A great team is only as strong as its weakest link. At least that’s the consensus among every motivational coach I’ve ever heard. But for the sake of this space, it’s true for NBA contenders as well. I’ll examine the weak spots in some of the most iron-clad lineups in the NBA entering the 2023 season from upper-echelon teams stuck with recycled players playing vital roles to cardboard cutout coaches. Today, we start with Jonathan Kuminga.
The oft-mocked Joe Lacob quote that described the Warriors as “light years ahead of their competition may have more legitimacy than we realize. It just might be working. What we are witnessing from Kuminga from preseason is the culmination of work that began when he was drafted three years ago after a troubling season on the G League Ignite Select Team. While his Warriors peers like James Wiseman have either begun the journeyman portion of their careers or begun conversations about max rookie extensions, Kuminga has settled into an awkward position as a weak link behind their all-time starting five.
But in a league whose phenom is best described as an alien amongst celestial athletes, stars, and superstars, Kuminga is in the midst of a possible starquake. The massive burst of energy emitted from light years away that reaches our galaxy billions of years later and illuminates the sky once every generation is an apt description for Kuminga’s slow-cooking development. We get at one every few preambles to the season of varying degrees.
In 2014, Jimmy Butler began his coup of the Chicago Bulls from Derrick Rose. Jordan Poole’s starquake during the 2021 preseason shook up the Warriors trajectory and initially provided the intended returns, but hiccups over the past 12 months ended with him getting shipped out of town. After signing a lucrative extension, Poole got over his skids and played out last season as the Warriors’ Yoko Ohno.
Kuminga’s interrupted growth last season made the vibes even worse and created a disconnect between the vets and their younger players. Golden State’s starters boasted the NBA’s top plus-minus during their 2021 title run and in the regular season they were more lethal than any group in the league. It took Denver 14 more games to outpace Golden State’s Death Lineup in plus-minus, but their embattled bench was hot and cold, leading them to make a series of trades that phased out Moses Moody, and Kuminga. Conversely, Golden State’s bench lineups including Kuminga required a tourniquet for much of the year.
As of Monday, Kuminga leads The Association in preseason scoring ahead of solid company like Tyler Herro, Victor Wembanyama, Desmond Bane, Payton Pritchard, and Kyle Kuzma. He’s getting to the line 10 times a night and converting at a 76 percent clip making 54.5 percent of his field goal attempts and 47 percent from distance. Kuminga has shown flashes before, but this is approaching sustained brilliance.
Preseason should be taken with a grain of salt. Kuminga won’t be taking such a high percentage of Golden State’s shots in the regular season once their entire nucleus is playing heavy minutes, and opponents will also be fielding their starters for regular minutes. However, the preseason allows the stars of tomorrow to make waves today. All the Warriors need from Kuminga is for him to be a steadying force against the second units that plagued Golden State last season.
Kuminga was becoming a metonym for Bob Myers and Lacob’s bench youth movement. The initial premise during the interregnum between Golden State Warriors titles was that they could use that nadir to acquire young talent who could extend the lifeline of their Core Four while simultaneously contributing to the flow of championships once Klay Thompson and Steph Curry were back on their feet.
Watching Kuminga during Sunday’s preseason matchup with the Sacramento Kings, you could just tell the aura around him was different. His energy was elevated. He ran the floor more forcefully. He earned 17 trips to the charity stripe. The release on his jump shot is still glacially slow, but it finds the bottom of the net more consistently. He looks like someone beginning to figure it out. The preseason isn’t the end-all, be-all, but it can be instructive. The dormant fire in Kuminga’s belly appears to have been lit.
Many of the players selected ahead of Kuminga in 2021, Cade Cunningham, Jalen Green, Evan Mobley, Scottie Barnes, and Josh Giddey have all secured starting spots on lesser teams. In 137 games, Kuminga has logged fewer than 10 points a game, 3.4 boards and 1.4 dishes a night, while shooting 51.9 percent from the field and 35.3 percent behind the arc. However, his inability to fit into the Warriors puzzle, and notably his aggression on the boards at times led to him serving as a seat warmer in the postseason when the rotation shrank.
Finding minutes when Golden State is chasing one last title is going to be an uphill climb, but Kuminga is playing his way into an expanded role. Over 70 percent of Kumingas’ field goals were assisted last season, which is where Chris Paul comes in handy. Paul thrives when he has a pick-and-roll threat to keep defenses honest and Kuminga can be the best ideal May-December partner off the bench. Wiggins serves that slasher role with the starters. But the aforementioned bench needs Kuminga to take pressure off Steph, Klay, and Dray.
“[Warriors are] not the most athletic team… If [ Kuminga] can attack the rim and get to the foul line, it makes us a better team…” Kerr explained Sunday night. [They] can change our team with their athleticism.”
If Kuminga can remain this active, efficient, and occasionally explosive in a reduced role during the regular season, the Warriors may have found the booster shot they’ve needed as their margin for error has diminished. Kuminga’s minutes will be staggered to play alongside the starters and lead the bench lineups. If their graying starters can sickle opposing lineups into the spring, Golden State has the momentum to ascend the playoff mountain one last time.
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