Can Durant, bench find rhythm with Curry, Thompson sidelined?

The Golden State Warriors bench has been underwhelming in 2017-18. Could injuries to Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson help break the supporting cast from its funk?

Since Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson became teammates in 2011, the Golden State Warriors had never won a game without them.

That changed on March 14, when the Warriors beat the Los Angeles Lakers, 117-106. A win over the Brandon Ingram-less Lakers at Oracle is nothing spectacular, but it should be considering that Golden State was also down Draymond Green, David West and Patrick McCaw, while Andre Iguodala and Jordan Bell remain limited.

It also must be noted that the Warriors haven’t exactly been a wrecking crew without Curry this season. Their net rating is just +5.1 when he’s off the court, and they are 12-6 when he does not play at all. Those are both strong figures for a team down its best player, but nothing like their +14.7 net rating with Curry on the court, or their 40-10 record when he’s healthy. Take away Thompson and Green, along with the squad’s three best reserves in Iguodala, West and Bell, and the team is hardly recognizable.

With Curry and Thompson still sidelined and games against the lowly Sacramento Kings and Phoenix Suns upcoming, the Warriors have a chance to find each other again.

Durant’s imperfect fit

Durant is not only a singular force like few others in the NBA, but one that can thrive in just about any situation.

That said, Durant without Curry has been a relative offensive struggle for the majority of this season. The team scores 109.5 points per 100 possessions, a far cry from the 119.4 they score with Curry on and Durant off, and of course the 123.4 they score with both stars together.

Part of the problem stems from the inherent principles of Steve Kerr‘s offense. His scheme is based around off-ball movement, screens and misdirection, three things that Durant is not particularly adept at.

That’s not his fault. He may have an inordinate amount of guard skills for a 6’10” dude, but he’s still 6’10”. Sprinting off a screen or faking out a defender with a cut is unnatural for him. He’s also wiry and not particularly physical, making screen setting a challenge.

Still, it is a reality that Durant is better suited playing in a more traditional pick-and-roll or isolation offense. On ball or off, he is most comfortable when given time to gain an advantage and leverage said gain. It’s why the Curry-Durant pick-and-roll was so utterly dominant last June, and why Durant’s game went up a level in the playoffs — a time when things tend to slow down.

It’s also a major reason why things have bogged down when he plays without Curry. The clash of styles has been real, though it does not fall entirely on Durant. Not even close.

Lack of bench engagement

The Warriors bench is, on paper, better than ever. Compare Nick Young and Omri Casspi to predecessors Ian Clark and Matt Barnes. Or look at Bell, West, JaVale McGee and Kevon Looney in relation to the team’s big man depth of old: Festus Ezeli, Marreese Speights, James Michael McAdoo and Anderson Varejao.

Iguodala is declining, as is Shaun Livingston. That matters. The drop-off at backup point guard from Leandro Barbosa to Quinn Cook matters too. But Iguodala, Livingston and Barbosa used to share reserve ball-handling duties in a way that no Warriors reserve in theory should have to anymore. Kerr can stagger Durant and Curry, and have an offensive fulcrum at all times.

For all of the benefits having a top-three NBA player on the court at all times creates, it also leads to a two-fold problem. First, it forces the team to either change how it plays to fit which star is out there, or to play the same way at the expense of said star’s effectiveness. Second, it takes touches away from everyone else.

The Lakers game was encouraging on both fronts.

Perhaps it was the absence of not one, but three stars that allowed hibernating role players to get involved. Curry, Thompson and Green combine for 42 shots a game — almost exactly half of Golden State’s 85.0. It is no surprise that Young, Cook and Looney all had strong nights to coincide with a season-high in shot attempts (13, 11 and nine attempts, respectively, combining for 42 points). Livingston also thrived on higher usage, going 6-of-8 from the field.

The re-insertion of Casspi into the rotation was itself a boon. Casspi, who averaged 20.5 minutes from mid-November to late December, crossed the 20-minute threshold for just the third time since the new year. It’s a wonder why, considering he contributes in just about every facet of the game — particularly playing off the ball. His cutting is as elite as it is infectious, and we saw his repeated success sneaking to the basket get even the perimeter-happy Young to attack the rim on multiple occasions. He ended the night +11, with 15 points on 7-of-8 shooting.

Long-term solution?

I’m not at practice or inside the locker room, so Casspi’s lack of run may have an explanation. From an on-the-court standpoint, however, he should be a rotation fixture. He works in perfect harmony with the team’s stars and role players alike, and contributes in every facet (offense, defense, rebounding).

Durant looked more comfortable than ever leading bench units against Los Angeles. The two parties seemed to meet in the middle — Durant was making quicker reads and isolating less, while everyone else got active off ball, making it easy for the Finals MVP to make plays.

The return of West will help a great deal. His passing, mid-range shooting and post scoring are all sorely missed, and he’s the one Warriors big that can thrive no matter who he plays with. Bell getting healthy and Iguodala ramping up (assuming he can) will also make a major impact.

Beyond that, these upcoming Curry and Thompson-less games might be the best thing for a group lacking confidence and familiarity. It’s a shame McCaw is still sidelined during what would be a golden opportunity, but he should return well before Thompson. For everyone else, Durant included, building a rapport this March will reap massive rewards in May and June, provided the other stars are healthy by that time.

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