Welcome to the Morning Shootaround, where every weekday you’ll get a fresh, topical column from one of SI.com’s NBA writers: Howard Beck on Mondays, Chris Mannix on Tuesdays, Michael Pina on Wednesdays, Chris Herring on Thursdays and Rohan Nadkarni on Fridays.
There’s been a constant tension to the 2021 Warriors season. The Achilles injury to Klay Thompson muddied expectations, and nobody quite knew what Stephen Curry would look like in December after having barely played over the previous year. Curry quickly regained his MVP form, but that only led to more questions. Do the Warriors need to be all in on this year without Klay? How does Curry’s prime mesh with the development of No. 2 pick James Wiseman, who is under extra scrutiny after the success of fellow rookie LaMelo Ball? And what was Steve Kerr’s priority, after rubbing some people the wrong way early in the season after saying he wasn’t “chasing wins?”
One game doesn’t put the concerns in Golden State to rest, but the Dubs’ win over the Bulls on Monday did hint at what could help finally unlock this version of the Warriors: The pick-and-roll.
Kerr has been loath to rely on most teams’ pet action during his tenure in the Bay. He almost turns his nose up at the play when he could be running his motion offense instead. This year, that proved to be a massive challenge, as too many times Curry was running around off-ball as his scoring-challenged teammates tried to pick up the slack. Wiseman especially looked lost, and lineups with him at the beginning of the season were losing thoroughly.
The Warriors have leaned on that action in the past, but typically only in high-leverage moments in the postseason. The Curry-Draymond Green pick-and-roll basically ended the Chris Paul-James Harden partnership in Houston, and for years teams were stymied trying to slow down that duo.
Curry has always been an accomplished pick-and-roll player. This season, among players who’ve appeared in 20 games and run at least four pick and rolls a night, Curry was second only to Kawhi Leonard in points per possession at 1.13 entering Thursday. (That’s the equivalent of a 113 offensive rating. Golden State is currently 22nd in the league with a 109.0 offensive efficiency.)
Currently, Curry runs-pick-and rolls on only 28.2% of his possessions, hilariously lower than his contemporaries. Trae Young runs pick and rolls 54.8% of the time he’s on the floor. Ja Morant is at 51.6%. Damian Lillard at 48.8%. What those players have in common with Curry, aside from being point guards, is that none of them are as efficient as Steph in scoring out of pick-and-rolls.
Against Chicago, Golden State finally went in the other direction. Curry didn’t turn into Rockets-era Harden overnight, but per Synergy, the Warriors ran pick-and-rolls on 40.3% of their possessions Monday, compared to 18.6% over the whole season. And it helped—their offensive rating for the game was a robust 117.2.
It makes sense why that play could be so helpful for the current iteration of the Dubs. Curry is still a behemoth in that action because of his ability to shoot from anywhere on the floor, and involving the 7’1” Wiseman makes it nearly impossible for teams to switch. Wiseman also has potential as both a roll and a pop man. His athleticism allows him to catch lobs at the rim, while the buttery touch on his jumper means he could become a legitimate three-point threat.
Putting the ball in Curry’s hands seems simple, and frankly, it is. It alleviates pressure on Andrew Wiggins and Kelly Oubre to be fulcrums in a motion-based offense, and it should become even more effective when Thompson is returns to the floor.
If anything, the Warriors’ finally finding a harmony with the pick-and-roll isn’t the death of a beautiful offense—but it would signal an end to the search for a new Death Lineup. Golden State has mostly played small this year (with Green at center) out of necessity due to injuries. For years I thought the Warriors would try to recreate that special sauce as long as Steph, Klay, and Dray were on the roster. But if high screens are the best way to use Wiseman, who stands to be an important piece of the franchise’s future, then it may be finally time for Kerr to fall in love with a style of play he’s always kept at an arm’s distance.
Kerr said the right things after the win against Chicago: “We want to continue to run plenty of pick and rolls. A big part of it is [Wiseman] is really starting to get comfortable with the timing...That’s the growth that we’ve been looking for. I’m really excited about his play in the pick-and-roll.”
In a loss against Miami on Thursday, the growing pains of switching such a core component of the offensive makeup were apparent. Curry and Wiseman took zero of their combined 24 shot attempts from their pick-and-roll partnership, thanks in large part to the Heat’s aggressive, switchy defense.
Ultimately, whether or not Kerr’s commitment to the Curry-Wiseman two-man game holds could end up playing a sneaky big role in the future of the Warriors.