The move that might’ve saved the Warriors’ season

IT’S NOV. 20 AND the Golden State Warriors are in the middle of a surprisingly competitive tilt against the 3-13 Houston Rockets. On paper, the Warriors should be running away with this game, against a much younger, less experienced, much happier to lose team. With 4:46 left in the first quarter, the Warriors make their first substitution. They’re up 13. They end the first quarter up 40-28. The blowout is on.

Until it isn’t. The Rockets storm to a 13-0 run to open the second quarter. At halftime, the Warriors, winless on the road, trail by four. It’s a situation they’ve found themselves in all season — Stephen Curry and the starters build a lead, only for the bench to relinquish it.

Warriors coach Steve Kerr and his staff walk back to the coaches’ office in the bowels of the Toyota Center to discuss changes they’d need to make for the second half.

With almost an entirely new bench unit from last season, Kerr had been trying to stay patient, trying to avoid making any hasty personnel adjustments. But now, in this windowless closet of a room attached to the visitors’ locker room, he knows his time is up.

Kerr turns to his staff with an idea — one they had discussed before but had yet to execute. They had been trying to find ways for their young players to emulate what Draymond Green does on the court. To set up Jordan Poole like Green. To communicate on defense like Green. To set screens like Green. But with the Western Conference rapidly surpassing them, Kerr knows they can no longer afford an impressionist. They need Draymond Green.

“All right,” Kerr says to his staff, “we have to put Draymond in that second unit.”

The idea isn’t without risk. The Warriors’ starting lineup — Green, Curry, Klay Thompson, Andrew Wiggins and Kevon Looney — is the single most effective lineup in basketball. Disrupting it could easily backfire.

Instead, the move does something far more than stabilize a rickety, losing bench unit. It stabilizes a Warriors season teetering on the brink.

“Nobody does what Draymond does,” Kerr told ESPN. “We’d love to teach that and we try to, but Draymond has an innate intelligence for the game, an innate feel for the game that parallels any player I’ve ever been around. … You can’t replace Draymond.”

NINE DAYS AFTER Golden State’s game in Houston, they’re back in Texas, this time for a game in Dallas in a Western Conference Finals rematch against the Mavericks. The Warriors are 3-1 since the Draymond Green experiment began.

The Warriors would lose that game, but something stands out far more than the final score: Every Warriors starter has a negative plus-minus. And all but one of their bench players has a positive one. For the first time this season, the second unit actually put the Warriors in a position to win.

“Two weeks ago we couldn’t say that,” Green told ESPN. “We couldn’t get near that.”

Composed of a group of players who had barely played with each other, the second unit had spent weeks searching for any sort of identity.

Donte DiVincenzo and JaMychal Green were brought to San Francisco over the summer to replace Gary Payton II and Otto Porter Jr. James Wiseman had returned after sidelined for 18 months with a meniscus injury. Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody were asked to take on much larger roles. And after a breakout season, Poole was expected to shepherd it all.

They floundered — badly.

In the 16 games before the swap — excluding Golden State’s game in New Orleans on Nov. 4 when four of its five starters rested, and any garbage time — the Warriors had played 261 minutes with two or fewer starters on the floor. During those minutes, Golden State was outscored by 63 points, a figure, per ESPN Stats & Information’s Matt Williams, more identifiable with teams tanking for Victor Wembanyama.

“The beauty of the game,” Kerr said, “is that the five guys have to click and it just took us some time to work through different combinations.”

TWO MONTHS AGO, Green was the villain in Golden State following the leaked practice footage of an altercation in which he punched Poole in the face and the fallout that ensued.

But since that November game in Houston, he has been the answer to perhaps the Warriors’ biggest problem.

In the nine games since, the most used bench lineup in which Green is involved includes Wiggins, DiVincenzo, Poole and Anthony Lamb. The second most used features DiVincenzo, Poole and Lamb, with Kuminga in for Wiggins. These two lineups have posted a plus-5 in 26 minutes and plus-14 in 10 minutes, respectively.

The foursome of Green, DiVincenzo, Poole and Lamb has played 47 minutes together since Nov. 20. In that span, the Warriors are plus-16.4 when those four players share the floor — just a stone’s throw away from the starting lineup’s rate of plus-18.7.

“The idea for combinations is you want to get to the comfort zone of each group that’s out there where they can feed off each other and find different sets or actions that they like,” Kerr said. “We’ve always been able to do that … it’s just taking longer this year because of the nature of our roster and how our season started.”

First and perhaps most importantly, he’s transformed a dynasty-worst defense.

The bench units with Green since Nov. 20 have allowed just 93.8 points per 100 possessions in their 99 minutes together, almost 17 points better than pre-Nov. 20. The group of Green-Wiggins-DiVincenzo-Poole-Lamb, in particular, has stifled opponents, allowing an absurd 85.0 points per 100 possessions.

“[My priority has been to] make sure that unit is defending,” Green said. “As a second unit your job isn’t to go out and build the lead, your job is to maintain the lead. And in any instance that the first unit failed to build a lead, then your job is to slow down and settle the game in. That’s been my focus with it — and trying to help that unit play as much mistake-free basketball as we possibly can.”

The offense has started its rhythm, too.

“Earlier in the season when I was out there being the primary playmaker, that’s how I was being guarded,” Poole told ESPN. “… With Draymond in there, I can be more aggressive [with scoring]. … Now with the second unit and the rotations we’ve got, if need be, I know where I can go for a shot.”

Green’s time in the second unit has also unlocked Kuminga, who since Nov. 20 has nearly doubled his points per game, averaging 8.4 points on 52.3% shooting and 4.1 rebounds in 20 minutes per game.

Kerr called Kuminga’s performance against the Mavericks — 14 points, 10 rebounds and two blocks — the best game he’s seen Kuminga play. A few weeks later in Utah, the 20-year-old big man delivered a clean block on Jordan Clarkson late in the fourth, and wound up drawing a foul.

As for the risk? It hasn’t materialized. The starting five have played together more since the switch, going from 13.8 minutes per game to 16.3 minutes. Their net efficiency has dipped from plus-25.2 points per 100 possessions to a still-preposterous plus-18.7 points.

“Taking Draymond away from [Curry] maybe isn’t as damaging [as] it would have been five, six years ago when we really wanted to hammer an opponent with those two for a whole quarter,” Kerr said. “Draymond gives us more offensive flow and pace and gets us more organized, and Steph is just playing out of his mind. As long as those two things happen, we’ll be alright.”

Green, for his part, sees his role as twofold.

“Number one, trying to slow the unit down,” he said. “That unit should not play as fast as the first unit, it should be more methodical. It should be more sets. It should be more patterned movements, as opposed to random movements and random offense. And then number two, and most importantly, make sure that unit is defending.”

And early returns are promising. The Warriors are 6-4, including a seven-point victory against the Rockets, since the switch.

“Draymond has everything to do with our team’s success,” Kerr said. “This guy is just so good at the game, the entire game. He gets it. He sees it at both ends, the way he pushes the ball in transition, his screen setting, sees the floor and then defensively guards everyone. He gets our guys organized. Draymond is an incredible basketball player.”

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