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Wing Stop: How the Warriors’ wing room stepped up against the Thunder

On how the Warriors’ corps of length and versatility helped the Thunder away.

NBA: Golden State Warriors at Oklahoma City Thunder Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

Wings are a valued commodity in the NBA because of the versatility they present on both ends of the floor. Pesky defense by players within the 6’5”-6’8” profile, wingspans that can stretch for miles, and varied offensive skill sets that don’t make them a negative on the other end of the floor — many games have been won with that unique blend of two-way versatility.

The Golden State Warriors have one wing who falls short of what traditionally constitutes as wing height. At 6’3”, Gary Payton II is a pesky wing in a guard’s body. He sometimes moonlights as a big because of his ability to set screens, roll to the rim, and finish up close:

But while Payton’s height places a proverbial ceiling on his versatility as a switch-everything piece, take a look instead at what his wingspan is — 6’8”.

Being a plus-5 in terms of wingspan (that is, his wingspan is five inches longer than his height) is a massive boon for his ability to make life a living hell for ball handlers at the point of attack. Off the ball, passing to an area where he lurks nearby is ripe for Payton to jump the passing lane and intercept the pass.

Late against the Warriors’ thrilling 141-139 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder — their first win of the In-Season Tournament — Payton flashed the skills on defense that once garnered him the distinction of one of the league’s premier perimeter stoppers.

A recap of what Payton did above:

  • He ran the floor and deflected a Josh Giddey pass to the corner, preventing what could have been a transition bucket and allowing the Warriors to reset their defense.
  • As he tries to switch onto Luguentz Dort without the seeing the ball, he instinctively turns around and deflects the pass intended for Chet Holmgren in the corner.
  • He switches onto Giddey, sits on Giddey’s spin, and gets his hands on the ball to force a jump ball — which he went on to win.

In a nutshell of a possession, Payton displayed exactly why a healthy version of himself is a valuable cog in the Warriors’ defensive machinery — arguably its second most important behind Draymond Green.

Payton is a defensive playmaker of the highest level, but Green is the ultimate defensive organizer and floor general. When the two are on the floor, offenses will almost always be made to work hard to score a bucket.

The difficulty level ramps up for opponents simply because of Green’s prescience — seeing things before they happen. When the Thunder intend to hunt Steph Curry on a half-court possession, Green immediately diagnoses the situation, sniffs out the Thunder’s intentions, and executes the proper countermeasures:

The Payton stop and forced turnover on Jalen Williams is the cherry on top, but what makes this possible in the first place is Green preventing the Thunder from hunting Curry by “pre-switching” Curry off of Cason Wallace. This results in Green being involved in the ball-screen action instead of Curry.

Once Williams sees that Green will be the one involved instead of Curry, he waves off the screen and chooses to isolate against Payton instead — a matchup the Warriors will take any day.

The Green and Payton connection was also present during a crucial offensive stretch. Although he’s been shooting the three at an above-league-average rate on a small sample size this season, defenses have often elected to ignore Payton on the perimeter. The lack of perceived spacing threat means that Payton either has to take those open shots — something defenses will have no problem doing no matter the result — or he has to be in a spot that takes advantage of his other skills and allows him to feast on the attention that Curry garners.

Curry makes two non-spacers work because of the threat of his shooting, but a middleman is necessary for the ball to find its way to the Warriors’ play finishers off of created advantages. Green has played that role for the nearly a decade — and he hasn’t lost a step in that regard.

When Green “keeps” the ball instead of handing it off to Curry, the Thunder defense suddenly find themselves with a backline numbers disadvantage — with Payton parked in the dunker spot instead of spacing out:

Even at a generous 6’6” with a 7’1” wingspan, Green profiles more as a four who occasionally moonlights as a five, instead of being considered a bona fide wing. But his ability to switch across the positional spectrum gives him the chops to defend like a versatile wing.

The Warriors are fond of switching everything with a smaller lineup — that is, whenever Green is slotted in at the five. With Kevon Looney and Dario Šarić having trouble against a fast Thunder team with a legitimate stretch center in Holmgren, Kerr was compelled to close the game with Green sliding up a position.

This meant every screen was to be switched in an effort to keep things in front, to prevent dribble penetration as much as possible, and to bleed the shot clock long enough for the Thunder to resort to a stagnant, less-than-ideal shot attempt in terms of success rate and efficiency.

Thompson — a 6’6” wing with a 6’9” wingspan — is another important cog in the switching machine. He switches onto Holmgren after Green cuts off Wallace, stays in front, and forces another reset.

Thompson then switches onto Giddey and forces the tough late-clock shot — and goes on to drill the three on the other end:

When Green gets switched onto the smaller Wallace later on, he tracks the drive using a blend of lateral movement, length, and anticipation — tools he has used throughout his tenure as arguably the league’s best defender:

It wasn’t just Payton, Green, and Thompson who positively contributed — the entire wing room had their own moments against the Thunder.

Jonathan Kuminga bucked a mediocre first half to finish the game with 19 points on 9-of-15 shooting. He was part of the Chris-Paul-led bench crew that kept the Warriors within striking distance and cut what was once a seven-point Thunder lead to a tied game at the end of the third quarter.

(That lineup — Paul, Moses Moody, Payton, Kuminga, and Šarić — outscored the Thunder by six points in 10 minutes.)

After Moody used every bit of his 7’1” wingspan to douse the flames of a red-hot Dort, Kuminga and Paul paired up for some transition ball-screen action. The Thunder try to switch the screen, but Isaiah Joe finds himself on the wrong end of the switch onto Kuminga, which gives him the lane to roll toward the rim, with Paul finding him with a nifty pocket pass:

Kuminga’s defense was also of note, despite some booboos and mistakes (which included a failed switch onto Dort on a sideline out-of-bounds set that led to free throws). This seal on Vasilije Micić as a result of running the floor in transition, followed by a successful stop against Williams, is the quintessential Kuminga two-way-wing experience: 6’8” height, 6’11” wingspan, and the athleticism and physicality to go along with it:

Moody hit both of his threes during the bench-unit run, both of which reclaimed the lead for the Warriors and maintained pressure on the Thunder to respond:

Last, but certainly not the least, was Andrew Wiggins, whose 17-point performance on 6-of-11 shooting is what most will point to when it comes to the box score. But it’s his four offensive rebounds that are more of note.

Wiggins hasn’t had the best start to the season. He’s averaging only 12.3 points on a 45/15/64 shooting split. His scoring efficiency has dipped: 50.2% True Shooting.

More notably, he hasn’t been rebounding the ball. His total rebounding rate of 4.4% is on track to be a career low, as well as his offensive rebounding rate (2.5%) and defensive rebounding rate (6.2%).

Wiggins grabbed *only* five rebounds against the Thunder, but it was a step in the right direction in terms of effort on the boards:

But for the Warriors to truly return to who they were two seasons ago, they’ll need more than just a spurt of improved effort from Wiggins — they’ll need the version who was arguably the second-best player on a championship team.

Until that version resurfaces, the Warriors’ wing room will collectively continue to step up to carry the load.

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