Note: All stats in this article are prior to Tuesday’s shellacking, which, admittedly and accidentally, greatly helps the narrative.
We knew coming into the season that the Golden State Warriors would likely be better in the minutes that James Wiseman was on the bench.
That’s not a knock on Wiseman, it’s just an acceptance of reality: rookies rarely provide value. Rookie centers even more so. 19-year old rookie centers even more more so. And 19-year old rookie centers who played only three games in college and missed their first NBA training camp while battling a deadly virus? Well ... you can see where I’m going with this.
So it’s not an indictment of Wiseman that the Warriors are suddenly looking like a quality team now that their first-year big man is done for the year, but it’s also not a coincidence. And while it’s not those two things, it is certainly one thing: an issue as large as Wiseman is tall that the Dubs desperately need to figure out by the time opening night rolls around next season.
The positive player stats
From a pure statistical standpoint, Wiseman had a strong first year in the pros. Per 36 minutes, he averaged 19.3 points, 9.7 rebounds, 1.1 assists, and 1.6 blocks per game. That’s something to work with. Add in the team being enamored with his work ethic and coachability, and it’s easy to see why there’s optimism that he can be a long-term building block for the team.
The negative player stats
Now for the not so good.
Choose any impact metric that you like, and you’ll find a common theme: Wiseman ranks as one of the 15 worst players in the NBA this season (minimum: 300 minutes of playing time).
With apologies for repeating myself: this is expected. Wiseman was expected to be a player who only provided negative value as a rookie.
But with only 39 games as a rookie, and an offseason that will be severely impacted by injury and rehab, it’s worth wondering whether those stats can reverse course as early as next season.
The on-off numbers paint a grim picture. The Warriors have been outscored by 4.7 points per 100 possessions in Wiseman’s minutes, while outscoring teams by 3.0 points per 100 possessions when he’s off the court.
A net rating of -4.7 is roughly in line with the Detroit Pistons, and would rank 26th in the league. +3.0? That’s Los Angeles Lakers territory, and would be 9th in the NBA.
The numbers deserve a grain of salt or seven, as they’re reliant on the rotations and other players on the floor. So let’s call on this week’s TikTok flavor of the day to help us out.
Thank you, Scott Seiss. Excellent point.
The Warriors are a team fighting for home court advantage without Wiseman, and they’re a team jockeying for lottery position with him.
Or at least that’s what they are if they insist on playing him in a big role.
The current run
The Warriors have played eight games since Wiseman suffered his season-ending injury. They’ve gone 6-2 in those games. They have the league’s third-best offense and best defense in that span. They lead the NBA in net rating.
An eight-game sample size is too small to draw great meaning from, as evidenced by the New York Knicks and San Antonio Spurs rounding out the top three, but the point remains: they’re playing well. Really well.
And it makes sense.
So where do they go from here?
So the Warriors look like a strong playoff performer with Wiseman off the court, and a rebuilding team with him on it. A lot can change between now and the start of next season, but what this current run has done is proven to Golden State that they can’t rest on their laurels and run it back next year with Klay Thompson. And it’s put public pressure on the organization to realize that quickly.
They cannot rely on Wiseman being a serviceable starting center, let alone a star, next year.
I again feel compelled to repeat myself: this isn’t an indictment of Wiseman, so much as the reality of a young player in a very complex league. But it’s abundantly clear that the Warriors were anticipating Wiseman being, at the very least, a league average starting center by the 2021-22 season, and it’s even more clear that they simply cannot rely on that.
So they have three options.
The first is to cut ties entirely. Wiseman is unlikely to have much value on the trade market. If he were highly regarded the Warriors likely never would have kept the draft pick in the first place, and a so-so rookie year with a knee injury is not going to boost his stock. But the Warriors could still cut their losses, get something in return, and move on in a direction that makes more sense for the timeline of their three dynastic stars.
The second is to keep playing him, albeit in a more reserved role. Keep starting Kevon Looney, and add a veteran center. Play Wiseman more as a reserve big and developmental piece, and don’t rely on him.
And the third — and the best, from where I’m sitting — is to more deeply commit to small ball. While Looney has played well this year, the Warriors recent run has been a reminder as to how dynamic they are as a small team, with wings spacing the floor next to Steph Curry, Draymond Green pushing the ball at a pace that opposing bigs can’t keep up with, and a disruptive and aggressive defense.
The Warriors can still win playing like that, and Wiseman can wait in the wings, providing minutes against larger lineups to limit wear and tear, and developing at his own pace.
Golden State would be foolish to assume that Wiseman can be good as early as next year. But they don’t need to be as pot committed as they’ve led on.
Now we wait and see if they realize that.
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