When the Golden State Warriors take the court in Game 1 of their series against the Denver Nuggets on Saturday, it won’t be quite the same group we saw when the team last played in the postseason. Nor would we expect it to be: A lot has changed for the franchise since the end of its dynastic run of five straight NBA Finals appearances — even its home address.
But though nearly three years have passed since Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson shared the court in a playoff game, that trio remains at the core of the Warriors’ renewed championship hopes. The difference is the supporting cast around them, and none will be asked to help revive memories of previous Golden State contenders more than swingmen Jordan Poole and Andrew Wiggins. Each player has enjoyed a standout season — and each will need to step up for the Warriors to return to the Finals.
Poole has been reliable both as a starter and coming off the bench. Though he began the season in the opening lineup, he moved into a bench role in early January, shortly before Thompson returned to the team. And since Curry injured his foot in March, Poole has started once again.
But regardless of when he enters a game, Poole has made his presence known. From Jan. 9, when Thompson made his debut, through the end of the regular season, Poole ranked 13th among all players in the league with 2,969 touches. He was one of just six players this season to make at least 10 3-pointers from at least 30 feet.1 Poole has averaged a team-best 24.7 points while shooting 41.9 percent from deep since scoring a season-low 4 points on Feb. 27.
Though the Warriors struggled down the stretch, Poole’s presence was a bright spot; after the All-Star break, Golden State was 10.1 points per 100 possessions better with Poole on the court than off it. Heading into the playoffs, the 2019 first-round pick earned his coach’s trust come playoff time.
“Jordan has taken on a huge responsibility this year, and he’s had a few different roles,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said after a March game. “He’s started next to Steph, come off the bench, now starting for Steph, and he’s handled all of them really well.”
Wiggins, meanwhile, celebrated his first career All-Star selection in February. He showed more flashes of the defensive potential expected of him as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 NBA Draft while making the most 3-pointers of his career and committing the fewest turnovers.
Things were going even better before that All-Star game. Prior to the break, Wiggins’s 3-point percentage of 41.4 ranked 11th among players with at least 200 attempts. But over the next month, his long-range efficiency dipped by almost 10 percentage points, and after Curry was injured, it fell even further. During a 1-6 stretch for the Warriors in late March, Wiggins shot just 23.5 percent from beyond the arc.
That shooting slump was indicative of Wiggins’s struggles without Curry on the court to draw away defenders. Opponents have taken away clean looks from Wiggins, and he’s struggled on shot types across the board without Steph. Wiggins has been a net negative for the Warriors since playing in the NBA’s midseason showcase.
|Shot Type||Curry On||Curry Off|
|Out of isolation||55.6||36.6|
Wiggins has acknowledged the impact of playing without the league’s all-time leader in 3-pointers. “I’m still getting a lot of, not the same shots, but similar shots,” he said. “No one can replace Steph, the attention he [gets] on the court. … It’s tough not seeing your shot go in, even if it feels good or you’re getting open shots. But it’s part of it. I’m doing my part. I’m in the gym, working hard. And eventually, they’ll fall. They’ll fall at the right time.”
After his worst shooting performance in a calendar month this season in March (40.4 percent from the field), Wiggins has played better in April, shooting 52.9 percent from the field and 52.2 percent from 3-point range over his final four games. And Curry should be back soon to lessen the pressure on Wiggins and the rest of his teammates.
Of course, Wiggins and Poole aren’t the only contributors who will need strong performances to propel Golden State to a deep playoff run. The Warriors recently announced that second-year center James Wiseman — drafted No. 2 overall in 2020 — won’t play this season, meaning veteran Kevon Looney will continue as the team’s primary big man and hustle player. The two-time champion led the Warriors in screen assists (277), contested shots (704) and rebounds (576) while trailing only Curry (68) with 50 recovered loose balls. Such work helps set the tone for Golden State’s second-ranked defense, which was only 17th in March.
According to FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR-based prediction model, the Warriors have the second-best odds (21 percent) of making the Finals out of the West, trailing only the Phoenix Suns (41 percent). The path won’t be easy, with the reigning MVP (and current candidate) Nikola Jokić and the Nuggets standing in their way in the first round. The Warriors will need their secondary players to show up as much as they’ll need their stars.
After Golden State’s season-worst 28-point loss to the Memphis Grizzlies on March 28, associate head coach Mike Brown was candid about the task at hand as the Warriors seek one last run at a ring with the winningest trio in league history, though they can no longer reach the Finals at the drop of a hat.
“We can’t wait on Steph. We can’t wait on Draymond. We can’t wait on anybody,” Brown said after coaching the second half of the game in place of Kerr, who was ejected at halftime.
“Whoever can put on a uniform is going to have to go out there and play. We’ve done it before. … Steve, myself and the rest of the staff, we all have a lot of confidence in the guys on this roster. We’re going to keep trying to push them and coach them and teach them — and our veterans are going to help out in the locker room — to get these guys ready to go play a playoff game.”
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