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How Jonathan Kuminga and Kevon Looney represent the Warriors’ current dichotomy

Kuminga’s dynamic athleticism was used by the Warriors to fight fire with fire.

Portland Trail Blazers v Golden State Warriors Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

The Golden State Warriors were facing a much younger team — more athletic, more physical, and much faster than they were.

Moreover, it was a team that had the tools to disrupt whatever they wanted to do on offense. Lengthy, quick, and highly switchable — a recipe for what was the eighth-best half-court defensive rating (94.2) in the league and the best team in terms of forcing opponents into high turnover rates (16.9%).

The Warriors’ offensive struggle was one thing. While the Portland Trail Blazers were far from world beaters on offense, their collective youth and bounce pushed the Warriors around. Paint touches were easily gotten because of their explosiveness at the point of attack. Once they got into the paint, the Warriors were either too slow to respond with their help defenders or were put in rotation — which created perimeter looks for the Blazers’ shooters.

Most defensive breakdowns start at the point of attack. If the front-line coverage isn’t sound, everything else collapses:

But while the defensive breakdowns were concerning, having a relatively healthy offensive arsenal — Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Andrew Wiggins were all available, with Draymond Green acting as the main distributor, per usual — and putting up an offensive rating of 96.0, a half-court offensive rating of 75.6, and a turnover rate of 20.0% (higher than the worst mark in the league by 2.5 percentage points) at halftime was just plain untenable.

The most obvious thing to point the finger at was the play of the Warriors’ starting wings. Thompson and Wiggins needed to play better — and playing better involved choosing the right shots to take and actually making them, which they haven’t been doing at the rate they’ve made them in the past.

But the one huge elephant in a room that is steadily running out of space to contain it has been Kevon Looney. Once dependable and reliable despite a clear lack of athleticism, speed, and vertical leap, it seems as if he’s been operating in a field of quicksand all season long.

Once deceptively competent as a defender in space — whether as a big in drop coverage or up to the level of the screen, or as a switch big who often has had more than a fighting chance in keeping even the shiftiest of perimeter operators in front of him — the decline in his lateral movement has lowered the Warriors’ ceiling of defensive versatility whenever Looney’s on the floor.

(The reason for that isn’t entirely clear. You can point to a two-season schedule that had him play every regular season and playoff game that may be taking its toll this season — but it’s clear that something along the way went wrongly for Looney.)

It has been forcing them to limit the coverages they use with him as the five. Anything more than drop coverage has been too much for Looney:

Offensively, Looney’s lack of explosion and speed has had negative effects on the Warriors’ half-court offense, especially in situations that make use of him as a roller. In the previous two seasons, he hovered around the mid-to-high 50s (56th percentile in 2021-22, 59th percentile in 2022-23) in terms of rim-finishing percentile.

So far this season, Looney has been in the 40th percentile in rim finishing, which has put a serious hamper on what the Warriors want to accomplish in the half court. The on/off numbers haven’t been kind to him, either: The Warriors have been outscored by nearly three points per 100 possessions in his 464 minutes prior to the Blazers game; with him on the bench (501 minutes), the Warriors have outscored opponents by three points per 100 possessions — a six-point swing.

The Warriors’ half-court offense with Looney on the floor (95.3) is equivalent to 22nd in the league. With him on the bench, that number rises to 99.3 — equivalent to 11th. Getting paired with Curry (379 minutes, nearly a net-neutral in terms of points per 100 possessions) hasn’t helped much either.

Which is why there should be serious consideration in not only relegating Looney to the bench instead of starting him — there is also the matter of whether he should see the floor in closing lineups, as well. The Warriors should already lean into going with Green at the five and employing a pace-and-space lineup with a high degree of switchability and overall versatility on defense; having Looney close lineups (especially this version) just doesn’t subscribe to what they can do best when push comes to shove.

Steve Kerr said as much after the game:

If Kerr is to move chess pieces around, Jonathan Kuminga deserves consideration as a semi-permanent piece — especially against teams such as the Blazers who have a dearth of athleticism and switchability.

Moreover, Kuminga serves as arguably the sole rim-pressure threat on a team that doesn’t generate a plethora of self-created looks at the rim to begin with. Against a team that switches everything, Kuminga getting matchups he can feast on near the rim can be a much-needed source of offense.

Even while attempting shots at the rim at a lower rate this season (35%, 64th percentile) compared to last year (47%, 87th percentile), he still converts them at a high rate — 73%, 84th percentile among forwards this season, per Cleaning The Glass.

When he gets to his spots near the rim — whether on a post-up against a favorable matchup (where he’s scoring 1.195 points per possession, per Synergy), on a rim run, or attacking into space off of a created advantage by a teammate — you can count on him to convert:

Kuminga has the added bonus of being a deadly transition weapon on a team that doesn’t find itself in transition that often (12.8% transition rate, 28th). He’s scoring an excellent 1.328 points per transition possession — a must on a team that wants to run and play fast, but find themselves limited by a variety of factors, such as age and lack of outlier speed across the board.

The exception being Kuminga:

Using his dynamic athleticism in multiple ways — as a point-of-attack defender, passing-lane menace, post-up scorer, rim runner, or transition freight train — provides the pathway for him to be utilized to the best of his abilities. But in the half court, he can often become a mere bystander: uninvolved most of the time, or involved in play types and situations where his talents are wasted.

But when actively used as a handoff partner (especially when defenders sag off of him):

Or as a cutter taking advantage of a tilted defense — such as on this possession against the Blazers, where a Green “keeper” on a staple Warriors half-court set called “Thumb Out” creates an advantage, one which Kuminga finishes with aplomb:

After the game, Kerr stated the reasons behind inserting Kuminga in the third quarter after having previously determined that he is the odd man out in a crowded rotation:

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