Filling Gary Payton II’s shoes was always going to be extremely hard — and, to be quite honest, damn near impossible.
Payton II was a diamond in the rough. It was a travesty for NBA teams to not take notice of him and keep them on their roster, considering that his skill set is what multiple teams value.
To say that Payton II is an excellent defender is underselling him. He’s a bonafide elite perimeter stopper who — despite his small 6’3” stature — could also switch up the positional spectrum in a pinch.
He plays bigger than his position on offense, as well. He could screen for Steph Curry and act as a hyper-athletic roll man and lob target. Steve Kerr even had a specific play for Payton II that leveraged his leaping ability and athleticism.
He was a crucial component of the Golden State Warriors’ second-ranked defense last season and was behind a couple of huge defensive plays in the NBA Finals that helped the Warriors beat the Boston Celtics in six games. It’s no wonder that he’s a beloved figure and forever fan favorite among Warriors fans.
Which is why his departure for the Portland Trail Blazers left Warriors fans in a somber mood — all the more compounded by the fact that the Warriors haven’t been as successful this season.
They’re only one game above .500 within a Western Conference where any combination of wins and losses can shoot a particular team up the standings — or bring them down several notches. The Warriors could very well find themselves as high as the fourth seed if they string a couple of wins together — which hasn’t really happened yet.
Blame can be pointed at several factors — one of which is not bringing Payton II and Otto Porter Jr. back. Consider, however, that both Payton II and Porter Jr. virtually haven’t been available all season long due to injuries; if they were brought back, who’s to say that they would also be sidelined for the Warriors, who would’ve had two unused roster spots?
I get that it’s tough to replace two high-level role players. JaMychal Green — widely considered the Porter Jr. replacement — has largely disappointed.
On the other hand, Donte DiVincenzo — the Payton II replacement — has filled Payton II’s shoes quite adequately, with a viable argument that he’s been a more multifaceted role player than Payton II ever was.
Of course, “multifaceted” brings with it the connotation of being someone who’s less of a specialist and more of a jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none type of role player. DiVincenzo isn’t as defensively stout as Payton II, who was a legitimate top-tier defender last season.
Payton II was second in the NBA in terms of defensive estimated plus-minus (D-EPM) last season: plus-3.6. Prior to the Warriors’ game against the Toronto Raptors, DiVincenzo was ranked at a more modest plus-0.9 D-EPM — 92nd in the league.
However, this doesn’t mean that DiVincenzo is inept as a versatile defender. His style is less physical compared to Payton II’s. Instead of relentless risk taking and a handsy approach, DiVincenzo is more calculated with his ball pressure.
He waits until the window of exposure is there until he commits to a poke or swipe:
The difference in physicality and risk-taking between DiVincenzo and Payton II is evident when you compare their foul rates. Payton II committed 3.8 fouls per 75 possessions last season, while DiVincenzo is currently committing them at a rate of 2.6 fouls per 75 possessions.
It’s also evident in the risk vs. reward aspect in terms of how many steals Payton II managed to garner last season: 2.9 per 75 possessions, which led the entire league. DiVincenzo only has 1.7 steals per 75 possessions in 39 games this season.
Still, DiVincenzo perfectly toes the line between high risk-taking and a conservative-but-sturdy approach to defense. He’s as adept off the ball as he is off it. His ball denial can keep opposing premier guards away from the meat of the action, all while having the floor awareness to see where his man and ball is at all times by keeping his head on a swivel.
As a result, his passing-lane deflections and swipes — much like his on-ball defense — are born out of calculated decisions rather than daredevil gambles:
While he may not have Payton II’s ability to seamlessly switch up the positional spectrum, DiVincenzo can survive in a pinch and make it difficult for larger wings and frontcourt players. They’ll score on him more often than not due to the size discrepancy, but he won’t make it easy.
On occasion, he’ll even force a miss:
While Payton II may have had a tremendous advantage over DiVincenzo as a defender (but more of a difference between an elite defender and an above-average one), the offensive side of things is a different story.
Payton II is far from being a ball handler, which didn’t stop him from finding ways to be valuable on offense. He set screens both on and off the ball. He made himself available as a dump-off target at the dunker spot. He used his athleticism on rolls and lobs. He was even somewhat of a spot-up threat on the corners (39.2%, albeit on only 1.1 attempts per game last season).
DiVincenzo, on the other hand, has been more of a league-average three-point shooter throughout his career (35.4%). He’s taking nearly five threes per game this season and is making them at a 39.1% success rate — three percentage points above league average.
Not only is he drilling shots from the corners (40.5%); he’s also making a ton of his above-the-break threes (39.3%). He has been making the most out of the space provided him by his teammates who grab the majority of the defensive attention, while also flashing occasional chops as a movement shooter himself:
Like Payton II, DiVincenzo has also been a willing screen setter, especially on guard-guard ball screens that either entice a mismatch or create an advantage by virtue of Curry’s evergreen pull-up threat.
DiVincenzo has shown that not only can he set fundamentally sound screens — he can also act as a short-roll release valve and decision maker to punish disadvantaged backline defenses:
Unlike Payton II, DiVincenzo is more than capable of handling the rock as a secondary ball handler and running things at the point. He can execute possessions as a pick-and-roll ball handler and has often made astute decisions out of that vantage point.
He has a handle that’s passable enough to keep possessions alive and allows him to touch the paint, creating advantages by collapsing the defense and forcing help away from other parts of the floor:
Being more featured within this unique Warriors offense — both as a connector and as an initiator who allows the likes of Curry, Jordan Poole, and Klay Thompson to create chaos off the ball — has resulted in DiVincenzo posting career-high marks in assists per 75 possessions (4.6) and assist rate (17.6%).
DiVincenzo hasn’t been perfect. Perhaps the most glaring weakness of his game has been his finishing. Only 18% of his shot attempts this season have come within four feet of the rim, 21st percentile among his positional peers; he’s only making his shots up close at a rate of 44% — 3rd percentile, per Cleaning the Glass.
In contrast, Payton II was more of a willing rim-shot taker (54% of his shot attempts, 99th percentile) and converted them at a higher rate (67%, 70th percentile) last season.
Despite that hole in DiVincenzo’s skill set, he has otherwise been a value pickup for the Warriors, who signed him to a two-year $9.2 million contract in the offseason, with the second year being a player option. If DiVincenzo continues to play at this level, chances are he’ll opt to decline his player option and seek bigger money elsewhere.
If the Warriors do decide to move on and decline to offer DiVincenzo a pay raise, that would be understandable given their luxury-tax situation and priorities in terms of who to sign first during this upcoming offseason (i.e., Draymond Green).
But the prospect of losing another high-level role player in DiVincenzo — much like their situation with Payton II — could be another bitter pill to swallow.