By Mark Kreidler
Special to The Examiner
Steve Kerr nailed it. The Warriors’ coach absolutely nailed what it means to be missing a player who isn’t your biggest star, or even your second-biggest, and yet makes every difference between a good season and a legit shot at a ring. That may sound like weird territory, but it’s very real. And Kerr never even had to say Draymond Green’s name out loud for the message to be received.
“I know we are No. 1 in defense,” Kerr said, throwing up air quotes to reinforce his point. “But we’re not, right now. Those numbers are inflated by what we did earlier in the season… The main thing is that our defense has been bad.”
This was on Valentine’s Day down in Los Angeles. The Warriors had just finished getting squished like a bug by the Clippers, allowing 119 points. It was part of a pure stagger to the All-Star break, the club losing four of its last five games and giving up 578 points in the process, which is, let’s see here, carry the one, way too many points to win most of them. (They’re no longer No. 1 in defense, for the record.)
Kerr didn’t name Green in his post-game summation that night, and I suppose that’s because it would feel to him like a cop-out. The coach, after all, needs for the rest of the non-Draymond roster to defend with some integrity or at the very least stick a few fingers in the holes of the dam. The Ws are so good offensively (usually) that even moderate D can keep them in games long enough for somebody to win it, so Kerr can’t very well step up and say, “We don’t have Draymond, so we’re losing.”
But that’s what is happening, at least in miniature. Before Green’s injury took him out of the lineup on Jan. 6, the Warriors were 29-8. Since then, without him, they’ve gone a more tepid 13-9, and that was with Klay Thompson returning to the lineup for all but one of those 22 games.
You can argue this a thousand ways, of course. Bring back Draymond but lose, say, Steph Curry (heaven forbid), and the resulting record would probably look far worse than 13-9. Thompson’s return is so welcome but also unquestionably complicated; it’s a team adjusting and accommodating on the fly to make room for another great shooter to shoot. It takes time.
There’s no short-term panic that is of any use. But this much feels utterly true: The Warriors don’t look like a title contender without Green. That’s hardly the first time someone has said it. Doesn’t make it any less real.
I mention all this now for two reasons: 1.) Green just gave his own medical update while working as a court-side reporter at the All-Star Game in Cleveland, and it’s not good; and 2.) There is an opening in the Western Conference standings here, also injury-related, but the Ws may not be able to take advantage.
Prodded by the TNT crew about his playing status, Green responded, “Hopefully three to four weeks. That’s what I’m shooting for. I’m hoping three to four weeks.”
This perhaps did not comfort Warriors fans who remember the beginning of February when Green also said he hoped to be back in three or four weeks. It’s a floating month away at this point.
Green’s is an L5-S1 disc injury — the lumbosacral joint, for those keeping score at home — and back injuries are just impossible to predict. They’re as flaky as calf injuries, which is what the Warriors thought Green was experiencing before the disc connection was discovered. It’s tough.
Assuming Green’s latest update holds, he could be back for the last 10 or so games of the regular season. Those are critical games, in part because they’d probably give Kerr just enough time to tune up his Curry-Thompson-Green lineup for the playoffs. But like everything else connected with Green’s injury, any date on the calendar has to be considered a moving target.
The other factor at play is bad news, too, assuming you like the NBA and not just the one team. When Chris Paul fractured his right thumb in the last game before the All-Star break, the Phoenix Suns suddenly looked as vulnerable as a first-place team with a 6½-game lead in the standings could look.
That opens a door for the Warriors to pass through, but they’ll have to win consistently without Green to do it. One way to get there is to stop getting mauled in the paint, and a bunch of folks are guessing that James Wiseman’s projected return from injury will stanch the bleeding. That seems like a lot to ask of a guy who has suited up 39 times in his NBA career, but so flows hope.
It’s fashionable to suggest that getting the top seed doesn’t really matter, but going into Thursday’s game, the Ws were an .813 winning team at home this season and a less scary .694 on the road. It makes some difference to get as many home playoff scenarios as possible. Wins matter.
Still, we’re talking here about the regular season, and seedings. The bigger picture is a championship run. In the Warriors’ ring-bearing years, they received contributions from all over the place, but there’s a reason they gave a max contract extension to a defense-first player.
The reason is that Green is no ordinary defense-first guy. Kerr knows it. He knows it so well that he doesn’t even have to use the words.
Mark Kreidler is a freelance contributor to The Examiner. Read more of his columns at markkreidler.substack.com.