The Warriors are probably lucky to be 6-6. If not for Steph Curry’s heroics and the saving grace of Draymond Green’s institutional knowledge, Golden State would likely be in pretty rough shape. But for a group whose third-best player has been Andrew Wiggins, the Warriors have started to congeal into the team we thought they would be, one that defends well, moves the ball, and lets Curry cook.
As we might expect from a team that has beaten playoff sides like Portland and the Clippers due to bonkers nights from Curry, the numbers bare out that this team has been quite lucky, as the win differential metric at Cleaning the Glass shows the Warriors have played more like a 4-8 team. But that’s sort of the exact point of having Curry on your team. The Warriors were always facing an uphill battle to mesh a hastily formed team without much star power, especially after Klay Thompson went down with a ruptured Achilles’ tendon. But in many ways, their start is also reason for optimism. Most of that optimism derives from Curry, who has answered critics unequivocally through the first three weeks of the season.
After looking hapless to start the 2018-19 season before a hand injury, the two-time MVP looks healthy and rejuvenated, using nearly one-third of the Warriors’ possessions and scoring 1.25 points per scoring chance. That’s despite making an uncharacteristically low 39 percent of his triples and not keeping the defense as honest with fewer assists (6.2 a night) than usual. The difference is so far, Curry is trading in some of his rim attempts for mid-range shots, a symbol of a slightly more diverse offensive game than we’ve seen in the past.
Of course, when I put it that way, I sound like an absolute square. Anyone who’s watched Curry this season has gotten a reminder of what it’s like to feel joy. The guy who went supernova in 2015 and 2016 is absolutely back, and nobody in the NBA can take over a game like him. With Curry at peak form again, third quarters in Oakland are must-see TV once again, opponents’ transition defense looks like five guys late for a train, and Warriors games are a nightly picture book of defensive packages previously unseen in NBA games. It’s a blast.
Since Green returned, the Warriors have really come alive. He has demanded better ball movement and looks like his old self on defense. Golden State is 8.5 points per 100 possessions on defense when Green — who is only averaging four points per game — is on the floor, per Cleaning the Glass. More than anyone else, it’s Curry and Green who cemented the identity of this era of Warriors basketball, and now that both look like their usual selves, everything else has begun to click into place.
Without Thompson or Kevin Durant, though, those “janky defenses,” as Curry recently called them, are plugging things up. Despite stepping up as a shot-blocker, Wiggins is still shooting just 43 percent from the field and rates out as an overall (if slightly improved) defender statistically with a minus-1.1 Defensive Box Plus-Minus. Kelly Oubre Jr. is looking like his offensive progress in Phoenix may have been a facade. James Wiseman is learning how to affect the game offensively and is hard to count on consistenyl at 19.
Altogether, the bench has been a surprising positive, with Damion Lee, Brad Wanamaker, and Kent Bazemore the top three Warriors in individual net rating. Maybe that doesn’t hold, and the Warriors’ sterling fifth-ranked rim defense may be a product of having played bad teams and getting lucky. It’s not exactly a risky prediction to say maybe the Warriors fall off a bit once the schedule gets tougher.
This reveals what the true purpose of Golden State’s season is, and it’s not too different from last year. Because Curry is good enough to carry the offense and the team is full of veterans, the goal every night is still to win. More broadly, though, the Warriors remain on the lookout for their next trade.
Wiggins’ improvements are best looked at as an increase in his trade value, and more than the development of Lee or Oubre’s progression, Thompson’s recovery still ranks among the most prominent subplots here. Toss in a Minnesota first-round pick still in Golden State’s stockpile, and the Warriors theoretically have a chance to find another co-star for Curry to finish out his career. Maybe that player never becomes available and the Warriors go into more of a rebuild around Curry and Wiseman, but the bottom did not fall out once Thompson went down, as some expected.
To that end, the season is still somewhat of an audition period for the role players. Lee and Mychal Mulder look like somewhat capable options, as does second-year big man Eric Paschall, a small-ball center who can score from the second unit. Everyone is getting plenty of playing time, and Steve Kerr isn’t beholden to anyone outside of Curry and Green. With a more cohesive supporting cast than he had last year, Curry (whose health is, to be fair, always a question) has made it seem silly that we even wondered whether he could will a team to the postseason.
There are plenty of worse ways to use what could have been a lost season. Curry’s nightly magic show keeps the team interesting and in the playoff mix, the young guys keep improving, and the Warriors’ trade package gets a little more interesting bit by bit. No team can afford to get stuck in the middle that way for long, but there’s no real impetus or pathway for Golden State to crater to the bottom right now anyway.
After years of being an inevitable and endlessly scrutinized superpower, it’s fascinating and exciting to watch the Warriors punch above their weight and climb uphill again.