Ghost of Golden State Warriors is starting to make some noise

Steph Curry’s high-arcing game-winner to sink the Phoenix Suns on Saturday night only strengthened his runaway case as The Association’s Most Clutch Player of the year. An ensuing win over Utah on Monday positioned the Warriors back above the .500 mantle for the first time since Dec. 23.

The NFL’s single-elimination playoffs and NBA playoff marathon are different beasts, but Kansas City’s Super Bowl run exemplified how a degenerative roster with championship DNA can hit their stride at the right time. A decade ago, the San Antonio Spurs run hit a wall until Kawhi Leonard came into his own and Gregg Popovich’s chemistry unlocked two more Finals runs from Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan. The Golden State Warriors are currently still in play-in territory, but for the first time all season their lineup isn’t in flux.

Transitions can be tumultuous and Golden State’s crumbling foundation has left them searching for answers. Through the championship years and the nadirs, you could always count on a healthy Warriors team playing their way into title contention. The first half of the Warriors 2023-24 campaign was a debacle and their weathered Big Three of Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green resembled classical art that belonged in a museum.

They still share the telepathy to predict exactly where teammates will be as they improvise off of a litany of screens, and exploit defenses off of movement, but their noteworthy contributions felt like they were in the past. Their plus-minus rating when on the floor together was even a net-negative for the first time. Long and rangy rosters like the one in Oklahoma City more closely resemble the championship blueprints of the present day.

Throughout the decade, Steve Kerr has had to tinker to modernize the Warriors lineup. Finger painting Jordan Poole into the rotation, along with acquisitions by former general manager Bob Myers has usually been enough for Kerr to manifest a championship-caliber panorama. This season has seen him dip into some unfamiliar territory.

At midseason, Golden State was wobbly. So they countered by going small in a league that’s trending towards bigger lineups. Since Green was plugged in at center in late January, the Warriors have won eight of 11 and been only outscored by one in regulation during those three losses to the Los Angeles Lakers, Atlanta Hawks and Sacramento Kings. During that stretch, the Warriors have the NBA’s third-highest net rating, third-lowest defensive rating, fourth-best offensive rating and third-best rebounding rate.

Figuring out how to prevent Thompson from flickering in and out of his corporeal form in the Warriors starting lineup is still an ongoing headache, though. In the five games prior to his 26 points in a win over the Jazz, Thompson had generated 11 points per game in February, shot 40 percent from the field and less than 25 percent from behind the arc. Thompson’s history as the co-progenitor of the Warriors Golden Decade before Green joined the rotation under the Steve Kerr regime, has made his decline difficult to navigate. Since Thompson’s midseason conversation with Kerr and his revelation about coming to terms with basketball mortality and enjoying the ride, Thompson has hidden his frustration on the court, but not off of it.

Even if it hasn’t been reflected in the quality of his play, the trade deadline passing without Golden State pulling the trigger on a deal has quelled concerns within the Warriors confines. This week, Thompson also informed The Ringer’s Logan Murdock that he’s open to returning in a more limited role next season.

“I’ll be 35 next year. At 35, coming off the ACL and an Achilles [tear] and still have the ability to be a really good player. Maybe not the guy who scored 60 in three quarters and scored an NBA record 37 points in a quarter, but still a great threat out there. I’ve modeled my game after Reggie [Miller] and Ray [Allen], and those guys were incredibly effective until their late 30s. So I plan on kind of following that mold,” Thompson told Murdock.

For the first time this season, there’s stability in the Golden State HQ. Thompson’s enlightenment, coinciding with Green’s emotional reset after a lengthy suspension by the league, has helped alter the state of play, but Jonathan Kuminga’s ascent has the potential to be a game changer.

Kuminga gave the Warriors a snapshot of his breakthrough by leading the league in scoring during the preseason, but once the regular season tipped off, he was banished back to the kiddie table. It took the 21-year-old shaking Kerr out of his neglect by leaking his displeasure with his usage under Kerr in January for the coaching staff to finally give Kuminga his own set of keys to the offense. The return on investment has been worth it.

Since Kuminga’s grievances went public, resulting in a 1-on-1 meeting with Kerr, Kuminga has been the Warriors second-leading scorer, averaging nearly 22 a night on a near 57-40-80 split. His agility and comfort shooting with a new and improved stroke has forced defenders to guard him more seriously when he squares up from distance and opens the floor up for him to gash closing defenders and finish at the rim. The shortlist of players averaging Kumingas’ splits and at least 15 points a night over the past six weeks includes Nikola Jokic, Kevin Durant, Jimmy Butler, Jalen Williams, Domantas Sabonis, and Evan Mobley.

There are still warts that need to be hammered out, but this is the sort of auspicious development that could convince Joe Lacob to stay the course and reconfigure instead of reconstruct. Kuminga is conceivably one more offseason away from becoming Golden State’s Kawhi analogue.

Along with Kuminga’s rapid in-season evolution, rookie combo guard Brandin Podziemski has transitioned into a contributing role in the rotation much quicker than anyone imagined. Their Death Lineup is no longer the measuring stick by which teams gauge themselves against, but they’re turning the corner. As constructed, the shrinking Big Three are a long way from contention, but for the first time they have the room for a growth spurt.

Find DJ Dunson on X…or don’t: @cerebralsportex 

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