To the Warriors’ credit, they’re not saying this is going to be easy. In fact, Steve Kerr and all the other team stakeholders are underlining every complicating element involved in a very basic question:
Is new-acquisition/old-point-guard Chris Paul going to start for the Warriors this season or come off the bench for the first time in his long, proud career?
It’s an entertaining basketball matter, because the 38-year-old soon-to-be-Hall-of-Famer might be the perfect added element for a Warriors core group that is dying to win the fifth championship of this era, though nobody is entirely sure how the chemistry and strategy will work. It’s a tricky issue, because the Warriors’ incumbent group was, by most statistical measures, the best starting five in the NBA last season and has some pelts on the wall, yet it’s not clear if Paul would be at his best in a bench role.
Kerr and his assistant coaches don’t want to mess up the mojo by slighting any of the proven players in the established starting group — most specifically Kevon Looney or Klay Thompson, probably the two likeliest candidates to be moved to a sixth-man role if Paul is a starter. But Kerr & Co. also don’t want to ignore everything that Paul has done in the past 18 seasons and might do for the Warriors in this one.
It will take time to make this decision. More than anything, Kerr is saying that everybody involved needs more evidence, just to see how all of this comes together and what pieces fit best at the start and end of games. Training camp media day is Monday. The first practice is Tuesday. The regular season opens Oct. 24 — coincidentally against the Phoenix Suns, Paul’s most recent team (if you don’t count his two-week offseason layover with the Wizards). Don’t expect any announcement on this one for a while.
“On one hand, we had the best starting five in the league last year,” Kerr said on my podcast this week. “On the other hand, we have added one of the best point guards of all time to our team, who still plays at a really high level, who has never come off the bench a single time in his career. So you’ve got these two dynamics that we’re staring at heading into camp.
“To me, I’m keeping a really open mind. I think we have to see everything on the floor before we make any decision. It wouldn’t be fair to anyone if we made a decision right now and said, ‘Hey, this is the way we’re going.’ It would make no sense. So we’re going to take all of training camp, all three weeks — you’ll see different lineups out there, different starting lineups. We’re going to have plenty of combinations, plenty of discussions.
“I’m going to lean into the experience of this group not only for what we see on the floor but for the communication that happens off of it as we have to make this decision. Because the only way it works is if everyone’s in, everyone believes in what we’re doing. I can’t just make that proclamation before camp even starts.”
This situation seems different for this franchise mostly because the Warriors haven’t had a Really Big Basketball Question going into training camp probably since Kevin Durant’s arrival in 2016 — and that one wasn’t much about strategy or lineups, it was just about how much the Warriors would have to adapt to Durant stylistically and how much he’d have to adapt to them. Turns out: Not too much either way!
But there’s also a familiar feel to the way Kerr is approaching this scenario, backed up, I’m sure, by Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Klay. These guys have been through a lot together. They make group decisions. They know what works and what doesn’t. They’ll bring Paul into their inner circle, talk it through, work it out on the practice court and (they believe) once everybody has had their say and figured out the best basketball answer, they’ll come out with a unified stance.
The most logical result at this point, given how small the Warriors would be if the 6-foot Paul is switched into the starting lineup for a taller player, almost certainly is that Paul agrees to come off the bench most of the time. That way, he could put all effort into leading the second unit, play a ton during crunch time and get more than a handful of starts when Curry, Klay, Looney, Draymond or Andrew Wiggins miss games. Or when the matchup suits it. That’s logical. It also would keep Paul’s minutes manageable and store up his energy for the postseason. I imagine Mike Dunleavy Jr. made this trade with that scenario in mind. That could change in camp, but I’m guessing it won’t.
I asked Kerr: Is Paul at least open to the idea that he might mostly come off the bench this season?
“You know, when we first talked right after (the trade), we had a discussion,” Kerr said. “And it was mainly just, you know, what does our team have, what does it look like, what’s my vision for the team. So I addressed the issue briefly. But I basically told him what I just told you and told everybody listening, that we’ve gotta see. We’ve gotta work on this and put everything on the floor.
“The thing I know about Chris is that he’s one of the great competitors in league history. He’s an incredible competitor, gamer, winner. I felt like every time we played against Chris, regardless of what team he was on over the years, we were going up against this force, this guy who was just smart, tough, made every possession count for his team, would switch defensively and show this brute strength down on the block. You know, in (Paul’s) Houston years, he’d switch and we’d throw it inside, we couldn’t score it on him.
“This guy, he’s just a winner. He’s coming to a team that already knows how to win. When you put winners and smart players together, good things happen. My job as a coach is to let it all play out, to keep the communication going, to get everybody on the same page and then to move forward from there.”
Another interesting and related theme I’ve picked up going into this camp is that Looney is no longer the automatic choice to hit the bench when the Warriors need to squeeze somebody else into the starting lineup. It might still turn out that way, of course, but there will have to be a compelling reason beyond the history of Looney amiably accepting the demotion so many times before.
Looney has been a made man in that locker room for a few years now. But last season, Looney accumulated a team-best 8.7 Win Shares (Curry was at 7.8 after missing 26 regular-season games) and kept things as steady as possible in a locker room roiling after Draymond punched Poole in training camp. He’s not a rank-and-file guy anymore. Looney’s a towering figure.
“I think early in his career, Loon, when he first started making an impact, he was kind of the guy you could just use in any capacity,” Kerr said. “Start him, give him what we call the Senior Day start, where you play him six minutes at the beginning of each half and then don’t play him the rest of the time. You could play him off the bench even though he was the best center of the group. You could do some combination. Part of the beauty of Loon is that he’s a winner and he’s an incredibly accommodating, team-first player.
“But I’m not going to penalize him for that, I know that much. He’s become one of the best offensive rebounders in the league. Great presence for us in the locker room, on the court. He’s one of our most impactful players. So there’s no way I’m just gonna say, ‘All right, we’ll just bring Loon off the bench because he’s so accommodating.’ That has nothing to do with it at this point. He’s one of our best players. He needs to be out there. And he’s going to play a ton.”
The bigger theme of the offseason, of course, was that, even after Bob Myers’ departure, the Warriors doubled and tripled down on their aging mainstays, believing there’s at least one more big run left in this era. Dunleavy and Joe Lacob added Paul and subtracted Poole, they gave Draymond a $100 million extension. They have every intention of signing Klay to an extension well past this season and a new deal for Kerr, too. They signed Dario Šarić, a shooting big man who fits their style and their personnel far better than JaMychal Green did last season. They’re not lined up for a single “Last Dance” season. They’re aiming for two or three of them, if they’re lucky.
“I think the way Mike Dunleavy handled this past summer and the way Joe and the whole group really approached it was we’re leaning into the core group and we’re saying, all right, we still have something to give, something to offer,” Kerr said. “Steph, Klay, Draymond, that’s what this team has been based on, those three, for the last decade, and we feel like all three of those guys still have plenty left. And Mike really built the roster with the idea that we’ve got this window, let’s make the most of it and try to win another title.”
Where do Klay Thompson extension talks with the Warriors stand?
Here are some other highlights from our conversation …
• The first step of the offseason, Kerr said, was for the Warriors’ decision-makers to get together and decide that they needed to bring Draymond back when he exercised his option to become a free agent. Once the Warriors knew they were on the same page as Draymond, the rest of the moves came naturally.
“I think Draymond was the key decision over the summer, and collectively we just all felt like, you know what, he impacts winning at such a high level, he’s still such an impactful player at both ends, and this has been such a special group, let’s lean into the group and see what we can do,” Kerr said.
• I asked: Was the stirring Game 7 victory in Sacramento — and Curry’s 50-point explosion — last April the key event that told everybody that you should keep this core together?
“Yeah, that was a huge moment for us and for the transition into this year,” Kerr said. “Obviously, the season didn’t end how we wanted, losing to the Lakers. I look back and I think Game 6 against Sacramento was really damaging in terms of our ability to win the next series. It forced us into that tough Game 7, we lose Game 1 at home to the Lakers and we’re playing from behind the rest of the way.
“But Game 7 itself was a masterpiece from Steph, from the whole group, really. I think we had seven or eight turnovers for the game. Steph had 50 points, of course. And just put on a show. But our defense was terrific. Loon was brilliant. It just looked like a team that was a championship club, that knew how to win games on the road in the playoffs. I think that game showed we still had it.”
• Kerr said he’s very interested to see Jonathan Kuminga and Šarić work with Paul this season.
“JK is a guy who we really want to help take the next step,” Kerr said. “I think he’s really grown in the two years that we’ve had him. He’s got this great potential. But he’s still figuring out who he is as a player. And so I’m really excited about JK being on the floor with Chris. You can put him in pick-and-roll. Chris is going to feed everybody on the team. He just makes the game easier for everybody. …
“I’m really excited about the addition of Dario Šarić. I think he was a crucial, crucial signing for us. You think about our team two years ago, that won the championship. One of the reasons we won is we had Belli (Nemanja Bjelica) and Otto Porter, two bigs who could shoot and play-make on the perimeter and tie together certain combinations.
“You look at Šarić, he’s a bigger and stronger version of Bjelica. Really good pick-and-pop player, but also very strong, very physical, great screen-setter, great dribble-handoff guy. Played with Chris Paul in Phoenix at a really high level. Chris told me that he thought Dario’s injury against Milwaukee early in (Game 1 of the 2021 Bucks-Suns finals) was one of the reasons Milwaukee came back (after losing Games 1 and 2). He felt that strongly that Dario was so important to that series and to their team. …
“So we’re getting him two years after the ACL. He’s only 29. He’s a guy who just connects lineups. And everyone can play with him.”
What does veteran Dario Šarić bring to the Warriors?
• In my opinion, one of the lessons learned from the last few seasons, especially the James Wiseman fizzle, is that the Warriors can’t just throw any athletic big man onto the court and expect positive things. Big men need specific skills or else they just bog down Curry and Draymond. (Also, this is what Andrew Bogut, who had those skills, keeps telling me. He’s right.)
“I think it’s also where the game has gone — it’s not just the Warriors,” Kerr said. “You want to have passing and playmaking at every position today in the NBA. It’s like in Premier League, you’ve got goalkeepers who are playmakers now and handling the ball and becoming extra passers.
“It’s no longer the old days where you just needed a center who just blocked shots and rebounded. You want playmaking at all five spots. That’s why Bogut was so great — brilliant passer, screen-setter. So the guys who can pass are the ones who are going to thrive. That’s why Zaza Pachulia was a very effective player for us.
“If you can pass, now all of a sudden you’re unlocking so much with Steph and Klay off of the ball. Because you’re not just setting ball screens for them, you’re delivering the ball to them. That’s what Dario can do. It’s going to open up our offense having him out on the floor, for sure.”
• Yes, Kerr hears the complaints that the Warriors don’t put enough emphasis on size and that they’re perennially too small to match up with the best centers. And he effectively shoots all that down (I totally agree).
“Everybody says, well, you need somebody to guard (Nikola) Jokić,” Kerr said. “It’s like, yeah, good luck. I thought Anthony Davis last year was the key to our whole series (against the Lakers in the second round). He just took away our spacing and was so dominant defensively. Maybe the best defensive center in the NBA. And then (the Lakers) get swept by Denver and Jokić was incredible. So if Anthony Davis is going to struggle with Jokić, so is everybody else. You can’t just look at it and say we need somebody who’s big and strong to guard Jokić. You also have to say, all right, at the other end, what are we going to do? How can you make the game more even when you’re going against a guy like that?
“Well, it’s with playmaking and passing and putting the other guy in a difficult spot. That’s the balance you’re really looking for. You can throw a big guy out there on Jokić and it may not matter. And then you’re going to be less effective on offense at the same time and you’re really in a tough spot.”
• Kerr didn’t elaborate much on his own contractual situation other than to say he expects to get a new deal with the Warriors and that he’s not worried that his current contract runs out in July.
“I don’t know when it’ll get wrapped up, but I’m not worried about it,” Kerr said. “I love it here, love coaching this team, love working in this organization. Mike Dunleavy is fantastic. Having been here for five years already and being groomed by Bob, I couldn’t ask for a better general manager to work with, work for. Joe’s been so great to me. So I want to be here and they’ve told me the same thing, that they want me here. We’ll see how it all goes, but I’m not the slightest bit concerned about it
Even after Myers stepped down, Kerr said that once he saw the plan Dunleavy and Lacob had set for this offseason, he had zero moments of doubt about his Warriors’ future.
“I just wanted to see how last year would play out and see what direction things were heading after the season,” Kerr said. “Bob is one of my best friends and I’ve been so lucky to work with him over the last eight, nine years. So some of all this for me was, let’s see what Bob does, let’s see where the team is, let’s see where this is all heading. And then assess my own situation.
“The good part of being a free agent or only having a year left is it gives you options. So I really embraced it over the summer. When the direction of everything took shape and I saw where this was heading, hell yeah, I want to be a part of this. I’m excited for this year and hopefully for the next few.”
• Kerr said he had a great time coaching Team USA in the recent FIBA World Cup, though obviously everybody is disappointed with the fourth-place finish. The ending, though, seems to have motivated LeBron James and other big names (like Durant, Curry and Draymond) to plot out a superstar squad for the Paris Olympics next summer.
“I haven’t talked to any of the players,” Kerr said. (USA Basketball executives) Grant Hill and Sean Ford and I talked about it a little bit after the tournament ended in Manila and we flew home. We talked a little about next summer. We have always been aware that next summer is pretty unique, an Olympics in Paris, a lot of people are gonna want to go. A lot of people’s wives are gonna tell them you have to go. It’s one of the most beautiful cities in the world.”
“The TK Show”: Go to Tim Kawakami’s podcast page on Apple, Spotify and The Athletic app.
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(Photo of Kerr and Paul during a Team USA practice in August: Jesse D. Garrabrant / NBAE via Getty Images)