Gary Payton II

Why Wiggins, Payton II hold Warriors' key to 2023-24 success

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SAN FRANCISCO – The Warriors’ 2023 NBA offseason, like a handful of other teams, was defined by a blockbuster move that gave Golden State another star. 

Damian Lillard being traded from the Portland Trail Blazers on Wednesday to the Milwaukee Bucks to join forces with Giannis Antetokounmpo days before training camp was the latest example of a head-turning summer. Everything really began when Bradley Beal was traded from the Washington Wizards to the Phoenix Suns ahead of the NBA draft, opening the door for Mike Dunleavy Jr.’s stunner of a decision to then deal Jordan Poole to D.C. for Chris Paul.

The “Point God” flipping sides of a famed rivalry garnered all the headlines, created days and days of debate and questions aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. 

Paul on paper should make the Warriors better in helping them right their wrongs from a disappointing follow-up from a championship season. Perhaps equally as important, the Warriors should receive automatic in-house boosts to their contending aspirations from the availability of two key players. Full seasons from Andrew Wiggins and Gary Payton II are as important as any trade or free-agency signing Dunleavy could have made. 

“We are confident,” Dunleavy said Monday of getting a full campaign out of Wiggins and Payton, barring injuries. “Those guys have put in good time this summer. Their bodies, their health is in good shape.” 

Steve Kerr didn’t mince words when asked about the importance of having those two at his disposal. 

“Yeah, it’s a big deal,” Kerr said.

So was the pain of Payton’s loss last season. While he was rehabbing an injury as a member of the Trail Blazers, the Warriors were off to an incredibly slow start. The 2021-22 championship team began the season on a four-game win streak. Within the first 20 games, the Warriors also had two separate seven-game win streaks. Their fortunes weren’t the same to begin their title defense. 

Last season began with a resounding win against the Los Angeles Lakers as the Warriors received their rings at Chase Center. But they never had more than a two-game win streak during the season’s first 20 games and their 0-5 road trip through Charlotte, Detroit, Miami, Orlando and Miami might as well have told us how the rest of the year was going to go. 

That five-game losing streak featured losses to three of the worst teams in the NBA, and the Warriors allowed an average of 126 points to the Hornets, Pistons and Magic in that span. 

"Ultimately, last year, we weren't good enough defensively at the start of the season and that's why we went 0-5 on that early road trip,” Kerr said. “So we've got to make sure we’re defending at a high level by the time the season starts so that we can win at home and on the road.” 

A healthy Payton and Wiggins should be huge factors in the Warriors creating the kind of defensive identity they desire from the jump. The duo had a 100.0 defensive rating during the 2021-22 championship regular season and a 95.6 defensive rating together in the playoffs. 

Payton isn’t a guard, he isn’t a wing and he isn’t a big. He’s the basketball player who helps unlock so much for Kerr on both sides of the ball, and the Warriors have been the only franchise to let him free instead of trying to put him in a box. Even after missing the first two-and-a-half months to injury and then rehabbing another month-and-a-half upon his return at the NBA trade deadline, Payton averaged a 2.1 plus/minus in the seven regular-season games he played as a Warrior last season. James Wiseman in the 26 games he played after being dealt as part of the Payton package averaged a minus-7.8 plus/minus in a Pistons jersey. 

Wiggins, after the best defensive and two-way season of his career, took a small step backward defensively in the games he did play last season, yet he averaged a career-best 1.2 steals per game and his 5.0 rebounds per game has him right in line with what Kerr wanted from the extremely athletic forward. Wiggins has been worth 7.4 defensive win shares in the last three regular seasons as a Warrior. He was their second-best player in the playoffs of their most recent title and had the most efficient offensive season of his career last year, shooting 47.3 percent from the field overall and 39.6 percent on 3-pointers – good for a 55.7 effective field goal percentage. 

But Wiggins was limited to only 37 regular-season games between injuries and a personal matter. Wiggins has played all 82 games three times in his career, 81 once and never has missed more than 11 games due to injury prior to last season.

“We know what we are capable of defensively given the guys who have done it already,” Kerr said. “Two years ago, we were I think a top-five defensive team if I'm not mistaken, second to Boston, I believe. So getting Gary back, being able to start the season with him is a big boost. Knock on-wood, hopefully, we stay healthy. But I think the defensive end is where it has to start. 

“I mean, on the road last year, I think we were, you know, close to dead last. If not dead last, then right there and on the road … it was a bizarre season in terms of the numbers. A lot of people talked about it being fluke-ish. But I believe that when a team is not well-connected, then the road is where that lack of connection will show that, and I think that's what happened last year. That's why I'm going to really keep talking about this connection and the fact that we've got to bond and come together right away to get to have that good start.” 

The Warriors were part of a handful of teams to pull off blockbuster deals this summer, but their two internal additions can hold just as big of a key to their success.

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