailing in the Bay. Entering Wednesday, the Warriors have the 24th-ranked offense in the league and the eighth-worst net rating. Among the central culprits in these numbers is a starting lineup that has gotten decimated pretty much on a nightly basis.
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That lineup -- which consists of Stephen Curry, Kelly Oubre Jr., Andrew Wiggins, Draymond Green and James Wiseman -- has played 126 minutes together so far, and to give you an idea of just had bad they've been, there are only five starting lineups in the NBA that have played at least 100 minutes together and have a negative point differential: the Phoenix Suns (minus-26), Charlotte Hornets (minus-16), San Antonio Spurs (minus-13) and Toronto Raptors (minus-7).
Then there's the Warriors. At minus-45.
By far the worst high-usage five-man unit in the league (their minus-15.6 net rating more than doubles the second-worst unit in the league), the Warriors' starters have a number of issues contributing to their paltry 91.4 offensive rating. You can decide for yourself whether Oubre's dismal start or Wiseman's rookie learning curve is chief among those concerns, but either way, the combination of the two is a major problem.
Aside from Curry, Golden State's starting lineup lacks a single shooter that worries defenses, Wiggins' hot start notwithstanding. That has created a a severe lack of spacing as defenders flat-out leave Oubre and Draymond and sag everywhere else so they can double and triple Curry, and as long as Oubre, Green and Wiseman are only punishing them to the tune of a collective 23 percent mark from 3-point range, they can do so with impunity. Curry needs at least some shooting around him to provide even a small amount of space to work his magic.
One of the most discussed options would be swapping Damion Lee for Oubre, who could perhaps settle himself down playing with the second unit, which has more collective shooting and would, in theory, open his driving and cutting lanes. Also, there's a freedom that comes with not having to be so hyper-aware of your own game in relation to Curry's. Every time Oubre takes a shot with the starters, he's taking a shot away from Curry. We've seen him mess up Curry's off-ball relocation countless times this season as he stands in the wrong place at the wrong time. There's such a thing as thinking too much.
In fact, one could argue that some of the second unit's success can be attributed to their being able to play agenda-free, not always having to worry about complementing Curry at the expense of their own comfort and aggression. They can just turn it loose, and Oubre could seemingly benefit from turning his head off for a while and just letting his extraordinary athleticism run wild.
Meanwhile, Lee, who our own James Herbert listed among the eight most standout supporting characters in the league, is a 41 percent 3-point shooter and leads the Warriors in plus-minus so far. His defense, while it doesn't come with the same brand of hair-on-fire energy, isn't far off from Oubre's, and the threat of his shooting would theoretically open up some space for Curry. Perhaps Wiseman could be flipped for Kevon Looney, just to get some more experience out there with the first line.
All of which has raised the question of whether Kerr should shake up his starting lineup. On Wednesday, Kerr appeared on the Bay Area's 95.7 The Game, where he spoke candidly about his starting lineup and detailed why, despite the struggles, he has no intentions of making a change.
"The team is learning on the fly," Kerr said. "I'll be very honest. If I had to win a game tomorrow, I wouldn't start that group. If this was a one-time thing, I would start a different group and probably go to some different combinations. But this is the team that I want to see develop a really good defensive identity, and James [Wiseman] needs to be out there. Kelly [Oubre] and Andrew [Wiggins] need to be out there on the wings guarding LeBron and Kawhi and Paul George and all those guys.
"So it's going to take some time, and in the meantime there are going to be some growing pains," Kerr continued. "But I'm OK with it, because for us to be great down the road, whether it's by the end of this year or even next season, James has to develop. Kelly and Andrew have to get comfortable. And so I'm willing to sacrifice some things here early in the season to try to get to where we want to go later on."
For all the Twitter frustration with Kerr's refusal to do certain things -- namely turn more of the offense over to Curry as a heavy pick-and-roll, on-ball creator -- this answer explains his thinking as it pertains to every decision he makes. He's not thinking about the short term. He's thinking about the long term. He knows the Warriors aren't championship contenders this season. But he expects them to be back in the hunt next season when Klay Thompson returns, and he wants all the pieces in place to take full advantage of that final opportunity to cash in on the last two-or-three-year chapter of Curry's prime.
It's true, the Warriors, as is the case with everyone in today's league, need athletic, versatile wing defenders to compete for a championship. Wiggins and Oubre, barring a trade or a home run in the 2021 draft (not out of the question with Minnesota's first-round pick), are the best two they have. This is the time to figure out the offensive side.
As for Wiseman, he's not going anywhere. Unless he turns out to be a bust, which would render most of what we're talking about a moot point, he's likely locked in as the starting center for the next decade. There's no sense in not getting him up to speed as quickly as possible, even if, to Kerr's point, you have to suffer some setbacks in the short term of a season you're looking at from mostly a developmental standpoint anyway.
Also, and this is the most important part, just because Kerr doesn't change the starting five doesn't mean he won't adjust his rotations and ultimately his finishing lineup. He's already done both. Initially, Kerr was subbing out Wiggins at the halfway point of the first quarter, then bringing him back to start the second quarter with the reserves. Against the Lakers, he flipped that, instead subbing Oubre out first and leaving Wiggins in with Curry.
That put Oubre back in with the second unit, where he could derive a lot of the benefits we talked about earlier. That keeps Oubre engaged as a starter but subtly shifts his minutes into more mutually beneficial lineups. Then if he's playing well, he earns his way into the finishing lineup, as he did against the Lakers when he had his best game in a Warriors uniform and played all but two minutes of the fourth quarter. In reality, who finishes is more important than who starts, as long as the starters didn't build too big a hole for the end of the game to become irrelevant.
As far as Wiseman is concerned, it's the same process. He's going to start and play a certain amount of minutes for purely developmental reasons, but he has to earn any excess playing time. Against the Lakers, he only played 12 minutes, and he didn't see the floor in the fourth quarter, when Looney took his place.
And it worked. The Warriors won. They flirted with digging too deep a hole at the beginning, as they've done a couple times this season, but to Kerr's point, even had they lost that game, they're willing to lose a few battles in the name of, hopefully, winning another NBA title next season or beyond.
That might make for a frustrating season for Warriors fans who don't want to look so far down the road and are invested in winning as much as possible right now. But at least it's not for stubbornness. Kerr doesn't believe one-man shows can win championships. He knows wing defense and rim protection are pretty much non-negotiable elements of a title-contending team, and he's committed to building those parts out.
In the end, whether it's insisting on everyone being involved despite Curry's clear on-ball superiority, or the lineups he chooses to deploy, Kerr has a plan, and he knows what he's doing. In 2014, he inherited a team that had no idea how to implement his ball-and-player-movement-based offense. The early games of that season were riddled with turnovers and uncertain offensive movement.
But Kerr was patient. He saw what the team could be down the road. And he was right. I'll admit, I get as frustrated as anyone with some of the stuff the Warriors do, and don't do, but stepping outside the bubble of impulse, it's hard to argue with Kerr's logic and the long-view approach he's taking.