The Warriors Returned to the Top by Developing Their Title-Winning Template

Klay Thompson did not return. James Wiseman has yet to make his season debut. Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody did nothing remarkable. Still the Warriors are on a 70-win pace, Draymond Green leads the NBA’s highest-ranked defense, and Steph Curry is the betting favorite to win an MVP. The Warriors are back, people.

That fact became clear after Golden State traveled to Brooklyn and stepped on the Nets while the crowd overwhelmed Steph with MVP chants. And Thompson’s return and the development of young children could make them even more dangerous. But the Warriors are 12-2 and in a position to fight for a championship because Curry is even better than he was the last time the Warriors were up.

Now 33 years old, Curry continues to do what he has always done offensively. He just does more of it. Over Curry’s final 18 regular-season games, with a playoff spot on the line, Steve Kerr increased Steph’s usage to get him 15.6 tries from 3 per game, up from 11.6 earlier that season and 10.7 over his previous five seasons. This season, Curry launches 13.4 shots of 3 per game, surpassing the all-time record of 13.2 set by James Harden in 2018-19. And he makes them at a 40.6 percent clip – much better than Harden’s 36.8 percent in his record season.

Steph evolved. So is the whole team. For a while, it seemed that the Warriors were losing their grip. They went from being innovators with their speed and 3-point shooting to falling in the middle of the pack when other teams started playing faster and shooting more. Kerr did not adapt his system. Players left or retired. Bob Myers could not find good young players. The rest of the NBA got it, frankly. But things started to change last season and now everything is coming together because the Warriors have drastically changed their habits.

This season, Golden State is pushing pace with the league’s fastest average possession time, the fastest break points per game, and the second-highest 3-pointer rate, at 47.6 percent of its total shots. The roster is littered with shooters like Otto Porter Jr., Nemanja Bjelica, Damion Lee and Jordan Poole. These aren’t big names, but they fit. Shooting is all over the court, and Steph looks like a more experienced player, delivering passes earlier, with a touch more accuracy. Maybe it’s an illusion and he’s just benefiting from the superior talent around him. Anyway, Curry and his new teammates have a connection. Especially the guy starting instead of Thompson.

Poole earns a lot from the drop, but he also scores from a pass from Steph about once per game, which is second on the team behind Draymond 1.3 per game. Curry gets so much defensive attention when he has the ball, that usually means someone is open. But it is on the player without the ball to create a passing lane for the ball handler. Curry and Poole were synchronized in those moments, and Poole regularly moves to positions where Curry can find him.

Poole can deliver, averaging 17.1 points per game and playing a more experienced style with a mature shot pick and pass. Poole hasn’t even shot well yet, at 28.9 percent on 8.1 attempts from 3 per game. But there is enough time for him to ignite as he did at the end of last season and this preseason. Although Thompson’s return will deepen on his shots, Poole is a candidate now for the Most Improved Player of the Year.

Poole is not the only player thriving. All of the Warriors’ shooters can cut and pass at a high level, making them perfect for a moving offense that revolves around Curry. The Warriors once again have a telepathic ball move, assisting on 69.9 percent of their passes. That’s the league’s highest this season and the highest since the 2016-17 Dubs posted a 70.5 percent assist.

In recent seasons, Kerr has run a similar system but the new players brought in after the 2019 Final have not been able to adapt. The loss along the way was beneficial, however: In addition to rebuilding their supporting cast, the Warriors added three lottery picks in Wiseman, Kuminga, and Moody.

One or more of those young guys could be a commercial lure for a veteran that could become available. But keeping them could help in the short term, not just in the long run. Moody hadn’t shown anything yet, but the Warriors drafted him hoping he would become his own Mikal Bridges. Kuminga is the guy they need to help now. At 6-feet-8 and 210 pounds with long arms, Kuminga has the size, strength and athleticism to be a versatile on-ball plug. Kuminga already had great moments of defense containing opposing stars. Offending, the 19-year-old is basically an inside player who ends up inside and makes the right pass if necessary. He looks solid.

Wiseman remains sidelined after off-season surgery on a torn meniscus. But his presence is important. The big one adds a new element to the title sketch as an edge-running threat that can also examine Curry. The Warriors don’t run much pick-and-roll, but they started making more of it when Wiseman and Curry shared the floor at the end of last season. It is another possible layer for the offense.

Standing between the Warriors and another trophy are dominant inside players. During their dynastic career, the military did not need to stop any big near the level of Nikola Jokic or Joel Embiid or Giannis Antetokounmpo. Wiseman was not at all ready for the job last season, but there is still hope for him.

The Warriors should have some confidence in their ability to turn things around for their young players due to the successes they have had recently up and down the roster. Not only Poole has improved. Andrew Wiggins is fine now. Seriously! In offense, he makes wiser shots than ever looking competent from the dripping. He’s also a great defender, especially on the ball, and versatile enough to change a team-high amount of screens in Kerr’s switch-weight scheme. Wiggins is the new Harrison Barnes of the Warriors.

If Golden State can help Wiggins become a consistent defender, why can’t the same happen with Kuminga? If Poole can improve on reading the floor, why can’t Wiseman? The Warriors have emerged a bit, but they are in a winning streak with their recent acquisitions through the draft and free agency.

But their old tricks still work as well. Andre Iguodala is back, helping to smash the wheels of the offense in the semi-court with his passing, screening, and intelligence. And the ever-stable Kevon Looney stays in the center, setting picks and keeping the ball moving.

Shaun Livingston is away, leaving them without a good defender who could play dribble games with Curry and Green. But Gary Payton II put his own spin on the role. He’s a 6-foot 3, but plays as great in offense as a sieve and inside finisher. Instead of shooting from mid-range like Livingston, he wins at the edge. He also passes by, often finding open shooters of cuts and rolls. On defense, he lives up to his namesake. Payton records 3.8 steals in 36 minutes, which is the first in the NBA by players to log in at least 100 minutes. This is in front of elite defenders like Matisse Thybulle (3.4) and Alex Caruso (3.1). GP2 is an absolute threat.

The military found Payton II in the G-League. It’s the second year in a row when they invested minutes in finding the NBA’s smallest leagues, after Juan Toscano-Anderson became a fan last season as a productive, energetic two-way wing.

Play with unselfish stars as Steph and Draymond breed winning. Green doesn’t beg for shots. He sets the tone on defense at night, locking players across positions and helping the Warriors win the best defensive mark in the league. At this point, he is the first to win Defensive Player of the Year.

Curry has the best defensive season of his career as well. Against the Nets, he put the brackets on Harden and had Warriors fans shouting his name as an All-Defensive team candidate.

Curry is competing a lot for one of the four guard spots in elections, but he’s had a few impressive stops this season, and he just seems particularly more active and engaged. Definitely — that’s the mood of this Warriors team overall.

It shows in the numbers for Curry. According to Second Spectrum, he is one of 135 players this season to contain at least 100 possessions defending an opposing ball keeper. In those plays, the Warriors allow just 0.77 points per pick-and-roll, which ranks ninth out of every 135 players. Curry and his teammates play key defense. There are no major weak links in this team.

It is fair to question whether Thompson can return to his previous form of defense after such catastrophic injuries. But he has support around him to take on primary tasks. Thompson has long been an excellent defender at his position, so he will likely still be positive for this unit.

The Warriors currently have 11 regular rotating players, not counting Thompson, Wiseman, Kuminga, and Moody. This team is deep. Maybe deeper than ever. They can play great. They can play small. They can play fast. They can slow it down in the half-court and still dizzy the defense with their demise. The Warriors can match any team but not all teams can match them.

Some teams were also forced to adapt to the new rules designed to limit non-basketball maneuvers. But Steph and the Warriors never drew evil as Harden or Trae Young did. From 2014-15 through 2020-21, the Warriors attempted 21.4 free throws per game, which ranked as the 26th most in the NBA. This season, they are posting 21.2 free throws per game, which is now ranked fourth. They climbed 22 places in the rankings despite a decimal difference. Golden State did not have to go through the same adjustment process to the new rules, and it could continue to benefit from the change if gross traction remains weak during the season.

Despite getting the best start in the NBA, the Warriors still have so much room to improve. Young players could develop or exchange against someone who can help right away. (On that note: If Payton can stand out next to Draymond, imagine what Ben Simmons could do in that role.) But even without making a single move, the Warriors feel almost complete.

Thompson’s return to the ground is approaching. Reports say he has just started exercising five-on-five again. And once he fits in, the style of play and the expectations will feel familiar. More teams are being built and conditioned to play against fast-moving, shooting-happy teams like Golden State. But the Warriors have also evolved beyond the pattern they created a long time ago. After two years to rebuild themselves, the Warriors are the banned championship favorites again.

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