Warriors’ two-timeline gamble after NBA championship ends in narrow loss

Warriors’ two-timeline gamble ends in narrow loss originally appeared on NBC Sports Bayarea

SAN FRANCISCO – The vision formulated by the Warriors last summer was a risk they felt comfortable taking only because they had won the NBA Finals a couple of weeks earlier.

The concept of merging a veteran core with young players of limited experience was an attempt to thread a needle never previously threaded. It’s considerably safer to attempt rebuilding on the fly when you have the currency of a ring ceremony on opening night.

But Draymond Green’s right fist to a young teammate alarmed the entire roster and coaching staff. Double that for the five players drafted as teenagers. How could they not wonder if this is what NBA leadership looks like?

That was the first fracture in a foundation unsteady by design. Members of ownership and front-office executives exist in a different space than a head coach. CEO Joe Lacob and general manager Bob Myers are responsible for today and tomorrow. Coach Steve Kerr knows those in his position generally are not given much latitude for “later.”

All of which explains why two-way wing Anthony Lamb averaged nearly as many minutes as 2021 lottery pick Jonathan Kuminga. It’s why two-way guard Ty Jerome’s minutes practically equaled those of 2021 lottery pick Moses Moody — and tripled those of 2020 lottery pick James Wiseman.

Those on two-way contracts with more age and deeper basketball backgrounds than those projected to have more potential served to prove that winning and developing are irreconcilable.

The Warriors evidently had to see that for themselves.

“We have implemented over the last two years a player development system that has been very productive,” Kerr said this week. “We’ve revamped our coaching staff two years ago, and Jama Mahlalela has really taken charge of that development plan and run with it and done a great job. We’ve got really good player development coaches.”

That might be true, but shepherding a player from raw to ready still is a time-consuming process. History provides proof that even the most talented 20-year-old is not ready to contribute to a legitimate contender.

At age 20, the late, great Kobe Bryant averaged 37.9 minutes on a Lakers team that was swept in the Western Conference semifinals. Giannis Antetokounmpo averaged 31.4 minutes for the Bucks, who finished 41-41 and were ousted in the first round of the playoffs. Nikola Jokić averaged 21.7 minutes for the Nuggets, who finished 33-49. James Harden averaged 22.9 minutes for the Thunder, who were bounced in the first round.

At 20, Joel Embiid was two years away from his NBA debut.

Yet the Warriors were hopeful that Wiseman, who was 21 at the start of the season, was ready to become a defensive force; he was not. Kuminga, who turned 20 12 days before opening night, showed visible signs of progress in some areas – particularly on-ball defense and 3-point shooting – but still was a mostly blank canvas. Moody, 20 on opening night, did more developing than playing.

Kerr is a huge proponent of “fit,” which in this instance means capable of meshing with Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Green. Lamb, who turned 25 during the season, is not particularly gifted but his attributes fit the core better than his younger teammates.

Golden State’s veteran core, as well as the coaching staff, is a huge proponent of “trust.” None of the youngsters built enough trust to be in the right place at the right time — and make the right decision — for the team’s schemes to succeed. By season’s end, Moody was closest to that goal.

Focused on winning games today, Kerr sacrificed some of the game experience of the youngsters paid to be part of Golden State’s tomorrow. Lacob didn’t always like it — he still winces about trading Wiseman — but Myers understood.

Relying on the youngsters would have meant testing the patience of Curry, Green and Thompson, who were playing for today. Kerr respected their desires, knowing the alternative could be ruinous.

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The hope is that Kuminga and Moody will be regular contributors next season, and that Patrick Baldwin Jr. could earn meaningful minutes.

“Roster construction is a conversation that Bob and I have every year with Joe and with the front office,” Kerr said. “It’s very important finding the right balance. That’s going to be part of our conversations this summer.

“Ultimately, it’s not my job; it’s really more Bob’s job to construct the roster. But the great thing about Bob and the way we’ve operated here is that we’ve always collaborated. So, there will definitely be a lot of collaboration this summer on putting together the best possible roster for next year.”

The Warriors gambled and took a narrow defeat. They should be better for the experience — and the experiment.

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