Andrew Wiggins

Warriors' roster already facing three critical obstacles 11 games in

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One of the many truths about the NBA is that even the greatest of teams can look old in a blink.

One of the many truths about competitive athletics in general is that “small and slow” almost always equals physical disadvantage.

The Warriors are confronting both truths, and there will be no deep postseason run unless they uncover cheat codes to dispel them.

This season is a test case for coach Steve Kerr, for his staff and for a proud group of decorated veterans. Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson still believe in themselves because their resumés give them that privilege. Chris Paul still believes in himself because his career puts him in the conversation for best traditional point guard in NBA history.

Can the Warriors summon one more run to the top against so many rosters that are younger and quicker and lengthier?

Three weeks in, serious challenges already are buzzing about their heads. Though Curry, 35, is playing like a dazzling 27-year-old MVP candidate, Green (33), Thompson (33) and Paul (38) are playing as if the wear and tear on their bodies is sending them a message.

The Warriors might be able to gain momentum as the season moves along, but they’re going to need luck and more. Here is a look at three critical obstacles Golden State’s current roster is facing:

Finishing in the paint

The “jump-shooting” Warriors are at 34.9 percent from distance, 21st in the NBA. It’s a steep fall from last season’s 38.2, which was No. 2.

Scoring in the paint is another matter altogether. They don’t get much from Kevon Looney and Green. Dario Sarić is better in space. Andrew Wiggins is spare with his drives to the rim. Jonathan Kuminga rarely finishes in traffic but is developing a tendency to draw fouls.

That Curry, a 6-foot-3, 190-pound guard, is their best interior finisher goes far to explain why the Warriors are last in the league in paint points. And their Effective Field Goal percentage is worse than the Detroit Pistons, Charlotte Hornets or Utah Jazz.

Not making 3s. Missing layups. Only 2.7 dunks per game – a rate lower than Giannis Antetokounmpo’s 2.9. No need to wonder why the offense often is without rhyme or rhythm?

“We’re not doing a great job of getting organized,” Green said Sunday night, after the loss to Minnesota. “I’ve got to do a better job of making sure we’re getting into some things. Chris got to do a better job; we both need to do a better job of getting us into things. When Steph’s got it going, he's just moving and going. It’s on us to realize that and learn how to also use him when he’s got it going to get other guys looks as well.”

The strongest reason for optimism is that the deep shooting will get better. Curry and Green are the only Warriors shooting above 40 percent, but it’s reasonable to believe Thompson won’t stay at 34.7, Wiggins won’t stay at 15.4 and Paul will rise from 16.2.

Too many whistles

Six teams, none above .500, are whistled for more fouls per game than the Warriors’ 21.5 per game. Only the Pistons send opponents to the line at a higher percentage and allow opponents to shoot more total free throws than the Warriors’ 26.2 per game. Both rates are higher than last season.

“Some of (the fouls) are just undisciplined reaches,” Kerr said. “And some of them we’re just fighting and we’re out of position or something. We know that we can cut back on some of the fouls, and some nights there’s going to be some guys who get to the rim, and we have no choice but to go up and challenge and there’s going to be fouls called.”

It takes incredible smarts and gargantuan effort for a team built like the Warriors – no rim protector (Trayce Jackson-Davis gives hope), most perimeter defenders struggle with quickness – to become an elite defense.

The issues this season are the issues of last season, though the rates were slightly better in 2022-23. It’s already a challenge this season. Smaller, slower defenders tend to commit desperation fouls against bigger, quicker players.

No “Death Lineup” in sight

That the peak Warriors went “small” is a bit of a misnomer. They were without a traditional center, but 7-foot Kevin Durant is a wonderful “big” to pair with Draymond Green, with Andre Iguodala at small forward, with Curry and Thompson in the backcourt.

Those teams were athletic enough because they had mid-career Durant and Iguodala still had juice. They were quick enough because all but Iguodala, in his early- and mid-30s, was between 28 and 31. They were long, smart, skilled and cohesive.

“Honestly, it’s our defense . . . that fuels our offense,” Curry said. “That’s always been our strength. They have to be connected, so that’s a big part of loosening up defenses that are trying to make us take the tough jumpers and keeping everybody out in the perimeter.”

The logic here is that wisdom, skills, length and unity on defense would open the gates to better offense.

The hard truth? This roster is rich in wisdom and skill, but doesn’t have a lot of effective length when compared to most opponents. The Warriors are reduced to hoping the unity will come.

Golden State was aware of the risks of its roster strategy. First-year general manager Mike Dunleavy surely knew each of his four vets already had piled up more total NBA minutes than he did when he retired at 36.

From the first day of training camp, the Warriors knew what they had and did not have. They believed in what they had: skill, cohesion and high basketball intellect. They figured those assets would neutralize the experienced physiques and relative lack of size and athleticism.

And maybe, in time, they will. But this approach stretches the capacity of cohesion and intellect.

Ten days into the season, Kerr made a comment that speaks volumes about his clear-eyed assessment of his team. Taking the “next step” would require Andrew Wiggins, Jonathan Kuminga and Gary Payton II “to be the athletes they are.” Their athleticism is essential for a roster light on that element.

Payton has been mostly solid. Wiggins has been consistently lackluster. Kuminga too often offsets his athleticism with poor mechanics or failing to read the floor. He’s considered perhaps the team’s best on-ball defender, but on Sunday night JK’s poor positioning allowed Timberwolves forward Kyle “Slo-Mo” Anderson to saunter around him for a practice layup. A sobering moment indeed.

But this trio is supposed to bring to the team what the vets cannot. Curry, Green, Thompson and Paul never have relied on athleticism.

Truths exist for a reason. They are rooted in the examination of history. There can be exceptions to almost any rule, but any exception to a truism expels it from the ranks of truth.

Here’s another truth: The first gut-check game of the season comes Tuesday night, a rematch at Chase Center with the aggressive young Timberwolves. It’s an NBA In-Season Tournament game, which raises the stakes. The Warriors of the past embraced such opportunities.

This game that will reveal who the Warriors are in mid-November, if not who they will be in the months to come.

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