Stephen Curry is the lone ace up the Warriors’ sleeve, but it’s not a card Steve Kerr wants to play

Before I get started here, let me state, for the record, that I am aware this was the first game of the NBA season. It’s not lost on me that Draymond Green didn’t play. I understand the Brooklyn Nets are really good. I get that James Wiseman was thrown into the starting lineup without a minute of preseason action after playing just three games in his one college season. I’m not by any stretch ignoring the truncated offseason or the inevitable growing pains of an unfamiliar roster. 

I get it all. 

And I’m still saying the Golden State Warriors are in for a very long season if they don’t change some things. The Warriors got absolutely blasted by the Nets on Tuesday, 125-99, but it wasn’t necessarily the blowout that was frustrating. Brooklyn is loaded. Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving don’t appear to have lost a step. The Nets are a way better team than the Warriors. 

No, the frustrating part was that the Warriors, as outmatched as they were, and might well be in a lot of matchups this season, didn’t put their best foot forward. Pretty simply, the days of running a significant amount of offense through players not named Stephen Curry need to come to an end. This team simply isn’t good enough to play the “balanced” card. 

It is impossible to overstate how bad Andrew Wiggins was on Tuesday. My colleagues in our chat room were less surprised than I that Wiggins was laying an egg from the opening tip. “This is who Wiggins is,” one of them wrote. Heaven help Golden State if that’s true. I’ll admit, I feel exposed for not having watched Wiggins with a careful enough eye over the years. I gave him too many once-overs on an irrelevant team and assumed his empty stats would fill up within the Warriors’ ecosystem. 

Turns out, he just might be a flat out bad basketball player, the occasional good performances notwithstanding. Kelly Oubre Jr. was damn near as awful on Tuesday. Together, Wiggins and Oubre shot 7-for-30, including 2-of -2 from beyond the arc. That’s just one game. But there is ample evidence that tells us neither of these two can be anything near an offensive focal point. That duty has to fall on Curry, even when Green returns. 

It’s not to suggest the Warriors need to go full Rockets and turn Curry into James Harden. What they do need to do is take a page out of the Portland Trail Blazers’ book and turn Curry into Damian Lillard, who is essentially a pick-and-roll player who is hunting his shot every minute he’s on the court, leveraging the attention that draws into trickle-down offense for less-gifted scorers. 

Steve Kerr hates relying on pick and roll for the simple and understandable reason that it can be relatively exclusionary, turning peripheral players into floor-spacing statues as two guys play by themselves. Guys don’t feel involved. They don’t play hard on defense. They stop cutting and moving because they know they’re not getting the ball anyway. So Kerr’s theory goes. 

Also, what makes Curry extraordinary is he’s probably the best off-ball player in NBA history. These days, all elite point guards can shoot off the dribble, even if that’s what first made Curry unique. Now it’s Curry’s movement that makes him different, and Kerr loves the idea of Curry running around drawing attention as other guys slip through the cracks for easy buckets. 

This approach has worked wonders for the Warriors since Kerr’s arrival in 2014. Curry running all over the place when you also have to pay attention to Klay Thompson is one thing, but when you can focus all your attention, and switching, on one shooter, there are too many possessions where Curry just doesn’t come open and, sometimes, never even touches the ball. Whoever you think Golden State’s No. 2 option is, the drop-off between Curry and that player is too stark for that to be an even halfway acceptable result. 

Also, the value of Curry’s off-ball movement is largely tethered to the strength of the passers around him. When the Warriors employed Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston and Kevin Durant, all of whom anticipated Curry’s movements and delivered pinpoint passes at precisely the right instant, it was lethal. When the Warriors are running out Wiggins, Oubre and Wiseman, that’s another story. 

Yes, getting Green back will help. But again, Green is going to be at his most effective as a playmaker running pick-and-roll with Curry, when he can take the escape passes after Curry gets doubled and play 4-on-3. Green just standing at the top of the offense while Curry runs around isn’t going to be the answer. The off-ball switching is just too dialed in these days when the Warriors don’t have any other shooters the defense fears. 

Too often, this will instead lead to defenders sagging off Green, who will then be forced to either shoot too many 3-pointers or, like a quarterback checking down when his first read is covered, passing on Curry to pass to someone else. Either way, it ends with the ball in the hands of a significantly less-capable scorer. 

Curry surely can’t shoot every shot, but you can’t survive on a steady “Curry as the decoy” diet. You’re wishing upon a star if you think Wiggins and Oubre are going to create enough offense. The time comes when you have to rely on your actual star. You can count on some variation of this article being written multiple times this season, because Kerr is almost certain to stay away from disproportional offense. He just doesn’t believe in it. 

I hesitate to criticize Kerr for this or anything else. He’s an incredibly intelligent, prepared and humble coach. He’s not like Mark Jackson, whom you honestly couldn’t tell whether he was prepared enough to know better, or humble enough to come off his preferred approach when he hunted “mismatches” like a starving man in search of a meal. Kerr knows better. He flipped the Warriors’ offensive fortunes the second he replaced Jackson by spreading the floor and moving the ball. 

The Warriors can still adhere to those inclusive principles, but the balance needs to shift back to Curry, who can still use his off-ball instincts with quick relocations after he gives the ball up. Good coaches adjust to their personnel. They don’t remain stuck to the same-old beliefs as the players around them change. The Warriors are in a spot where the only way they can compete is on the back of the one player they have who is capable of lifting a lesser team. 

The Blazers have been doing this for years with Lillard. There’s a ceiling with this approach, but that ceiling is likely a lot higher than whatever potential you want to attach to a team relying heavily on Andrew Wiggins. If you turned on a Blazers game and saw Lillard running around without the ball as possessions ended with Gary Trent Jr. and Rodney Hood trying to make things happen, you’d wonder what planet you were on. 

Sometimes things are as simple as they seem. Give the ball to Curry and ride him as far as you can. That said, I have no illusions that Kerr will come to this same conclusion. I’m already resigned to the frustration. 

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