The question tossed towards Stephen Curry after the Warriors’ 119-107 win over the Sacramento Kings Sunday night was pointed, yet he responded as if he was truly glad to hear it.
He was asked if Gary Payton II’s terrific performance in the victory exhibited the value of having the team fill its 15th and final roster spot.
“One thousand percent,” he said firmly, a split-second after the question was completed.
Curry was among the veterans urging Warriors management to fill that spot, and the pleas intensified last weekend when the management waived four players, including veteran guards Avery Bradley and Payton, both of whom specialize in defense.
Management during training camp never committed to signing a 15th player and actually considered opening the season without filling the vacancy. One less salary to pay.
When Bradley signed with the Lakers, the Warriors’ coaching staff, teeth gritted and fingers crossed, hoped Payton would not land elsewhere and that management would relent. He remained available, and the Warriors pounced.
Payton’s work on Sunday validated the team’s desire to keep him. Coming off the bench, he played 17 minutes, contributing 10 points, one rebound, one steal and generally a stellar defensive performance.
It’s not typical that the last man on an NBA bench, a 6-foot-2 guard, makes a significant impact in the third game of the season.
Curry laid out the assets Payton brings. The on-ball defense, but also the movement and instincts he displays on offense. The “crazy” (6-foot-8) wingspan. And the hops, as Payton’s first bucket was a transition dunk off a Curry lob.
“Defensively he gives us an edge,” Curry said. “And then he knocked down two 3s, which was huge. If he’s going to get open shots, he has to take them. We just want him to stay locked in, stay competitive and stay focused on when his moment comes and show he can do it.”
It was during the team’s Sunday morning meeting that Warriors coach Steve Kerr told Payton, who played a total of 10 seconds in the first two games, that he could get significant playing time. There were a couple factors for the change.
One, there was the absence of Andre Iguodala, out with hip soreness. Like Iguodala, Payton is a defense-first player who finds myriad ways to help the offense. And, two, there is Sacramento’s guard-heavy rotation, with De’Aaron Fox, Tyrese Haliburton, Davion Mitchell and Buddy Hield all averaging more than 25 minutes.
Getting irregular minutes can be a tough gig, but Payton, who has spent six years scratching and scrapping to earn a regular job in the NBA, prides himself on dedication.
“I’ve been doing it for a while now, and it’s really my job is to stay ready at all times,” he said. “Just make sure I’m ready to do whatever I’ve got to do, to be ready as soon as I hear it’s ‘go time.’ I’ve been doing it for a while now, so It’s pretty much my job.”
Payton played seven seconds in the season opener three seconds and the second game. There will be more games like that, and there will be games when he never leaves the bench. There will be other games when he will be summoned to bring his particular set of skills – which the Warriors almost chose not to enlist.
“It was an interesting time,” Kerr said. “It’s one of those things where Gary has been fighting for his spot in the league for years. If somebody had picked him up, I would have been happy for him, that somebody had claimed him and put him on their roster.
“But, selfishly, I wanted him for our roster. I’m just glad it worked out, because he gives us a dimension out there that really adds to our team.”
Which is why Curry and the team’s other veterans lobbied to fill that spot. They would have been delighted with Bradley, but they are more than pleased with Payton. The Kings surely understand why.