Warriors limp into All-Star break in dire need of Draymond Green, but could James Wiseman provide a lift too?

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Warriors limp into All-Star break in dire need of Draymond Green, but could James Wiseman provide a lift too?
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All things considered, the Golden State Warriors are in good position at the All-Star break. They own the league’s second-best record at 42-17. They’re two losses clear of the Memphis Grizzlies for the West’s No. 2 seed. They have the top-ranked defense. 

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They’ve gotten this far despite Stephen Curry slogging through the worst shooting season of his career. Klay Thompson has played in just 16 games and still isn’t back in full swing. Draymond Green hasn’t seen the court in five weeks. 

It could be a lot worse. 

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But that doesn’t mean there hasn’t been some choppy water in the Bay. The Warriors enter the break having lost four of their last five games. They’re not a top-10 offense. They turn the ball over more than any team not named the Rockets. Steve Kerr hates turnovers, which must make for a lot of sleepless nights coaching this team, and he’s not particularly happy with the way the Warriors have been playing defense of late, either. 

During the month of February, Golden State is surrendering 115.8 points per 100 possessions, the ninth-worst mark in the league. The lack of traditional, rim-protecting size is a defensive hole to which many Golden State fans are beginning to point. It’s a logical enough culprit. Kevon Looney — bless the dirty work this man does — is the only true center in the rotation, and he’s not exactly a shot blocker. His feet are more or less bolted to the floor. 

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But the way Kerr sees it, rim protectors are only necessary if drivers and cutters are getting into the paint and to the rim in the first place. That’s where Golden State is losing its battles. On the perimeter. Failing to consistently contain penetration. In their blowout loss to the Clippers on Monday, the Warriors gave up 54 points in the paint. Two nights later, they gave up 54 again in a loss to the Nuggets. That’s more than 11 points above their 43.6 average for the season. 

“Our issues go way beyond just not having enough size,” Kerr told reporters prior to the Nuggets loss. “When we’re getting beat at the point of attack over and over again, that has nothing to do with our center position. Right now the way we’re playing, it’s back cuts, it’s transition, it’s point-of-attack stuff. And then all those things expose a lack of size at the rim.

“But for most of the season, we had the exact same personnel, and even the first 10-12 games without Draymond, our defense held up really well,” Kerr continued. “So I just see slippage more than anything.”

In other words, Kerr’s not using Draymond’s absence as an excuse either. He’s right. Green last played on Jan. 9, and from that time to the start of February the Warriors saw only a small uptick from their season average in paint points allowed (45.3 per game) while maintaining a 106.1 defensive rating, second-best in the league over that span. 

But Green’s absence take a cumulative toll, as does playing small in general. That’s why teams only do it for stretches. When you’re constantly having to battle with bigger, stronger players for positioning and rebounding, it wears a team down, both individually and collectively. The legs start to wobble in the later rounds. The tax is even higher to pay when Draymond isn’t out there plugging every hole imaginable. Green’s value is most evident in his absence. This team is night and day without him. 

It’s also that time in the schedule for every team. After four months of traveling all over the country and not getting great sleep and playing almost 60 games without a break, players are exhausted, mentally and physically. This week off is going to be reenergizing for everyone. Expect Golden State to come out rejuvenated for the stretch run. 

Also, Green isn’t the only reinforcement the Warriors potentially have on the way. Wiseman, who tore his meniscus last April and is yet to play this season after requiring a second surgery in December, has advanced to the full-contact portion of his rehab, and he played 5-on-5 recently, which typically means a return is nearing. Kerr said Wiseman “looked good” in the scrimmage. 

“I saw him afterward and he said he felt great,” Kerr told reporters. “The knee is doing really well. Those are all really positive signs. … With that said, we don’t know what it means long term. It just means he will continue to ramp up his work and hopefully continue to progress where he gets to the point where he’ll be able to play this year. We don’t have a timetable and we don’t really know what’s next beyond tomorrow. We’re just taking it a day at a time.” 

The Warriors, from the front office to the coaches to the players, never have a bad word to say about Wiseman. To a man, they rave about his potential, as though he possesses supernatural gifts for a man of his size. Andrew Wigginscalled Wiseman a “tank” and said he expects him to “dominate” when he returns. Based on the small sample we saw from Wiseman in his rookie season, that’s almost certainly a massive stretch. 

Realistically, the Warriors are probably crossing their fingers that Wiseman can even justify a spot in their postseason rotation. They could surely use his size, and based on the rolling paint touches Looney gets when two defenders chase Curry off pick-and-roll, he would seemingly have ample finishing opportunities. 

It’s easy to say nothing should be expected of Wiseman at this early juncture of his career, especially considering all the time he’s missed. But young players, rookies even, are factoring into playoff equations more than ever these days. Jonathan Kuminga, at 19 years old, has already made it impossible for Kerr to keep him off the floor. 

The Warriors drafted Wiseman No. 2 overall because, in part, he filled an immediate need at center. They passed on LaMelo Ball because he didn’t fit an immediate need. That already feels like a pretty poor decision as Ball has already turned into an All-Star. Wiseman failing to qualify as a meaningful contributor for a second straight season would only make it worse. 

Whether it’s Nikola Jokic or Deandre Ayton or Rudy Gobert or potentially Anthony Davis (a 2-7 first-round matchup with the Lakers is surely in play) in the West, or Joel Embiid or Giannis Antetokounmpo in a potential Finals matchup, the Warriors are likely going to have to go through premier big men at multiple points to win a championship. Wiseman is capable, in theory, of contributing to that fight. 

Again, legs go in the later rounds. That’s why the NBA playoffs are a war of attrition. Four seven-game series is a long road. Punching above your weight every night adds up, and the effect compounds. We might already be seeing the toll of this fatigue in Curry’s poor shooting; the guy fights hard on the defensive end, and he’s almost always undersized in his matchup. He’s about to be 34 years old. 

If that uphill battle applies across your roster, you can do the math. Green will help immensely, obviously. But Wiseman has a chance to play a part, too. It’s the reason the Warriors drafted him, after all. Kerr can say the Warriors’ defensive issues extend “way beyond” their lack of size, but ultimately that’s what size is for: To make up for other issues. 

Curry has limitations. Andre Iguodala is old. We don’t know if Thompson will be the same defender he used to be in the playoffs. This whole “let’s not let anyone get into the paint in the first place” theory might not hold much water come the playoffs. It would certainly help if Wiseman, upon his return, was able to assist Draymond in plugging some of those holes. 

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