Gary Payton II is rapidly becoming one of — if not the most — impactful players on the Golden State Warriors roster. And to think that he almost didn’t make the 15-man list, if not for Bob Myers fighting for his case over Avery Bradley, who was the favorite of the coaching staff and veterans due to his experience and defensive pedigree.
After 9 games, an 8-1 record, and a showcase season so far for Payton — whose 19 minutes on the floor saw the Warriors outscore the Houston Rockets by 27 points — the Warriors are reaping maximum benefits from their 15th roster spot.
Payton continues to thrive within the margins, all while making an impact that is by no means marginal. His ability to be an off-ball mover and cutter is proving to be a valuable asset, a skill that wasn’t expected from him, but is nonetheless being welcomed with open arms.
Much of that off-ball equity has been seen when Payton — lengthy and bouncy despite being 6’3” — is occasionally slotted as a hyper-small 5. The Rockets and the New Orleans Pelicans had no choice but to hide their big men on defense by having them guard Payton, a testament to what they think of him as an offensive threat (i.e., not much of a threat).
Sensing this pattern, Steve Kerr drew up a play design that brilliantly takes advantage of Payton’s advantages against bigger men in terms of speed and athleticism.
The play starts out with a “Ram” screen — a screen-the-screener action — for Payton, who then “ghosts” the screen up top. He then proceeds to dive toward the rim, while at the same time the ball is fed to the passer at the elbow. As soon as the elbow passer touches the ball, he lobs it to the cutting Payton for the alley-oop finish.
The timing and execution of this designed play is impeccable, taking advantage of slower and less-athletic bigs who are unable to keep up with Payton’s pogo-stick athleticism that allows him to become a persistent lob threat.
There’s also the spacing element that should be taken into account. Defenses are hesitant to help on this action due to them being disinclined to help off of shooters on the perimeter; Nemanja Bjelica (55.6% on threes on 2 attempts per game), Otto Porter Jr (46.7% on 3.3 attempts per game), and Damion Lee (44.4% on 4.5 attempts per game) being stationed on the corners makes a play like this extremely viable.
“He’s just doing it nightly,” Kerr said of Payton. “He’s a great weapon to have coming off the bench. I think I’ve said this, but what’s great about this year’s team is we have a lot of shooting and a lot of spacing, which opens up the floor for Gary. This year’s team is a much better fit for him than last year’s team was. That’s why he’s able to make such a big impact.”
Payton’s value as a cutter was once again on full display against the Rockets. Dribble penetration by more immediate offensive threats allowed him to leverage the defense’s ignorance of him.
The Warriors are reaching a point where playing Payton on the floor as a valuable rotation mainstay — instead of being a defensive specialist playing spot minutes — is becoming a necessity.
While the numbers may be inflated due to a number of factors — inferior opposition, favorable matchups against opposing second units, etc. — the on/off data is increasingly skewing toward his favor. Per PBP stats, the Warriors are outscoring opponents by a whopping 38.7 points per 100 possessions during Payton’s 92 minutes on the floor this season, with an offensive rating (128.7) and a defensive rating (90.0) that would top the league by a commanding margin.
Payton notched 4 steals and proved himself to be a pest within the passing lanes and a tormentor at the point of attack. The Rockets quickly found out that dribbling the ball precariously with Payton lurking nearby was a dangerous endeavor — and he made them pay for it.
Payton is becoming the face of the Warriors’ newfound depth success story. Alongside him, complementary pieces such as Porter and Bjelica are fitting in much better compared to last season’s roster, which had a steeper learning curve and whose players ultimately did not fully integrate themselves within the scheme.
Porter is shooting above-the-break threes at a lights-out rate (54.6%), while his corner-shooting prowess has yet to show up (25.0%). But that number should regress to the mean sooner or later. Meanwhile, Porter will continue to pull the trigger with tons of space in front of him.
Defenses helping one pass away from the strong-side corner or wing, transition pull-up threes — Porter is living up to the role the Warriors envisioned him playing.
Here’s something not a lot of people expected after 9 games: alongside the 8-1 record, the Warriors are 6th in offensive rating (110.0), are currently the league’s best defensive unit (97.0 defensive rating), and are outscoring opponents by 13 points per 100 possessions — also currently a league best.
The schedule has been light, and with a matchup against the Atlanta Hawks coming up (don’t let that 4-6 record fool you), the Warriors are about to face a true test of their mettle. But with the likes of Payton, Porter, and Bjelica shoring up the depth behind their key pieces, the Warriors should have an excellent chance of proving they are the real deal.