Kawakami Mailbag, Part 1: All Warriors and all the panic about their lack of size

Warriors fans are angry! 49ers fans are angry! Giants fans are angry! Sharks fans are angry! A’s fans are absolutely angry! Just in time for my regular November Mailbag!

This isn’t a happy moment, at least on this forum, for Bay Area sports fans. But that’s understandable with the 49ers in a dispiriting losing three-game streak, the Giants coming off of two rather bland seasons and the Sharks on pace to lose a historic amount of games right after the A’s almost did the same (while clearing the decks and the Coliseum for their planned move to Las Vegas).

But wait, why are Warriors fans so angry about a team that is 6-2 and looks pretty darn good so far this season? Let’s just say that I received many, many concentric questions centered around one central point that really seemed to be the center of attention for centrally concentrated GSW Fans, who often congregate at Chase Center. I admit I skipped over the angriest ones just because I deal with that enough over at Elon Musk’s site.

But I’m glad I got these questions because clearly a large number of Warriors fans are very concerned about this, and there are so many interesting points to address that I’m splitting this up into a Warriors-only Part 1 and everybody else in Part 2 (posting later this week).

As usual, questions have been edited for length and clarity. Also, I tried to pick at least one question among a cluster on the same topic.

Here we go …

Why does Steve Kerr insist on playing small lineups against big teams like Cleveland? I think we need a 7-footer or two. — Abraham F.

I don’t want to be mean, or meaner than usual, but it continuously baffles me that thousands of Warriors fans who watched this team win championships while putting small, zippy lineups around Stephen Curry are so repeatedly mad that the team isn’t trying to be bigger and slower.

Do you really want to turn the Warriors into the Pistons? Maybe you want this, but Kerr, Mike Dunleavy Jr. and Curry most assuredly don’t. And they’re wise not to.

Believe me, there were angrier questions than this one on this topic, all basically pounding the table and demanding that the Warriors add a larger center, any large center, or else the season is doomed. It’s true, the dynasty days included stints from Andrew Bogut, David West, Zaza Pachulia and JaVale McGee, who all fit into the “get a big guy!” category for many fans. They were good players. They fit in. They all helped win a lot of games, especially during the regular season. But guess what: At crunch time in big games, they all came off the floor to give Curry and Draymond Green more room to operate.

In the 2022 finals, the Warriors beat the Celtics, who had Robert Williams and Al Horford, with Kevon Looney and Draymond alternating at center and a little bit of Nemanja Bjelica in there, too. Do you know who the Warriors’ best power forward was in that series and most of the postseason? It was Andrew Wiggins. They didn’t try to go big vs. big, they lined up smaller guys who could credibly guard bigger guys, and then on offense, those smaller guys zoomed around the big guys. The 2022 Warriors also beat the Nuggets, who of course were without Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr., but still had Nikola Jokić. Who was guarded relatively successfully by … Draymond. In a series the Warriors won in five games.

Or go back to the end of the 2020-21 season, which in so many ways set the stage for the ’22 title run and everything else that followed. You know who the backup center was for the 15-5 sprint to the regular-season finish line after the Warriors shut down James Wiseman for the season? It was Juan Toscano-Anderson, who is 6-foot-6 and would be a small forward in the opinion of many complaining fans. It worked. Because it spread the floor and was perfect for Curry.

Through this whole era, the Warriors’ best center has always been Draymond. And in the other minutes, Looney has been able to hang with or out-work just about any large center. This season’s backup, Dario Šarić, has issues around the rim, but he can make up for it with his 3-point shooting and playmaking.

The Warriors are winning now and have won in the past not by trying to be slower and bigger but by spreading out the lumbering giants and running circles around them, if possible.

Remember those classic Rockets teams that went pick-and-roll with James Harden and Clint Capela 20-30 times a game? Did Warriors fans wince every time Harden found Capela for a lob dunk? Yes. And yet at the end of almost every important Warriors-Rockets game, of which there were many, Capela had been run off the floor because the Warriors were killing him by getting him switched onto Curry in the Warriors’ own pick-and-roll game. The Warriors’ speed and skill beat the other team’s size.

I write this fully knowing that the Warriors might go ahead and get walloped by Jokić on Wednesday night in Denver. He’s great. It could happen. If it happens, it won’t mean that the Warriors have to get bigger by signing, say, Dwight Howard or Boogie Cousins. It’ll mean they have to be better when they’re smaller.

The Warriors have done just fine with small, zippy lineups around Stephen Curry. Why should they change that up this year? (Harry How / Getty Images)

What actual, existing, affordable centers could the Warriors obtain to remedy their inside scoring and defensive troubles?Umi V.

Again, I’ve skipped over some of the angriest questions on this topic. I appreciate the ones I got, like this example, that were more reasoned, while still clearly worried about the Warriors’ frontcourt situation.

But here I go again:

Sure, a great big man who could keep pace with Curry and stymie Jokić would help the Warriors. A great big man would help any team, but the problem is that there are only about five or six of those in the league currently and none of them are available to the Warriors or have been in quite some time.

Everybody has a tough time with Jokić, including the large Lakers with Anthony Davis & Co. in the Western Conference finals last May. In fact, the Lakers’ best luck against Jokić came when they put the smaller/never-known-as-a-post-defender Rui Hachimura on him and let AD roam off-ball to counter Jokić’s passing. The best guy in the league vs. Jokić is Rudy Gobert, and 1) he’s not available to the Warriors, 2) he’s incredibly expensive, and 3) he’d bog down the Curry Offense, anyway. Really bog it down.

And no, Cousins or Howard wouldn’t be the answer vs. Jokić.

Did the Warriors have a tough matchup with the huge Cavaliers earlier this week? Yes. But I wouldn’t call one loss on the road a sign of immediate crisis. And plugging in some large guy who doesn’t fit with Curry, Klay Thompson or Draymond would actually make a tough matchup even worse for the Warriors. Why try to be a worse version of a good team? Why not try to be the best version of something that has worked well enough to win four titles?

What the Warriors have that other teams, with or without a dominant big man, don’t have is the guy who wears No. 30. the all-time big-man-buster. I mean, there are four banners up at Chase Center that sort of prove it.

The Steph Warriors are at their best when Curry is surrounded by mobile screeners, passers and shooters. It’s OK if it’s a slower big man, but he’s got to be able to screen, pass and roll. He can’t get in Curry’s way. I think rookie Trayce Jackson-Davis is the best young big guy they’ve tried in this spot for a while — he just has a better feel for this style than Wiseman ever did.

So the Warriors have Looney, Šarić, Draymond and TJD. They’ve also got Usman Garuba on a two-way contract. They can throw newly signed Gui Santos in for a few minutes here and there. That’s not a loaded center spot, but this kind of depth chart has been enough for the Warriors to win a ton of playoff series. If Curry keeps playing at a supreme level, it might be good enough again.

This season, the Warriors are leaning on Curry more than ever offensively, lining him up with some very defensive-focused units and just having him hunt shots or create layups for others. And he’s doing it. Also, these guys can play “up,” meaning Gary Payton II, for instance, is quite capable of turning in several minutes of ferocious defense against guys much bigger than him. Same for Chris Paul. Same for Draymond, of course.

When Kerr can play Draymond, Looney and GP2 around Curry and Klay, as he’s doing that to close games these days, and still know the Warriors are going to be able to score — mostly in the Curry high pick-and-roll — it sets everything else up. Also, since Kerr is so comfortable with CP3 as the backup point guard as Curry rests, Kerr is keeping Curry under 33 minutes just about every game. Which probably is helping him play so dynamically in the closing minutes.

The result so far:

In mostly small lineups, Curry is averaging 30.9 points per game in 31.8 minutes and currently is at what would be career highs in overall field-goal percentage at 53.0 and 3-point percentage at 47.5. The Warriors are getting the best of the greatest player in franchise history in the fewest minutes they’ve ever played him.



Five Warriors observations: Methodical close finishes Pistons; Steph Curry sets record

What do you see as the most likely paths the Warriors front office takes with its current roster if the team shows struggles against longer and more athletic teams? We’re working off of a really small sample size, but the longer Lakers bounced us from the playoffs last season (easily), and the longer and faster Cavs got into their pick-and-roll against us very easily (Sunday) and had the clear leg up at the rim and on the boards. — Jake L.

Man, that loss to Cleveland (to this point still the Warriors’ only road loss) sure rattled Warriors fans.

Let’s toss out some stats:

• The Warriors are currently out-rebounding their opponents. This season. Yes. It’s not the only thing that matters when size is discussed, but rebounding is where a smaller team would be getting really punished if it is, you know, too small to survive among the taller, heavier trees. And the Warriors are actually getting more rebounds than their opponents so far and actually rank fourth in offensive-rebound rate. OK, they’re 21st in defensive-rebound rank, but it all adds together for the 11th spot in total rebounding rate. In the NBA.

Yes, the Warriors put out a lot of very small lineups, particularly when they put Paul in with Curry and Klay, with Draymond at center. It can get smashed by bigger teams. In some ways, the Cavaliers did smash up the Warriors. But overall statistically, it’s not as gruesome as all that. The Warriors are purposely giving up size. The tradeoff, theoretically, is to play at a speed and skill level that the big men can’t match. It didn’t work earlier this week. The bet is that it will work over the long term of a season or a series.

• OK, how about defense? The Warriors’ opponents are shooting 45.3 percent so far. That’s the ninth-best defensive percentage in the league. The Warriors are 12th in team defensive rating, giving up 110.2 points per 100 possessions. Points in the paint? They give up 47.8 per game, 10th-fewest in the league.

• Blocked shots? The Warriors are plus-12 in that stat so far. They’ve blocked 38 shots this season. Their opponents have blocked 26 of their shots.

The stats just don’t back up the existential size crisis that many Warriors fans are feeling right now.

Back to the Cleveland game: That wasn’t merely about size. Sure, Evan Mobley, Jarrett Allen and even 11 minutes of Tristan Thompson had a big effect on that game. No doubt. But unless you have Giannis Antetokounmpo or Jokić or find the next Hakeem Olajuwon, you don’t score vs. great size by throwing clunky size at it. You score vs. size by spreading it out, driving at the big men and finding cutters in the openings. The Warriors didn’t do that on Sunday in Cleveland and didn’t do it in the Lakers series against Davis.

Again, I’ll remind everybody that the Warriors out-rebounded the Lakers in that series, so I don’t know how much bigger you wanted them. The key thing was finding a way through the traffic to score. The Warriors didn’t do that, especially when Curry was off the floor. They wanted to change that in the offseason by adding Paul and Šarić and hoping Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody are ready for key two-way roles. Maybe that’s all happening, maybe that’s not, but I think the early returns are pretty positive for the Warriors.

Would (or will) the Warriors entertain trading Andrew Wiggins to Toronto for say (Pascal) Siakam or (OG) Anunoby (or whatever makes a deal work)? — Richard S.

It’s definitely been a slow start for Wiggins (17.6 percent from 3-point, 53.6 percent from the free-throw line) and yes, due to his personal leave and rib injury last season, he hasn’t been very good for a while. But his “very good” is still very valuable to the Warriors, who haven’t forgotten about that 2022 postseason run.

The benefit of their depth this season is they can absorb Wiggins’ struggles much more easily than they handled his absences and wobbles last season with GP2 locking down everybody in sight in the closing unit and Kuminga providing some scoring punch in other potential Wiggins segments. (For instance: Wiggins exited the Detroit game with 6:09 left in the third quarter and never got back in. He played 21 total minutes. Which seems about right. Test him out in the first half, if it’s not there, GP2, Kuminga and Moody can get shares of those minutes in the second half.)

Also, I think the Warriors will be and should be very reluctant to trade Wiggins anytime soon because he took a big pay cut to stay with them last October, and it’s generally bad faith to convince a veteran to sign a long-term deal for less than he was already making and then quickly trade him away. You can never ask anybody to do that again, basically. And the Warriors are going to want to do that again.

Which leads me to …

Any thoughts on the Klay Thompson negotiations?Julio A.

I think it’s still likely that Klay will re-sign with the Warriors. The number and the amount of years will be determined by how well he plays and how much he wants to negotiate with other teams, if it gets that far. But if Klay wants to stay past this season, and I believe he does, I can’t see the Warriors failing to meet his fair market price when it comes down to deal time.

Steve Kerr is stepping down from Team USA after these Olympics. Is he starting to feel old? Is that what prompted this decision? Kelly K.

Good potential first news conference question soon: “Steve, do you feel old now?” No, I get the point, and I’ve seen a few people asking similar questions about Kerr and his long-term future.

I think any sweeping conclusion about Kerr from this announcement is probably a big over-read. That he’s only head-coaching the one Olympics is no surprise. Did anybody really think Kerr, who was an assistant last cycle and is giving up multiple offseasons once again as head coach, was going to do this for another Olympic cycle and give up three or four more offseasons? Zero chance.

He loves coaching. He felt energized by the World Cup run last summer. But what he really loves doing is coaching the Warriors. I imagine he’ll be doing this for at least several more years — through to the end of the Curry era.



Kerr plans to step down from Team USA next summer

I understand you are not the biggest Jordan Poole guy, but I am curious from an outsider’s perspective why they chose to keep Klay over him. Poole is cheaper, younger, less injured and they were awesome with him in the starting lineup when Klay was out in 2022. John S.

First off, Poole is cheaper yes, but only for this season. Klay is unsigned after this season and it seems likely that if he comes back to the Warriors, it’ll be for significantly less than his $40.6 million salary this season. And Poole is just starting his four-year, $123 million deal in Washington.

Also, I just don’t see Klay getting those potential max offers next July that I keep hearing mentioned. I don’t see it. Maybe he’ll get one from an outside team, and if he does, more power to him. The Warriors might even match that. But perhaps not. It’s the value for both sides of having him on this expiring deal. He might get more, he might get less, and the Warriors also know if he goes, all that money comes off their cap and they’ll be out of the second apron just like that.

But he belongs here and both sides feel this, I believe. Klay is simply part of the dynastic fabric. He’s who Curry wants next to him. And that’s important, no?

Seeing the play of Trayce Jackson-Davis and Brandin Podziemski so far, I can’t help but think about Bob Myers’ draft strategy the year before. Ryan Rollins and Patrick Baldwin Jr. were extremely raw prospects with low floor/high ceilings. TJD and Podz seem like high-floor/low-ceiling players. Is this representative of a difference in draft philosophy between Myers and Dunleavy? Murtaza M.

Remember, in 2022, the Warriors were just days removed from winning a title. They felt they had the roster core that could challenge again and also had Wiseman, Kuminga and Moody ready to go for the next season. I do think Myers was more focused on the most talent available, and at that time, he also was not thinking that he needed to fill rotation spots immediately. As he did with Wiseman, Kuminga and Moody, Myers was betting that if he kept taking the most talented player available, he’d have a better shot at finding one or two tentpole guys who could help lead the next Warriors era. And if he swung and missed, he had the room to try again while most of the rotation spots were already taken.

Dunleavy took over in the wake of a very disappointing second-round loss and with a mandate to make some key changes. He traded Poole. He wanted more experience. He drafted two steadier college players who might not have the highest ceilings but fit into what the Warriors do. It was a very different situation. I think Myers might’ve done something very similar this time around. We’ll never know, though.

Can you please decode the various team culture comments about last year and how much is directed at Jordan Poole?David P.

Since you’re almost certainly referring to Draymond’s recent comments about the negative atmosphere last season, I think we can all safely presume that his relationship with Poole before and after Draymond punched Poole in training camp is a huge part of this. As I always say, the punch wasn’t Poole’s fault. But I think the context is that Draymond tried his hardest to fix his relationship with Poole and fix the breach in the locker room, at least in the eyes of the Warriors’ leaders. And I don’t think it was judged that Poole tried as hard. Or that it wasn’t his personality to try as hard or to flourish in games while all this was going on.

Passive-aggressiveness is what it is. I am absolutely not a passive-aggressive person, which is probably why I get along with Draymond, Jim Harbaugh, Jerry West and Billy Beane, among others. If Poole was passive-aggressive in the days and weeks after he got punched, I can understand that. He got punched. He shouldn’t be expected to put his heart on his sleeve. He had every right to keep to himself and turn down most of Draymond’s rapprochement attempts. Maybe Poole was a lesser player because of the whole experience. It was understandable. But none of it worked so well in the Warriors’ locker room or on the court. Draymond, as is his tradition, played well through all this and remained a more vital presence on the team than Poole ever could be. And like it or not, that’s what counts on a basketball team.

How on earth did Golden State get TJD at Pick 57? Is what they did even legal?David H.

Jackson-Davis’ agent had an inkling that the Warriors would give him a multiyear deal and that TJD would have a shot at some minutes with the Warriors. So if teams picking ahead of 57 weren’t going to give TJD a multiyear deal, they were told to pass. Which got him to the Warriors.

TJD’s agent? James Dunleavy, brother of the Warriors GM.

It seems like you, Marcus Thompson and Anthony Slater always have a good read on how the Warriors core feels about things. But Steph and Klay rarely critique the team publicly. Are they more expressive privately, or are y’all just good at reading tea leaves when it comes to knowing what they want/like/dislike? Tommy B.

We all talk to a lot of people and we all know the headliners very, very well. We know the history. We know the relationships. Nobody knows Curry better than MT, of course. Slater is with the team every day and is connected to everybody.

I won’t speak for MT and Slater, but to me, some of this is about knowing what’s important to the main guys, some of this is having the relationships that we can talk to them privately at times, which importantly can lead to asking the right question in public settings or to know what they mean when they say something publicly. Or when they won’t say something publicly.

Did you read the SFGate article on you and Bob Fitzgerald’s beef? And if so, what are your thoughts on it?Jc C.

Haven’t read that story, but it’s a bit funny that my tweets have been dug up, collated and presented as some sort of great reporting achievement. I don’t keep those secret! I literally send them out to 106,000 people every time I type. Oh well. It’s OK. I wrote those things. I believe those things. I’m always responsible for anything I say or type.

I’m also happy that I can provide content for everybody else and that the collating and digging up can be so amusing for my friends and family to read!

(Top photo: Nic Antaya / Getty Images)

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