A season going nowhere was finally given a direction. In the moments after Stephen Curry’s hand crunched under the weight of Phoenix Suns center Aron Baynes, the Warriors’ injury-marred, already-spiraling 2019-20 season officially cratered.
Without the help of Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Andre Iguodala -- heck, throw in Shaun Livingston, Kevon Looney and Willie Cauley-Stein in there -- the Warriors have gotten off to a historically bad start. As I highlighted in this week’s Haberstat video, by losing to the Los Angeles Clippers and OKC Thunder by a combined total of 47 points, the Warriors placed themselves in ominous company. There are only 11 NBA teams in the last 50 years that have been beaten that badly in their first two games.
The outcomes for those teams, as you can imagine, were not good. Only one of the 11 reached the playoffs and that was the 2002-03 Boston Celtics, who crawled to a 44-38 record with two players averaging over 10 points per game. They’re also the only one of those 11 to even finish .500 or better on the season.
To add another layer of context, that Celtics team punched their playoff ticket thanks to a laughably bad Eastern conference. Not a single East squad that season won over 50 games. That’s an anthill compared to the mountain the Warriors have to climb, even with their best player. It’s not hard to imagine the Houston Rockets, Denver Nuggets, Clippers, Utah Jazz, Portland Trailblazers and Los Angeles Lakers all winning over 50 games this season.
Curry’s extended absence, whether it’s one month or if it last longer, should seal the Warriors’ playoff fate, but that could be a blessing in disguise.
Through one week, the D’Angelo Russell experiment has been an utter disaster. In 119 minutes with Russell on the floor, the Warriors have been outscored by 74 points. It’s the worst plus-minus for any player in the NBA this season, per NBA.com.
It’s an absolute gut punch to the front office considering how the Warriors emptied their wallets and assets to acquire the 23-year-old. Faced with the decision to let Kevin Durant walk for nothing, the Warriors agreed to sign-and-trade him to the Brooklyn Nets for Russell, but they also had to hand Russell a max contract, trade Iguodala to the Memphis Grizzlies and give up a 2020 first-round pick to convince the Nets to dance. Not only that, as an over-the-cap team, the trade essentially put the clamps on their books and gave them a hard cap of $138.9 million, tying their hands for filling out the rest of the roster.
Luckily for the Warriors, the pick sent to Brooklyn is top-20 protected, which, given how vicious the Western Conference is this season, might end up being salvageable.
From the moment the Russell trade was announced, league sources insisted to me that Russell wasn’t a rental. In mid-July, Warriors GM Bob Myers confirmed that stance, telling reporters, “We didn’t sign him with the intention of just trading him. We haven’t even seen him play in our uniform yet.”
Well, now they have. The idea was Russell would give the Warriors a spark offensively, but the results have been just the opposite. The Warriors’ offense is at its worst with Russell on the floor. In those minutes, the Warriors have scored a paltry 96.3 points per 100 possessions, the lowest figure for any of the 11 Golden State players that have played over 20 minutes this season, per NBA.com tracking.
This has become a nightmare for the Warriors. I didn’t like Russell’s fit when the trade happened, and I really don’t like the fit now. Taking the ball out of Curry’s hands by acquiring a ball-dominant guard was always a risk, but Russell has been noticeably off. He’s missed 16 of his 24 3-pointers and duffed seven of his 18 free throws. It took all of two games for Russell’s frustration to reach a boiling point, as he was ejected for the first time in his career during last week’s loss to the rebuilding Thunder following an argument with referees.
That said, Curry’s absence could relieve some pressure off of Russell. Rather than force-feed the pass-heavy offense that provided the bedrock to the Warriors’ championship runs with Durant, Thompson and Iguodala, Russell can become the focal point of a pick-and-roll offense fully built around Russell’s slithery skill-set.
Too often, Russell’s pick-and-roll attack left Curry alone off the ball, with very little interaction. In the early going, Russell assisted Curry on just two of Curry’s baskets this season, according to NBA.com player tracking data, passing the ball to the former MVP just 13.6 times per 36 minutes. For perspective, Durant, who’s not a point guard, passed to Curry 17.2 times per 36 minutes last season.
Maybe Curry and Russell would have figured things out given more time. Draymond Green lamented after Wednesday’s game that the full team hasn’t even practiced or scrimmaged together. But the rest of the league is battling injuries, too, and won’t find much pity for a franchise with a healthy collection of Larry O’Brien Trophies in their foyer. The Clippers haven’t scrimmaged with Paul George. The Lakers haven’t practiced with DeMarcus Cousins. The Blazers are going without Jusuf Nurkic and now, Zach Collins.
The best course for the Warriors is to look in the mirror and realize this paper-thin roster was ill-equipped to handle the rigors of the season. The toll of five straight 100-game seasons -- technically, the 2017 title run was so dominant they “only” played 99 -- was bound to catch up to them at some point. Perhaps if coach Steve Kerr found the perfect balance between Curry, Russell and Green, the rest of the supporting cast wouldn’t matter, but that’s easier said than done. According to NBA.com tracking, the worst plus-minus for any trio in the NBA is Curry, Russell and Green (minus-53).
That lopsided scoreboard can be partly explained by defensive ineptitude. The Warriors currently have the worst defensive rating in the NBA, even with Green, a former Defensive Player of the Year, in uniform. But Green can only do so much alongside a supporting cast of unproven youngsters. Eric Paschall, Jordan Poole and Marquese Chriss can’t be expected to fill Iguodala, Thompson and Durant’s shoes on that end. Then again, this roster is a direct result of emptying the coffers in the Russell sign-and-trade wrought. (On a related note, Russell has yet to tally a steal or a block this season.)
The sensible course for the Warriors is to acknowledge that this season is very likely a sunk cost. Kerr has already expressed skepticism that Thompson will return this season. The next step would be to put Russell on the trade block, but he won’t be eligible to be traded until Dec. 15. He might need that time to restock his trade value.
The Minnesota Timberwolves were in hot pursuit of Russell this summer with plans to reunite him with friend Karl-Anthony Towns, according to sources. Russell even said recently it’s a matter of “when,” not if, he and Towns will end up on the same roster. But it’s unclear how much the Warriors would net in a trade now that the Timberwolves have gotten off to such an impressive start. A trade built around Robert Covington and Jeff Teague’s expiring contract would only make sense from Minnesota’s side if their season’s hot start begins to thaw. Even then, the Warriors’ cap situation leaves very little wiggle room to make the salaries work.
Elsewhere, it’s difficult to see a ready-made Russell suitor. Denver’s Gary Harris, Indiana’s Malcolm Brogdon and Cleveland’s Kevin Love are names to watch, but constructing any deals that both matches salary and satisfies trade partner goals is likely to be a dead-end. But the Warriors have to at least kick the tires on potential Russell deals.
Taking some time off wouldn’t be the worst thing for Curry. Keeping wear-and-tear to a minimum after five straight Finals trips makes a lot of sense. He undoubtedly understands the toll his body takes and how it can all go in a flash. He watched Thompson and Durant go down. He saw Livingston retire. He knows Andrew Bogut and Iguodala aren’t playing at the moment. Green, whose back and elbow have been bothering him, could use some restoration time, too.
Eventually Curry will return, and it’s almost impossible to tank with Curry and Green on the floor; they’re too good. Tanking isn’t the right word. Retooling is more like it, but this all comes down to owner Joe Lacob. Is he willing punt the season and trade Russell after opening the Chase Center on the shores of San Francisco? He’s already scoffed at that notion, but another month of losing might change his mind. Thompson’s torn ACL meant the Warriors should have always looked to next summer to reload. That couldn’t be more true after Curry’s injury.