Are the Golden State Warriors back?

The Golden State Warriors have had a turbulent season but have finally hit a groove. The only question is: can it last?

Boston Celtics v Golden State Warriors
Boston Celtics v Golden State Warriors / Ezra Shaw/GettyImages

It wasn’t long ago when the Golden State Warriors looked dead in the water. On Jan. 26, they were 19-23, hadn’t won consecutive games since December, and owned a negative net rating. Their season wasn’t beyond salvaging, but it was sinking towards the depths in a hurry. 

If necessity is the mother of all invention, desperation is the father of all lineup changes. Feeling the season slipping away, Warriors’ head coach Steve Kerr pulled one of his final remaining lineup levers. On Jan. 27, against the Los Angeles Lakers, he started Jonathan Kuminga and Draymond Green together for the first time this season, and suddenly the Warriors were back.  

How inserting Jonathan Kuminga into the starting lineup saved the Warriors' season

In the four weeks since Kerr went to the Kuminga-Green frontcourt partnership, the Warriors have gone 8-3, with two of those losses coming in overtime, posted a plus-8.7 net rating, and clawed their way back over .500 for the first time since Dec. 23. With a 2.5-game lead in the standings over the Utah Jazz for the tenth seed, the Warriors look to have solidified a play-in spot and still have enough time to make a last-ditch run at the sixth seed to avoid it altogether. 

However, the more important question isn’t whether the Warriors can avoid the play-in. It’s whether or not the last 11 games represent a new sustainable level. The answer to that question will matter far more in their quest for another championship than seeding. 

The catalyst of the Warriors’ turnaround has been the pairing of Draymond Green and Jonathan Kuminga in the frontcourt. Because of Steve Kerr’s insistence on starting Kevon Looney at center, he had been loath to play the two together due to their lack of shooting. As great a shooter as Stephen Curry is, his shooting alone cannot space a floor with Looney, Green, and Kuminga on it. 

Inserting Kuminga into the starting lineup was as much an endorsement of him as it was admitting that Looney has been putrid this season. It sounds simple, but all Kerr did was get his best players on the court together more often. With Green shifting over to center and shooters all around, Kuminga was finally given near-ideal confines to weaponize his nuclear-level athleticism. 

Everyone has benefitted from Kuminga's arrival

Since permanently being inserted into the starting lineup, Kuminga is averaging 19.8 points on 54.1 percent shooting and has provided the Warriors their most dynamic north-south rim attacker of the Steph Curry era. The Warriors’ 121.0 offensive rating since Jan. 27 is a testament to how much better their offense functions with Green at center, shooters on the perimeter, and Kuminga lurking in the depths. 

Andrew Wiggins’ return from the grave has been an unheralded part of their turnaround. Over Wiggins’ first 24 games of the season, he was shooting 30.4 percent from 3-point range, but that mark has ticked up to 38.2 percent over his past 24, and he has shot a blazing 51.5 percent from three since Kuminga joined him in the starting lineup. A significant factor in the Warriors’ first-half struggles was Wiggins being unplayably bad but still playing. With him playing better, all of their lineups make far more sense. 

The lineup change has also helped drag Stephen Curry out of a shooting slump. In the 19 games prior to Kuminga’s insertion into the starting lineup, Curry averaged 24.1 points per game on 36.7 percent 3-point shooting and 41.8 percent shooting from the field. In the 11 games since the change, Curry has averaged 32.3 points per game on 47.4 percent 3-point shooting and 50.6 percent shooting from the field. While the Warriors’ offense has been clicking on all cylinders, it isn’t even the most important part of their turnaround. 

The Warriors' defense has been fixed

The Warriors offense wasn’t their biggest problem. Over their first 42 games, they posted an offensive rating of 118.4, which would rank 11th in the league today. And while a 121.0 offensive rating in the 11 games since is a nice boost, it pales in comparison to their defensive turnaround. The Warriors entered their January 27th showdown against the Lakers owning a defensive rating of 119.4. That figure is well below the league average of 115.9 and would have them ranked 25th if it were still standing. 

However, since they decided to run with the Green and Kuminga as their starting frontcourt, they have a defensive rating of 112.3, a figure that would have them in the top five in defensive efficiency for the season. Almost all of the Warriors’ underlying markers have moved in the right direction as well. They’re generating a higher percentage of steals and blocks, holding teams to a lower effective field goal percentage, forcing more turnovers, and securing more defensive rebounds. The only thing that hasn’t improved is their free throws to field goal attempt ratio, but it has only marginally ticked up and is clearly a worthy trade-off. 

The Green and Kuminga partnership appears to be the driving force behind the Warriors’ defensive improvements. With the two on the court, the Warriors have a 111.1 defensive rating on the season and held opponents to 49.4 percent shooting on 2-point attempts, compared to the league average of 54.6 percent. The Warriors have the appearance of a team that has figured it out. They made a significant lineup change and have seen their results improve dramatically, but that doesn’t mean all of their gains will hold. 

Will the Warriors' gains hold?

It’s incredibly boring, but checking in on 3-point variance is the best way to throw cold water on a team’s hot streak. One of my favorite examples of this is the 20-win 2021-22 Houston Rockets. After starting the season 1-16, the Rockets ripped off an improbable seven-game win streak. How’d they do it? Well, they hit 39.9 percent of their threes, and their opponents hit 30.2 percent. It’s never quite as simple as that, but it does explain a lot. 

The Warriors have also benefited from favorable 3-point shooting variance over this stretch. As a team, they’re shooting 40.4 percent from three, up from 37.5 percent, and their opponents are clocking in at 34.7 percent, down from 36.1 percent. There’s reason to believe that the changes they made would facilitate improvements in both categories, but chances are they’re not quite as pronounced as they’ve been. The good news is that their 2-point efficiency, a more stable indicator, has also moved in the right direction on offense and defense. 

Then there is the issue of their opponents. The Warriors have faced a fairly easy slate of opponents over their past 11 games. The only teams they’ve played with a positive net rating on the season over the stretch are the Suns, Pacers, Clippers, and, technically, the 76ers. I say technically the Sixers because since January 25th, when Joel Embiid gutted his way through a game on an injured knee against the Pacers, the Sixers are 3-9 with a minus-9.4 net rating. Embiid would play one more time against the Warriors, where he was a shell of himself, before being diagnosed with a left meniscus injury. 

Good teams beat bad teams, but the Warriors’ net rating and record have benefitted from a favorable slate of opponents. No win in the NBA is easy, but if you don’t count the Sixers as a good team, which you shouldn’t, the Warriors’ record against teams with positive net ratings is 2-1, and one of those victories was a one-point win over the Suns. 

Are the Warriors back?

The Warriors’ decision to move Jonathan Kuminga into the starting lineup and slide Draymond Green to center has certainly unlocked a new level for the Warriors. They’re unlikely to continue posting top-five offensive and defensive efficiency marks, but they’re a far more dangerous unit than before. Unfortunately, this is probably too little too late to make them contenders. 

The Warriors’ chances of getting out of the play-in are remote, and now, they’re basically out of options. Something that Steve Kerr has routinely tried to do as head coach of the Warriors is save his ace in the hole for as long as possible. It’s a tactic fans absolutely hate, but I think it has been crucial over their dynastic run. The Warriors have almost always had another gear they could go to in tight games or series to gain a crucial edge. However, with the season teetering on the brink, Kerr was forced to play his final card just to stay in the playoff picture. 

As long as Steph Curry and Draymond Green are playing at elite levels on their side of the ball, the Warriors are a formidable opponent. Ultimately, this looks more like a true talent plus-4 net rating team without much upside, barring a Klay Thompson revival, which is its own article. That’s still a very good team, but a step below the top four teams in the Western Conference, who they’ll have to beat three of to make it to the finals. The Warriors are back, as in they’re relevant, but they’re not back in the title conversation. Fortunately, the decision to unleash Kuminga gives them a better prognosis in seasons ahead, but they still have work to do to sort out this roster. 

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