Steph Curry is keeping Golden State upright, but for how long?

Steph Curry is keeping Golden State upright, but for how long?


Steve Kerr
Photo: AP

Golden State’s 4-7 record has been jarring to witness. A five-game road losing streak during a road trip that rolled through Charlotte (3-8), Detroit (3-8), Miami (4-7), Orlando (2-9), and New Orleans (5-5) had the alarms blaring. Despite the final result, the Warriors 116-113 win over the Sacramento Kings on Monday night was clarifying. In the victory, Steph Curry delivered another MVP-caliber performance, scoring 47 points on 17-of-24 shooting in 36 minutes. Draymond Green even achieved double digits scoring. Wiggins dropped 25 and drained 4-of-8 triples. Klay Thompson logged a quiet 16 points and Kevon Looney snatched 16 boards and chipped in four assists.

While all five starters named above had their way with Sac-Town, their bench earned demerits for their combined 69 minutes of playing time, posting a negative-58 plus-minus. Curry and the Warriors starting lineup’s +73 plus-minus ultimately kept their heads above water, their bench against Sac-Town was 2/5 two-way contracts and 3/5 rookie contract contributors. It’s a continuation of a worrying trend. Whenever the NBA’s best five-man starting lineup (in terms of scoring differential) steps off the floor, Golden State unravels.

The Warriors’ organic chemistry has always been difficult to explain. Their ball-whipping motion offense, and quick off-ball movements are predicated on an innate synergy than on individual gifts. Sure Steph Curry can hit the berserk button and absolutely decimate all-time great defenses, but that can only carry them so far in a seven-game series. The energy he and his starting compatriots expend, especially at his advanced age — ahem. He’s old enough to be a father figure to certain Warriors — requires more down time to recuperate. In 10 games, Curry is averaging 32.6 points, 7 assists, 7 rebounds, draining 50 percent of his field goals and 43 percent of his 3s. That pace is MVP-worthy, but probably unsustainable.

If Curry, Klay, and Draymond have been Golden State’s nervous system throughout this dynastic run, the bench has been their heartbeat. Their energy on the sidelines and synergy with the Warriors’ vaunted Death Lineup starters has kept the blood pumping through the veins of four championship teams, plus a pair of runner-ups. When Steph Curry hits his inevitable cold stretch, it’s the bench that keeps their other foot out of the grave. At least that used to be the case.

Their redemptive 2022 championship bench was spearheaded by Otto Porter Jr., Damion Lee, Gary Payton II, Nemanja Bjelica, and Juan Toscano-Anderson. Every single member of that second five-man lineup is gone. Steve Kerr’s Warriors 3.0 expected to hit the ground running with their precocious youngsters picking up the slack. Instead, their new-look second-unit has gotten thrashed.

The last time Golden State experienced this type of turnover on their second-unit, it was immediately after the 2019 Finals loss against Toronto. Andre Iguodala was shipped to Memphis to clear room for the Kevin Durant-D’Angelo Russell sign-and-trade that turned into Andrew Wiggins. Shaun Livingston retired. Damian Jones, Quinn Cook, Andrew Bogut and Jonas Jerebko all moved on after the season while the Warriors retooled. They were given cover when Curry broke his wrist, Klay recovered from an achilles tear and ACL while Draymond load managed.

While that veteran-laden bench accumulated the second-highest plus-minus in the league last season, their 2023 bench has produced the worst plus-minus in the entire NBA and are the second-worst shooting bench lineup in the NBA. Presently, Golden State is being torn from within by the most absurd disparity in production between a bench and starting lineup in the entire league.

Here are how the benchmen for several of the NBA’s contenders rank this season:

TEAM/RANK (TOTAL PLUS/MINUS) 

  • Boston Celtics: 4th(+42)
  • Milwaukee Bucks: 5th(+20)
  • Utah Jazz: 6th (+20)
  • Phoenix Suns: 9th(+11)
  • Golden State Warriors: 32nd(-87)

The only bench unit for a top-10 team that is exhibiting ineptitude even marginally close to Golden State’s is hipster-fave Denver’s 26th ranked bench and their negative-41 plus-minus. Kerr has vowed to make lineup changes, but his options are limited.

It’s almost unheard of for an NBA contender’s top-five minutes earners to be still on the NBA rookie pay scale. That includes Jordan Poole, whose extension doesn’t kick in until 2023. Behind his whopping 39 minutes per game, the Warrior bench is headlined by James Wiseman, Jonathan Kuminga, Moses Moody, and Ty Jerome. Further down the bench are Donte DiVincenzo and JaMychal Green, who spent the last two seasons in Denver.

The best case scenario is that their young understudies accelerate their maturation during the 82-game trial by fire. Growing pains are part of the process, but they’re magnified when one of the most accomplished starting lineups since the Auerbach Celtics is weighed down by the league’s worst second-unit.

Jonathan Kuminga’s inability to spread the floor has hindered the Warriors spacing, but his energy in the open floor has compelled Kerr to increase his minutes. On the other hand, James Wiseman may be playing himself out of the rotation and potentially out of Golden State completely if his listless effort continues. DiVincenzo has been on the mend with a strained hamstring since October 23, but is expected to return to the lineup Friday, which should provide more veteran leadership off the pine. JaMychal Green’s minutes should increase as the season wears on and as he gels into his small ball five role, but even he isn’t fulfilling his role on both ends.

Individually, those five sound like they should have it all figured out, but Golden State’s season depends on at least a few of their backups hitting their stride or else they may be forced to sacrifice their youth on the trade market pyre.



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About the Author

Anthony Barnett
Anthony is the author of the Science & Technology section of ANH.