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How the Warriors can win the second half of the season

Wes Goldberg, The Mercury News on

Published in Basketball

When talking about this season, a word that comes up a lot around the Warriors is "productive."

During the first half of a season derailed by injuries and defections, the Warriors (9-32) shifted internal expectations to focus on setting themselves up for championship runs in the future. It's not quite a rebuild, because their foundation is strong, but the next 41 games are important in determining how the Warriors will return to contention.

Here are the ways the Warriors can make the most of the second half of the season.

Last week had plenty of encouraging signs for those wondering if Stephen Curry can return at some point this season. On Friday, he traveled with the team for the first time since breaking his hand on Oct. 30 and participated in shooting drills after Golden State's shootaround in Los Angeles. It was the fourth straight day Curry went through an extended workout.

Head coach Steve Kerr said Curry should play again this season, with a return expected around March. Curry will be re-evaluated on Feb. 1, but he may already be ahead of schedule in regards to his initial timetable.

That timetable had Curry beginning strength-training for his left hand in February, but he's been using the left hand during his shooting drills, showing that he's already begun the strength-training portion of his rehab.

Meanwhile, Kaly Thompson will be re-evaluated during the All-Star break, between Feb. 14 and 16. He's been seen practicing and taking jump shots, but less frequently than Curry. His left ACL tear is also considered more serious than Curry's broken hand.

It usually takes two years for players to recover fully from an ACL tear, but playing even a few games could help Thompson gain confidence in his knee as he heads into a pivotal off-season.

The Warriors are on track to finish 18-64, which should be bad enough to secure one of the worst three records in the league. That's important because each of the bottom three teams have equal chances of landing a top-four pick in May's draft lottery.

A March return would give Curry around 20 games to knock off some rust, but it could also lead to the Warriors putting their lottery odds at risk. The Warriors are winning 22% of their games this season, but could Curry help them win another four or five games?

With the Knicks (11-29) and Cavaliers (12-27) having only a few wins more than the Warriors, that could be enough to impact their lottery odds. A 14% chance of getting the No. 1 pick could turn into a 12.5% or 10.5% chance, and the Warriors' floor could go from the fifth pick to the ninth pick.

While the Warriors won't blatantly tank games, they have been impressively pragmatic in their approach to this season. As frustrating as losing has been, they hope to at least come away from the experience with a top pick -- one of the more valuable assets in the NBA.

Though D'Angelo Russell hasn't had a chance to play alongside Curry and Thompson, he's managed to develop an effective two-man game with Draymond Green.

The Russell and Green pick-and-roll has become a staple of Kerr's offense, and while Russell ends up taking a shot out of that set more often than Curry did, it's becoming productive.

Over the last six games Russell and Green played together, the Warriors are scoring 107.6 points per 100 possessions while the two are on the court. That's an improvement of nearly 10 points per 100 possessions from the beginning of the season.

Getting familiar with Green will only help Russell if Curry (and Thompson) do return this season. Even just a few games would be an important sample size for the front office as they potentially make a decision on Russell's future this offseason.

Though the early returns on the Curry and Russell backcourt weren't encouraging, Russell's biggest asset to the Warriors is his ability to keep the offense afloat in the key minutes Curry is not playing. During Curry's tenure, Golden State has not been nearly as good when Curry is on the bench.

Having a former All-Star like Russell instead of a low-level reserve like Quinn Cook running the offense in those minutes would help smooth out the Warriors' plus-minus when Curry sits.

 

The Warriors made a key roster move last week when they waived Marquese Chriss in order to promote Damion Lee to the 15-man roster. They still have an open roster spot but, because of the hard cap, would have to trade another salary in order to promote Ky Bowman as well.

Bowman is on a two-way contract, which limits him to 45 days in the NBA while the rest of his season must be spent in the G League. Bowman figures to be Golden State's backup point guard next season and, though they can sign him this summer, they could be motivated to bring him up sooner.

Waiting to sign Bowman in the offseason, when the Warriors will have his restricted free agent rights, comes with the risk that another team could swoop in with an offer too lucrative for the Warriors to match. Signing him to a multi-year deal during the season avoids that potential pitfall.

Alec Burks, who has emerged as an important scorer, will be an unrestricted free agent after this season. Golden State has his non-Bird rights, which allows them to sign him for a salary of up to $3 million for next season. To sign him to a larger salary would mean using their mid-level exception, which they may prefer to use on an outside free agent.

The Warriors' starting small forward, Glenn Robinson III, is in a similar situation. The most the Warriors can pay him next season is $2.6 million without using part of the mid-level exception.

With both Burks and Robinson averaging career highs in points, assists and rebounds, the Warriors may not be able to afford to bring them back. It could make sense to trade one, or both, for draft picks.

If the Warriors were to bring everyone back next season, the perimeter rotation would be as such:

Point guard: Stephen Curry, Ky Bowman, Jacob Evans

Shooting guard: D'Angelo Russell, Alec Burks, Damion Lee

Small forward: Klay Thompson, Glenn Robinson III, Jordan Poole

That's three-to-four guards too many, and that's not counting if the Warriors acquire another wing in the draft, with their $17.2 million trade exception or the mid-level exception.

Teams typically use five players in the wing rotation, and the Warriors need to figure out who those five are going to be (and who will be OK spending most of their time on the bench). They already know three of them -- Curry, Russell and Thompson -- so that leaves two more rotation spots.

The next 41 games will help inform the organization's approach to the offseason, and what the team looks like next season.

(c)2020 The Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.)

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