Jonathan Kuminga

Kerr defends decision to bench JK, but unsettling trend emerging

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SAN FRANCISCO – Steve Kerr offered no second guesses late Friday afternoon for his decision Thursday night to sit starting forward Jonathan Kuminga for the final 18 minutes of a 130-127 loss to the Denver Nuggets.

Kerr, Kuminga and a sellout Chase Center crowd watched as the Warriors lost an 18-point lead during a self-destructive fourth quarter. Neither coach nor player was pleased with the way the evening unfolded.

Kerr disclosed that he met with Kuminga earlier Friday, after the third-year forward expressed frustration with his status to The Athletic's Anthony Slater and Shams Charania. When asked about the rationale for keeping him on the bench, the coach delivered an unsatisfying response.

“He was playing great,” Kerr said 90 minutes before tipoff against the Detroit Pistons. “But we had another group that came in playing great . . . and we finished the quarter strongly, so we stayed (mostly) with the same group.

“We went on a quick run and got (the lead) up to 18. (Andrew Wiggins) was playing pretty well. He got a couple buckets. He was guarding (Nuggets star Jamal) Murray. To be perfectly frank, it came down to a decision of sticking with Wiggs because I thought he was doing a good job.

“At the end of the game, I look at the box score and JK only played 18 minutes. I’ve got to get him out there for longer. But these are really difficult decisions because it’s not just as simple as how many minutes a guy plays. It’s who’s playing and what’s the combination and what’s happening in the game.”

The Warriors were outscored 36-20 in the fourth quarter. Wiggins, one of nine different Warriors to play in the fourth, scored five points but was minus-13 over 10 minutes in the quarter.

Kuminga had scored 16 points on 5-of-7 shooting, with four rebounds and four assists. He finished a team-best plus-six over 19 minutes. His last act was a 3-point play that tied the game (84-84), sent Denver star Jamal Murray to the bench with his fourth foul and ignited a 23-7 run by Golden State.

Speaking to Kuminga after the loss, it was easy to detect a sense of despair rooted in his belief that even positive performances are not enough to secure his place in Kerr’s rotation. No starter was more effective than Kuminga on Thursday, yet he played fewer minutes than the other four.

“Even when I play well sometimes it doesn’t seem to matter,” Kuminga told NBC Sports Bay Area.

Kuminga never mentioned Kerr or any of the team’s battalion of assistants. He assigned no blame but clearly believed he is doing what has been asked of him. For the most part, he is, particularly since moving into the starting lineup in mid-December.

“JK is a young player,” Kerr said Friday. “He’s growing, getting better. That’s why he’s been in the starting lineup. He will continue to grow, and this is part of his growth.”

One of two Golden State lottery picks in the 2021 NBA draft, Kuminga had a fine seat for an epic collapse by the Warriors. So, too, did Moses Moody, the other ’21 lottery pick, who has gotten accustomed to being a spectator.

Which brings us the predicament in front of Kerr. Torch-carrying members of Dub Nation are coming for him, and he knows it. He also realizes criticism comes with the job, that every head coach in the history of the NBA, no matter how successful, has been scarred by a measure of scrutiny.

But Kerr’s biggest problem is not the increasingly strident critiques of his game management.

It’s his participation in fueling the flames. It’s a mild but unsettling trend.

The odd benching of Kuminga comes less than three weeks after the delayed introduction of rookie Trayce Jackson-Davis to meaningful minutes. Which followed the misguided decision to sub out a productive Moody amid a fourth-quarter collapse in Sacramento on Nov. 28, with Kerr acknowledging the error next day.

The Moody benching came about seven months after Gary Payton II – Golden State’s ace perimeter defender – watched from the bench as Lakers guard Lonnie Walker IV fried the Warriors for 15 points in the fourth quarter of Game 4 of the Western Conference semifinals last May.

Such issues as these tend to rise to the surface and even get magnified when the Warriors are unable to find solutions and spend the first half of the season loitering around the .500 mark.

Though Kerr is one of the most successful coaches the league has known, with four championships in his first eight seasons with the Warriors, he has never been so susceptible to making the kind of curious decisions that grow seeds of dissent from Golden State’s players and fans.

The best path to a cure to all of this, for Kerr and his staff and those on the roster, is to start winning with regularity. Maybe.

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