By John Krolik
Special to The Examiner
Another week is coming to a close, and the Warriors again find themselves atop the NBA. Here are a few things to note as we approach Christmas Day.
James Wiseman and Klay Thompson are getting closer to returning. That’s a lot of talent getting out of street clothes and into uniform. However, one reason the Warriors have the NBA’s best defense by an extremely healthy margin is just how comfortable every member of the rotation is with each other. The team has an almost telepathic level of communication when it comes to rotation, double-teams and switches. Making any move that could potentially disrupt that chemistry should be a cause for concern.
Thompson will get his starting spot back, even if he takes a few games, or even weeks, to get back into the flow of things. This is a player who made five straight All-Star games before getting injured, is one of the best outside shooters of all time, has traditionally played outstanding defense and has won three championships with Coach Steve Kerr, Steph Curry and Draymond Green. Even if the Warriors have to wait for him to get back to his old self, it will be worth the wait come playoff time.
Wiseman is a more complicated case. Wiseman certainly has the size and athleticism to become a top-flight defender in the NBA. He’s certainly miles more talented than the hard-working but profoundly average Kevon Looney. However, Wiseman’s inexperience (eligibility issues limited his college career to three games) was painfully apparent on the defensive side of the ball last season. He often looked lost on defense in the 39 games he played in his rookie season.
Letting Wiseman attempt to learn how to play NBA-quality defense at the center position is a risky proposition for a team with championship aspirations, especially because a large reason for the Warriors’ early-season success has been their next-level defensive coherence and communication.
This leads to a natural question: If the Warriors don’t plan to play Wiseman (or Jonathan Kuminga) in a significant role this season, why not trade them for players who can help the Warriors win a championship this season? It’s the oldest trade-deadline story there is — a team looking for short-term success trades its picks or young talent to a team with players ready to contribute but no realistic shot at a deep playoff run in the next year or two.
The Warriors may want to think twice about this course of action, as well. First of all, because Wiseman hasn’t had a real chance to prove himself, they’d be selling him extremely low, which is never the best idea. Bringing a brand-new player into the starting lineup would present the same threat to team chemistry as inserting Wiseman into the rotation would, even if the veteran the Warriors would theoretically trade for would be more familiar with the ins and outs of how to play NBA defense.
Having a player with Wiseman’s talent only play in garbage-time situations certainly isn’t the ideal situation for the impatient fan, but sometimes the best move a team can make is the one they don’t.
One thing that will be interesting when Thompson returns to the starting lineup is what will happen to the Warriors’ guard rotation. Jordan Poole has done an admirable job of playing starter’s minutes and providing a consistent scoring punch. Gary Payton II has been absolutely incandescent in his limited minutes off the bench. By all indications, Payton should continue to get every second of the 15 minutes per game he currently gets, so if keeping Poole “ahead” of Payton in the rotation would cut into GPII’s playing time, Poole could easily go from playing starter minutes to an end-of-the bench player in the blink of an eye.
One thing Thompson won’t have to adjust to is the NBA’s crackdown on offensive players drawing fouls. It had become commonplace in recent years for players to get themselves to the line by getting a defender to move and then going straight into their body, forcing the referee to put them on the line. But this season the league has made it a point of emphasis to only reward a player with a foul call if they experience contact while in a natural shooting motion. So, no more awkwardly lurching into an out-of-control defender and expecting to hear a whistle.
Fortunately for Thompson, he has always been one of the league’s consummate gentleman when it comes to searching for fouls. When he gets his defender to bite on a pump-fake, he has never looked to bend his body into theirs and get rewarded with three free throws, instead electing to politely step to the side and take the open three. In years past, this noble streak likely cost the Warriors points, but now it means Thompson will return from injury as one of the players best-equipped to handle the “new” rules.
John Krolik is a freelance contributor to The Examiner.