Thompson: Warriors’ two timelines are stumbling, and something has to give

SACRAMENTO — With 9:03 left, after a fast-break layup by De’Aaron Fox capped a 7-0 spurt in 55 seconds for the hosts, Warriors coach Steve Kerr called a timeout. He couldn’t wait any longer. Stephen Curry and Draymond Green had to come back in. This would, indeed, be another heavy-minute night, the third consecutive game urgency was their guide.

The Warriors need victories. Their chance for one Sunday night was slipping away. So it was winning time. That meant, again, it was time for the young studs to take a seat.

“We’re not a team right now where we can afford to let guys make mistakes,” Kerr said before the 122-115 loss to the Kings. “We’re not good enough to withstand a lot of mistakes.”

It’s hard not to miss the messaging. It’s subliminally loud. This was supposed to be the year the young guys on the roster took on larger roles, stepped forward in their destiny to one day be the stewards of this championship franchise. But when it’s time to win, they have to take a seat.

James Wiseman, the third-year center and former No. 2 pick was plucked from the rotation after their five-game skid sent the team into desperation mode. Forward Moses Moody, the second-year lottery pick, has joined Wiseman for the last two games Gorilla-Glued to the bench. Forward Jonathan Kuminga, the other second-year lottery pick, has managed a couple of stints in the early parts of games. But when it gets real, he’s right next to them.

Sunday, even Jordan Poole sat most of the fourth quarter, sacrificed in their push for a three-game winning streak.

The Warriors went with six players for most of that final nine minutes and change. Five of the six have championship rings—six of seven if you include Poole, who came in for the final 30.2 seconds when the Warriors needed 3s. The only player who didn’t have a reservoir of NBA experience but was worthy of playing in crunch time was Anthony Lamb, a 24-year-old wing who went undrafted in 2020 and snatched up a two-way spot late in Warriors training camp .

It still ended in defeat. It was their seventh consecutive road loss to start the season and a missed chance to inch closer to .500, where they can get back to the developing part of their plan.

As it stands, the Warriors have four first-round picks on the bench and none of them are sniffing the court once crunch time hits, if at all. This doesn’t look or feel sustainable. But the most troubling part is that when they lean on their veterans, they don’t have enough. They’re 0-7 on the road because those are the hardest games to win in the NBA, and Golden State is playing them largely shorthanded.

The season is 13 games old, too early to make grand proclamations. This will all be old news in March if they have figured things out as they head into the postseason.

But the direction the Warriors are heading is clear. The two-timeline plan is looking far more perpendicular than parallel. Colliding instead of complementing. They can’t seem to develop their young players and expect to win. And even when they just focus on winning, without the development, their commitment to the youth has left them with too many holes.

Something is going to have to give. Either they will have to re-align this roster to give the veterans more immediate help. Or Kerr is going to have to swallow the mistakes and commit to playing one or two youngsters, win or lose. It’s the only way either of them can be ready when the Warriors will really need them later in the season.

No doubt, the ol’ heads on the roster could play even better. That would buy everyone more time.

The veterans had a chance to beat the Kings. Curry and Green came in, and the 9-point deficit morphed into a 111-109 lead following a Klay Thompson 3 at the 5:11 mark. In the past, this was all but a done deal. The Warriors’ wave would come and opponents would wilt. The champions flexed, and the pesky Kings were supposed to submit. But the opposite happened.

The Kings trapped Curry, who torched Sacramento for 47 points a week ago, and forced someone else to beat them. And the Warriors didn’t have anyone else who could. At least four of the Warriors’ losses have come with their stars getting outplayed down the stretch. But Curry said the critical part is how they get to those crunch-time moments.

Sunday was a common blueprint for this young season. The Warriors’ starters built a 15-point lead, 13 by the end of the first quarter, and handed it over to their second unit. When Curry, Green and Thompson checked back in at the 8:04 mark of the second quarter, the lead was down to 44-39. The Kings, who had been handled for 12 minutes, had found life.

Sacramento roared back and found its rhythm. The Kings outscored the Warriors 72-52 over the second and third quarters combined, then went on a 7-0 run early in the fourth. So now, as Curry pointed out, their opponent is on a roll, infused with the fresh lungs of momentum after feasting on the Warriors’ reserves. Those teams are tough to vanquish. Even Detroit and Orlando, two of the worst teams in the East, looked formidable in those conditions. So did the Kings.

“I think about those windows in the game more than down the stretch, especially this early in the season,” Curry said, “because that’s where you really build confidence in what you’re doing when you can kind of capitalize off of those good runs throughout the meat of the game. … It might be a close game, but the confidence and the flow of the game is a lot different. We clawed our way back from 9 down and took a 2-point lead I think. It was a pretty electric fourth quarter that doesn’t go our way down the stretch. But my focus goes to those middle portions of the game that, you know, we make the game a lot harder than we need to.”

It is looking more and more like Green was right.

About 13 months ago, he made headlines when he said, historically, mixing experience with inexperience hadn’t worked before in the NBA. It would seem he was incorrect considering the Warriors went on to win the championship. But they won it all by sitting the young players. As the team advanced, the challenge got harder, and the inexperienced players played less. It was the veterans who delivered the title.

The Warriors have 16 players under contract, including the two-way players who split time with the Santa Cruz G-League team. Eight of the 16 are 26-and-up, and all of those but JaMychal Green have a championship ring. The other half is 25-and-under with three years of experience or fewer. The divide between them seems to be increasing instead of shrinking.

Put Poole on the experienced side, since he was vital during a championship run. That’s nine on the winning side of the timeline.

Some behind the scenes scoffed at Green’s take, pointing to great teams with young players who contributed. But Green’s point wasn’t really about individual young players. An inexperienced player can work when he is able to fold into the plan to win. Green was talking more about the impossibility of competing for a championship while simultaneously preparing for the future.

This season is looking like more proof already. When it’s time to win, as the stakes get higher and the adversity tougher, the youngsters get pushed out of the rotation. Because youth doesn’t win in the NBA. Not at the championship-contender level this franchise expects. The Warriors’ last five picks, while clearly talented, seem to have a hard time fitting into the Warriors’ preferred style.

GO DEEPER

Warriors, now 0-7 on the road, face familiar flaws in loss to the Kings

It’s been only 13 games, but the concerning part for the Warriors is they no longer seem to have enough on the winning side of the timeline to carry the load. One of those nine is 37-year-old Andre Iguodala, who is being preserved mostly for later in the season. So that’s eight. JaMychal Green, an eight-year veteran who has proven himself a valuable NBA role player, has already lost his spot in the rotation. So that’s seven players on the older half of the roster. Donte DiVincenzo has been solid and was slowed by injury, but he hasn’t been the difference-maker yet they banked on when they landed him in free agency. And Thompson, one of the pillar superstars, has sputtered out of the gates this season.

Again, it’s early, but JaMychal Green and DiVincenzo haven’t made up for losing Otto Porter Jr., Gary Payton II and Nemanja Bjelica, who with Iguodala helped the Warriors get off to an 18-2 start last season. The Warriors are even missing the presence of Damion Lee and Juan Toscano-Anderson, who would likely be playing right now but left for more minutes elsewhere as the Warriors went young.

It’s not having young players that’s hurting the Warriors. It’s having so many of them.

The proliferation of youth is evident in the limited energy on the bench. Formerly known for their hype and elaborate celebrations, the Warriors don’t have veterans over there who have experience at infusing energy into the team even while sitting. It’s not really their fault, but the Warriors’ youth often look more introverted and even somber than locked in every second. They are lottery picks waiting for their turn, not experienced reserves.

The proliferation of youth is evident in how the Warriors blow early leads. They don’t have the savvy veteran to slow everything down, to take the ball and the composition of the team into his hands. Poole is still learning how to lead the second unit.

“For the most part, coming off the bench, we’ve had kind of an elder statesman, if you will,” Draymond Green said. “It’s different now. And the reality is the first guy you come off the bench with is usually JP — and JP is a sixth starter. So that’s a different feel. … While it used to be kind of a different offense, if you will, it’s more like the same. I think we have to figure that out in that second unit. What you’re accustomed to is Steph goes out the game and the whole offense changes, and it’s more sets. But with Jordan, it’s still going to be more of the same as you get with Steph.”

And playing with Curry is a brand of basketball all its own. And with Poole as the Curry of that unit, he’s got a few players around him not well versed in that style, which is full of reads and cuts, passes and movement, screens and flares. Remember a few years back when Shaun Livingston and Iguodala would lead the second unit, and they’d walk the ball up, running an elaborate set to get the ball to Livingston in the post or David West at the elbow? They ate clock and changed the flow of the game.

With Poole at the helm, the Warriors don’t run a ball-control offense that limits opportunities. They had visions of such a thing with Wiseman in the post and Kuminga and Moody giving them size and athleticism. But it’s just too much to ask to put them on the court together.

The plan for the Warriors is to get enough wins in the immediate future to take the danger out of their season. Then, they can go back to mixing in the young guys. To do that, they’re leaning heavily on their veterans.

It used to be that a big game from Curry was about as close to a guarantee as they could get for a win. Curry lighting it up and Draymond Green playing great on defense was all but a lock. Now both are happening, and it’s still not enough.

If Thompson gets hot and Poole finds a rhythm, that seems as if it would be enough. If JaMychal Green and DiVincenzo acclimate and become who their careers suggest, that could go a long way. If one or two of the young players find their way soon, that could do the trick. Or maybe it’s one of each.

Either way, something has to give. Because the Warriors can’t win playing the youngsters, and they aren’t winning enough without playing them. And nothing about that feels sustainable.


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(Photo: Ed Szczepanski/USA Today)

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