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6 storylines that will define the home stretch

Will the Warriors sink or swim in the final weeks of the season?

Gary Payton II holding Steph Curry’s head and whispering something in his ear Paul Rutherford-USA TODAY Sports

The Golden State Warriors are back in the lab, getting ready to resume the unofficial second half of the season. It always feels weird to call it that ... the Dubs played 58 games before the All-Star break, and they have just 24 remaining. That’s a lot less than half.

But while the All-Star break may not cut the season in half, it does serve as the perfect intermission between acts. With the exception of Draymond Green, who spent the days off in Salt Lake City working for TNT, all of the Warriors got to take a week off.

And now they’re back at practice, preparing for Sunday’s showdown with the Los Angeles Lakers — a team they beat on opening night, but lost to just 10 days ago.

The Warriors are in a funny spot. At an even 29-29, they’re sitting in ninth place in the Western Conference, in the dreaded bottom half of the play-in. They’re only one game ahead of the the 11th seed, which misses the playoffs entirely. But they’re also only one game out of the sixth seed, which bypasses the play-in entirely. And they’re only two-and-a-half games out of the fourth seed, which has home court advantage. Their range of reasonable outcomes stretches from repeating as the third seed to missing the play-in tournament entirely.

A lot of factors will impact where they land on that spectrum. Here are six of the biggest ones.

Steph Curry’s health

This list isn’t in any particular order, but it is safe to say that Curry’s health is the single biggest factor in what happens for the final 24 games. The Dubs’ record this year hasn’t changed too much with Curry out — they’re 9-11 when he sits, and 20-18 when he plays — but make no mistake. He’s as vital to his team’s success as any player in the NBA.

He’s also injured, and we’re not sure for how long. The team’s latest update simply said he’d be re-evaluated after the All-Star break, but that doesn’t tell us much at all. Will he be back next week? Next month? Next season?

A reminder that the Warriors won a championship four of the last five times that Curry, Green, and Klay Thompson ended a season healthy, and came damn close the fifth time. You can’t count this team out if Curry’s healthy. But you can if he isn’t.

Gary Payton II’s health

Curry isn’t the only guard whose health will play a huge role in the remaining two months. Golden State made only one upgrade at the trade deadline, shipping off the ultra-talented but equally raw James Wiseman in exchange for Payton ... only to find out that GPII was injured.

He’ll be re-evaluated in mid-March, and Bob Myers said the team hopes Payton will be back before the season ends on April 9. But at this point, GPII’s health is a gigantic question mark.

The biggest difference between the Warriors team that won a title last year and this year’s team is the defense. Last year the Dubs ranked second in the NBA in defense, and fourth in road defense, per Cleaning the Glass. This year they’re 16th and 28th, respectively. Payton is not only one of the premier perimeter defenders in the association, but he’s defensively versatile enough to allow Steve Kerr to use more creative defensive schemes. Remember when Kerr put Payton on Kevin Durant? And Nikola Jokić?

It seems unlikely that Payton will have a chance to make much of an impact during the rest of the regular season, but it’s not yet off the table.

The final roster spot

The Warriors still have an open roster spot, and Myers has spoken openly that many options are on the table. They could look to the buyout market, or even target a veteran who hasn’t played this year, like LaMarcus Aldridge, Carmelo Anthony, or Hassan Whiteside.

Or they might convert one of their two-way contracts, Anthony Lamb and Ty Jerome. Lamb and Jerome have both played well enough to deserve a roster spot, though there’s only room for one ... at most. Right now it’s unclear who the Warriors would prefer, and it might depend on what the rest of the roster does. A healthy Curry limits the opportunities for Jerome. If Moses Moody earns playing time, or Andre Iguodala returns, that lessens the role for Lamb. The Dubs may take it down to the wire before making a decision.

Right now Jerome has 11 more games that he can play, and Lamb has seven.

Western Conference improvements

The 2023 trade deadline was one for the record books. There were too many trades to keep track of, with only two teams staying out of the action.

The West got a lot better ... but a lot more volatile. On paper, the Phoenix Suns (Kevin Durant), Dallas Mavericks (Kyrie Irving), and Los Angeles Clippers (Russell Westbrook) — three teams just ahead of the Warriors in the standings — got better. But all of those moves could backfire. The Suns gave up depth and one of the best defenders in the league for Durant, who is injured. The Mavericks are banking on a player who cannot be banked on. And the Clippers added a former MVP who is having an under-the-radar season but who has a habit for combusting teams.

The Lakers, who are currently outside of the play-in tournament, also got substantially better by adding D’Angelo Russell, Malik Beasley, Rui Hachimura, and Jarred Vanderbilt, while the Memphis Grizzlies — the No. 2 seed — added one of the best shooters in the league in Luke Kennard.

How well those teams play — or don’t play — will factor into the Warriors success down the stretch.

Strength of schedule

According to Tankathon, the Warriors are in the middle of the pack in terms of their remaining schedule: it’s 16th-hardest. The good news for the Dubs is that the Clippers have the second-hardest schedule remaining, the Sacramento Kings have the fourth-hardest, and the Suns have the sixth-hardest.

Can the Warriors capitalize on not having an awful schedule in front of them? They’ll have to get to work immediately ... following Thursday’s visit to the Lakers’ cryptocurrency-themed arena, the Dubs will have five straight home games.

Bouncebacks for Poole and Wiggins

Two of the feel-good stories for the Warriors last year were the breakout campaigns for Andrew Wiggins and Jordan Poole. Both players have been solid contributors this season, but they’ve also regressed from last year.

Statistically, Wiggins is having a virtually identical season, but his defense is clearly not what it was a year ago, and it’s felt like his offense is not coming as naturally in the system, either. Poole has seen an efficiency drop-off, as his true-shooting percentage has fallen from an excellent 59.8% a year ago, to a mildly below league average 57.4% this year. He’s flashed excellence at times, but also cost the Warriors winnable games with poor decisions during clutch time.

If those players can return to their 2021-22 levels, the Dubs will be in much better shape.

These are the six biggest storylines for the final 24 games, but there are no shortage of others. Can Klay Thompson keep playing like this? Can Draymond Green avoid another tech? Will Steve Kerr solidify the rotations? Will Andre Iguodala return? Does Jonathan Kuminga have another gear?

We’re about to find out what the Warriors are made of.

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