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How the Raptors “Flexed” their muscle over the Andrew Wiggins-Jonathan Kuminga starting lineup

It’s a pairing that hasn’t worked all season — and it didn’t work against the Raptors.

NBA: Toronto Raptors at Golden State Warriors John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports

As with most things concerning basketball analysis, I’m going to start with presenting a couple of numbers to set up the context for this article.

The first number I’m going to bring up: 59.

Which is the plus-minus figure — on the minus side, mind you — that the Warriors have had in the 137 minutes that Andrew Wiggins and Jonathan Kuminga have been on the floor together, prior to their game against the Toronto Raptors. On a per-100-possession basis, the Golden State Warriors are getting outscored by 17.7 points per 100 possessions with the two of them together.

That net rating virtually makes the Warriors the worst team in the league with that pairing — worse by 6.5 points per 100 possessions compared to the worst net-rating in the league, which belongs to the San Antonio Spurs (minus-11.5).

Which is why I raised my eyebrow when Steve Kerr announced that the starting lineup against the Warriors was going to be Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Wiggins, Kuminga, and Trayce Jackson-Davis. On paper, the pros of this lineup made it too good not to play it: it wasn’t a small lineup; it had the wing complement to provide an element of defensive versatility (i.e., you could switch a ton with this crew); and it had a five-man who was more of a stable defender in the pick-and-roll, could protect the rim, and was also a rim-gravity threat on the other end.

But some things on paper look better written than they are when actually realized; this happens to be one of them. Even with Curry and Thompson being on the floor as the advantage generators and two-to-the-ball situation creators, the fact that the Warriors were counting on one of the other three to do something about 4-on-3 or 3-on-2 advantages was already a lost cause.

This is where the value of having that extra ballhandler and decision maker on the floor was sorely missed. A Curry-Chris Paul backcourt was much maligned, for good defensive reasons. But it allows Curry to have that extra playmaker on the floor who could relieve pressure off of him, allow him to do his thing off the ball, and was a more risk-averse, less-turnover-prone option.

This is also where not having Draymond Green was readily apparent. His synergy and chemistry with Curry are legendary. Unlike Paul, Green’s ability to grab and go, push the pace, and find holes in opponents’ defenses by taking advantage of transition chaos works brilliantly with Curry’s skill set.

But perhaps more important than his value on offense when paired with Curry: his ability to organize, communicate, and command on defense. These are traits that are, unfortunately, ignored by a non-insignificant number of people in the basketball hivemind.

As if the problems on offense when Wiggins and Kuminga are on the floor together aren’t enough — the theoretical fit on defense just hasn’t materialized this season. And that’s due to the aforementioned traits above that haven’t been there for most of the season.

It especially wasn’t there between the two of them on this possession below:

The Raptors run “Horns Flex” — “Horns” being the alignment they start out with: two players on both elbows, and two players occupying both corners. “Flex” refers to what Immanuel Quickley does after giving up the ball, which is setting a “Flex” screen for Pascal Siakam to cut into the paint.

With Wiggins guarding Quickley and Kuminga guarding Siakam, this involves both of them in the action. Logic dictates that this was supposed to be a switch on the screen — a like-like exchange of assignments. Instead, it’s only Wiggins who switches — he takes Siakam, but Kuminga stays on Siakam and fails to switch onto Quickley, who quickly darts toward the three-point line after setting the screen.

As a result, the Warriors give up an open look to a player shooting 40.1% on threes this season.

The possessions above spelled out exactly why this pairing — despite theory saying that it *should* take names on the defensive end — is instead bleeding points. The lack of communication. The lack of effort and sense of urgency. The absence of awareness when it comes to which coverage should be played and what set the other team is running. All of those are traits no amount of athleticism and length can make up for.

Compare the “Horns Flex” above to when the Warriors ran it themselves to begin the third quarter — and how the Raptors were able to defend it:

Unlike when the Warriors defended this action, the Raptors manage to nullify the “Flex” screen that Curry sets for Thompson. They still manage to get an empty corner possession that leads to two free throws for Kevon Looney — but the Raptors will take it.

Later on, Kuminga sees time on the floor without Wiggins. He finds himself having to defend another “Horns Flex” possession from the Raptors:

Not wanting 6-foot-2 Cory Joseph to switch onto Siakam, Kuminga fights over the “Flex” screen and manages to stay in front of Siakam. But what gets him here is the attempt to intercept the entry pass, which gets him in an awkward position. Siakam takes advantage by scoring over Kuminga.

Beyond the defensive miscues, the Wiggins-Kuminga pairing doesn’t provide enough of juice offensively for it to be viable. The spacing problems are one thing — Wiggins is shooting 29.7% on 3.2 attempts from beyond the arc; Kuminga is at 27.3% on 2.5 attempts — the other half of that messy equation is the fact that none of them have the ballhandling chops, the self-creation flashes, or the decision-making capabilities to slot them into roles that aren’t pure play finishers.

That has been apparent with even only one of them on the court at a time; it’s even more blatantly appalling with both of them in during a half-court possession:

When both of them occupy the same side of the floor, it makes it too easy for the defense to... well, defend. They can pay attention to more threatening offensive players such as Thompson, sag off of Kuminga parking himself behind the three-point line, and be fine with Wiggins not taking advantage of the matchup he gets, such as the one he got against Quickley above.

To add insult to injury, they don’t run back in transition after the Kuminga miss and end up giving an easy fastbreak bucket to Siakam — two of 24 fastbreak points the Warriors coughed up tonight. They allowed the Raptors to score 180 points per 100 transition plays — 95th percentile, and equivalent to the worst transition defense in the league by a country mile, per Cleaning The Glass.

The effort to get back wasn’t there. but more importantly, the offense didn’t do them any favors. Not forcing the Raptors to get the ball out of the basket creates fastbreak situation after fastbreak situation — and it allowed the Raptors to run the break, pick apart cross-matches, and virtually run the Warriors out of their own floor.

The offense wasn’t there in the first half and the late stages of the third quarter because of the Wiggins and Kuminga pairing — now a minus-73 after this game.

“We’ve talked about trying to get them together,” Kerr said of the Wiggins-Kuminga pairing. “Theoretically, our two longest and most athletic players. We have not been a good defensive team this year, so we wanted to try it. It hasn’t connected, really. It hasn’t been good all season, but we’re experimenting. (Gary Payton II) out, (Draymond Green) out, we’re trying to find a two-way lineup that can help us. But obviously, that lineup didn’t click.”

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