This is simultaneously an urgent moment in the Stephen Curry Era and a pretty compelling period in Jonathan Kuminga’s career, combining to lead into quite a dramatic 2023-24 season for all Warriors’ hopes and plans.
On one side, Steve Kerr and the rest of the team’s decision-makers know exactly what they’re getting from Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson at least for a little while longer. They know how important it is to push forward with that championship group and how different it’ll be when that run is over for good.
On the other side, the Warriors’ leaders understand that Kuminga represents their best chance for a breakthrough upgrade next season — and how necessary it is if they want a fifth title in this era. But they don’t know if that’s actually going to happen.
So as the Warriors work through their second-round loss to the Lakers and wait for Bob Myers to decide whether he’s leaving the franchise, and while the remaining principals sift through the draft and offseason question marks (including Draymond’s own contractual situation), it’s hard to stop thinking about Kuminga’s future and the Warriors’ future with him.
Kuminga, 20, had some good moments in his second NBA season when he flashed the brawn, athleticism and unique skills that might’ve played well against the Lakers. But Kuminga’s erratic play early in the playoffs and his overall inexperience convinced Kerr to keep Kuminga out of the rotation in the late stages of the victory over the Kings in the first round and all the way through the Lakers series.
It got complicated. It’s still complicated. So … how does this set Kuminga up for next season?
“I think JK had a really good year,” Kerr said on my podcast Friday. “You look at the regular season and he had a lot of good moments. The last 30 games or so with (Andrew) Wiggins out, it really thrust JK into a more prominent role. And he took advantage of that. He played well, helped us win some games.
“I think the main thing that happened in the playoffs was that Wigs was back and we had Gary Payton and those guys basically were filling the role that JK had been filling while they were gone. And there’s just more experience and more, I think, intuitive knowledge of the NBA and awareness from those guys, as you would expect; they’re much older and they’ve got a lot more experience.
“So I just went with the guys who I thought could impact winning more. It doesn’t mean that we stopped believing in JK by any means. It just means that those were the guys we thought would help us win.”
Wiggins is the starting small forward who gets shifted to power forward at times when the Warriors go small. GP2 is a 6-foot-2 wing who can play big. So if the 6-7 Kuminga lost his roles to Wiggins and Payton, that means the Warriors think of him as a small forward, right?
“No, no, no, I don’t think of him as a three,” Kerr said. “He’s a four. For him to take the next step, he needs to be able to play the three as an offensive player. He can play the three defensively; he can guard, really, one through four. But offensively, to play the three you’ve got to be really skilled in this league today, you’ve gotta see the floor, you’ve gotta be able to make plays. And right now, I think he’s much more of a four than he is a three on the offensive end.”
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It’s clear that the Warriors need an offensive “changeup,” as Curry described it immediately after losing Game 6. You can extrapolate that to mean somebody who can get into the lane and make contested shots or just finish rim runs when Curry and other shooters are swarmed at the 3-point line. Kerr concurred a few days later.
What’s their best chance at that? I believe it’s Kuminga. The Warriors hoped it’d be James Wiseman, but he just never got up to speed and was never going to work effectively with Curry, which is why Wiseman was traded last February. But as the Warriors look to next season, how about the idea of Kuminga coming off the bench to play alongside Wiggins, Curry and Klay or as a second-unit finisher teamed with Poole?
This is an interesting wrinkle in Kuminga’s career path with the Warriors. He’s been playing mostly small forward in his first two seasons and certainly has been mostly guarding perimeter players. But with Wiggins, GP2 and Moses Moody all set to play small-forward minutes and Klay getting time as a forward, the available rotation spot seems to be as Draymond’s backup at power forward.
Kerr went with Anthony Lamb in that role during the regular season, but he was out of the playoff rotation. Could Kuminga take over there next season and accrue enough experience to make him a permanent part of the rotation, even in the postseason?
“The minutes are there for him to take at the backup four next year,” Kerr said. “He’s gotta make strides, and he and I talked about it. The No. 1 thing is he’s gotta rebound. If he rebounds and he runs the floor, there’s going to be a lot of opportunity for him.
“We’ve got a pretty deep team; with Wigs and Gary back, we frequently play those guys at the four. You think of our small lineup, we put Wigs at the four, put Draymond at the five. You know, against the Lakers, to counter the way they were deploying (Anthony) Davis, we put Gary in because Gary’s great as a diver, as a screen-and-dive man, finisher at the rim. And JK needs to work on that as well. These are things that are really detail-oriented. There are things about the way you screen and dive and catch and finish in the lane, in traffic that just take time. That’s why both Gary and Wigs were playing the four in the playoffs ahead of Jonathan.
“But he’s entering his third year next year, he’s 20 years old, got a great future ahead. He’s just gotta keep on the same path he’s on. But he’s gotta make those strides, like I said, on the glass and running the floor, diving in pick-and-roll. If he does those things, he’s going to play more, and that’s how you continue to grow and build your game.”
Kerr didn’t seem bothered by the report from The Athletic’s Anthony Slater and Shams Charania that Kuminga’s representatives want a discussion this offseason about Kuminga getting a clear role in the rotation next season or they might want Kuminga to be moved somewhere he can play.
I asked Kerr: Have you heard about this?
“That’s standard in the NBA,” Kerr said.
The Warriors’ model for this is Moody, who was taken in the same draft as Kuminga, seven picks later, and also is only 20, but carved out a playoff rotation spot by impressing Kerr and the coaching staff in the weeks leading up to the playoffs and then played well in the Lakers series.
Listen to what Kerr says about how Moody made this happen and you get a clear idea of what Kerr wants to see from Kuminga.
“Development is not linear,” Kerr said. “Every young player has to go through the process of understanding the NBA and figuring out who he is and where he can make an impact. I think in Moses’ case, he had some good moments for us last year, even in the playoffs against Dallas. I remember him having a couple good games. He’s always been somebody we’ve been impressed with in terms of his maturity and his perspective. So this year, to be very frank, he was not really confident during the middle part of the season, couldn’t find a rhythm. Part of that was he was in and out of the rotation. As I said, we were searching for combinations, trying to play a lot of people.
“The biggest thing is we saw a breakthrough with Moses later on in the season. You have to understand that we look at practice every single day. Development isn’t just about what happens in the games, it’s about what happens in practice every single day. And Moses had a real breakthrough late in the season in the pickup games that our guys play and in 3-on-3 and the individual work. You could see he realized a lot of things — how to use his strength, he realized how hard he had to play, how hard he had to go after loose balls, rebounds. That translates.
“And fast-forward to the playoffs and all of a sudden he’s back in the rotation, diving on the floor for loose balls, getting offensive rebounds, knocking down shots. So I think Moses had a breakthrough at the end of the year, and that’s what you look for — you look for someone who’s got perseverance and stays with it and keeps working and eventually breaks through. But you just don’t know how long that process is going to take.”
Overall, as Kerr, Curry and others mentioned after they were eliminated, this was a bizarre season for the Warriors. They never got on steady footing until perhaps the final week or so and then maybe Games 5 and 7 against Sacramento. Then they just weren’t good enough to beat the Lakers. It just never felt like a title defense, really, certainly not the way the Warriors defended their 2015, 2017 and 2018 championships.
Of course, Curry, Klay and Draymond are significantly older than they were back before the pandemic. The Warriors weren’t as deep this season as in previous years. They all probably needed more recovery time from the long haul through the 2022 postseason, then had to go to Japan for two preseason games. Then Draymond punched Jordan Poole in a camp practice when they got home. So the team started the season off balance and cut down on practice time to try to patch up the emotional rifts.
“I think there’s always sort of a little bit of a natural tendency for championship teams to let their guard down a little bit,” Kerr said. “It’s just human nature. And then I think the way our season started, not having a great training camp based on two things, the trip to Tokyo and then the incident with Draymond. I think those two things took away a lot of our preparation time and probably led to the slow start, 3-7 out of the gates, which put us behind the eight-ball. I think we lost our first six road games in that 3-7 start and it felt like we were kind of climbing uphill from then on.
“I think that edge that I talked about, a lot of that was taken away by what happened early in the season.”
The Warriors still fought their way into the playoffs, though. And still had enough to beat the Kings on the road in Game 7. It wasn’t exactly the same as finishing off a mostly mediocre 2020-21 season by going 15-5 down the stretch, which gave them momentum for the title run the next season. But was there something positive Kerr could take from this season that can kickstart 2023-24?
“Oh yeah,” Kerr said, “I mean, defensively, I guess we played what, 13 playoff games, we were one of the best defensive teams in the playoffs when you factor in the quality of your opponent and the offensive rating that you keep your opponent to compared to their normal average. I think we were second in the playoffs when our series with the Lakers ended. I thought our defense was great; clearly getting Gary back and Wigs back changed everything. And that’s what it takes. You have to be a two-way team to win a championship. We all know that. We’ve watched it with our team for years.
“I just thought defensively, that was our biggest issue most of the season. And the way we finished, winning (five of) our last six games, beating Sacramento, taking the Lakers to six — our defense was there. That’s what I’m most encouraged about going into next season. I think we’ve got a lot of things to clean up offensively. I’m really encouraged by the defense.”
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Here are some other highlights from our conversation …
• Kerr said he doesn’t know what Myers will decide to do and said it’s logical for Myers to not rush into anything.
“I just think Bob is taking the necessary time,” Kerr said. “And I know people might think well he’s had plenty of time. You really do need to wait until the season finishes in this business so that you can really breathe and think things through. So I think that’s the process Bob is going through right now.
“I don’t have a good sense one way or the other. I do know how hard he’s worked for the last 12 years and I know how difficult his job is. I did his job in Phoenix for three years and being a GM is really, really tough. But Bob’s great at it. And he has the respect of everybody in the organization. Everybody’s hoping he comes back, but whatever he decides we of course are all going to support him because he’ll do what’s best for his family and for himself and of course he should do that.”
• If and when Myers leaves, it’s widely assumed that the top candidate to move into that spot is current vice president for basketball operations Mike Dunleavy Jr., who was drafted by the Warriors in 2002, played here for the first four-plus seasons of a 15-season NBA career and joined Myers in the Warriors’ front office in 2019.
“He and Bob are best friends, and I think just through Bob I’ve gotten to know Mike well, to the point now where Mike and I talk pretty frequently just calling each other, touching base on the team,” Kerr said. “You know, I like to get his thoughts. He had a long playing career, he’s been in the NBA his entire life, basically, with his dad being a coach and general manager and player. So Mike’s got a great feel for the league, great perspective, and he’s someone I really trust.”
• Kerr was adamant through the just-finished season that it wasn’t a Warriors version of the Bulls’ famous “Last Dance” in 1997-98, which, of course, included Kerr as a player and ended with the entire dynasty being broken up. But with Myers possibly gone or maybe back only in the short-term, Klay only having one year left on his contract, Draymond possibly returning only for the short-term and Kerr himself only with one year left on his deal, could 2023-24 have “Last Dance” overtones?
“Yeah, yeah,” Kerr said. “I wouldn’t proclaim that right now, but look, we know how professional sports work, we know how age works. This team is, I think, still capable of competing for a championship. It’s not going to be capable for that much longer. We just don’t know exactly what that means. It’s impossible to predict. But based on the way our core guys played this year, you can see they’ve all got a lot left to offer. Now it’s up to us to figure out what that means this summer organizationally. Whether it includes Bob or not, and hopefully it does, we have to all connect and figure out the best way forward. What do we want to do and how are we going to execute?”
• Klay had several tremendous months during the regular season. He led the league in made 3-pointers (a career-high 301). But Klay shot just 34.3 percent overall in the Lakers series and just 38.8 in the playoffs, the worst postseason number of his career. I asked Kerr: Does Klay, at 33 and after the two major leg injuries from a few years ago, have to adjust his game going into his mid-30s?
“He and I had this conversation at the All-Star break,” Kerr said. “(Assistant coach) Bruce Fraser has talked to him about it. Older players, you get to a certain age, maybe you’re banged up, maybe you’ve had some injuries — you have to adapt. You think of any great player as he gets older — you know, Michael Jordan added a low-post game. He no longer was the same guy as he was five, six years prior to that. Magic Johnson became a really good shooter by the end of his career, 90 percent from the line, a good 3-point shooter.
“You have to be aware as an older player that you’ve gotta evolve. I think that’s a big thing for Klay this summer is really thinking about where he can evolve, how he can get better, without giving up the memory of what was a fantastic second half of the year. It’s easy to say, ‘Well, his last three playoff games, oh man, he shot this or that.’ He made 300 3s. He shot 41 percent from the 3-point line. He had a helluva season. But he can get better in other areas. And that will be the basis of my conversations with Klay this summer when it’s time to get back to work. I’m going to really talk to him about some of the things I think he can do to help evolve.”
But Kerr shook his head immediately when I asked if he’d consider removing Klay as a starter next season: “No, no, I don’t see that. He’s still a great two-way player. He’s got so much left to offer. As I said, he just had a particularly great second half of the season. He’s still a starter in this league, for sure.”
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• Kerr on how Curry’s epic speech to the team (with no staffers present) before Game 7 in the Kings series came about: “Steph texted me the day before or the night before that practice. I guess it was maybe right after Game 6 or maybe it was the morning of our practice. He just said, ‘Hey, I’d like to grab the team for five minutes before practice with nobody else.’ I said, ‘Great.’ So I knew he was going to address them. I didn’t ask what was talked about and then the story came out afterwards. Obviously had a huge impact on the outcome of Game 7.”
How unique was it for Curry to feel the need to address the team before such a big game?
“It was unique, very unique,” Kerr said. “As I said, this season has been unique because of everything that occurred early in the season, because we never really found our groove until the very end of the season. Things were definitely disjointed at times and so Steph knew he had to say something. He’s never had to before, frankly, maybe one other time in my memory, but not really an issue in the past.”
• Kerr just finished his ninth season with the Warriors. In current longevity with one NBA team, Kerr (hired in May 2014) is now behind only San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich (hired in December 1996, just finished his 26th full season coaching the Spurs) and Miami’s Erik Spoelstra (hired in April 2008, coaching in the playoffs to finish his 15th season coaching the Heat).
“I count my blessings all the time, I know how lucky I am to coach Steph Curry,” Kerr said. “For the most part, when you see coaches who stick around for a long time, it’s mainly because they coached a superstar, transcendent player. Jerry Sloan coached the Jazz for 20-plus years — (John) Stockton and (Karl) Malone. Pop in San Antonio — (Tim) Duncan and (David) Robinson, (Manu) Ginobili. …
“I think Miami’s a very unique situation. But you see the strength that comes with organizational stability. Miami during Erik’s run there … During that time, they’ve sort of run the gamut. They’ve won championships, they’ve missed the playoffs three or four times. But they’ve sort of maintained a really strong identity organizationally and as a team. They have this strong culture. And you see the power in that.
“But generally speaking, a long-tenured coach is beholden to someone like Steph Curry. So I’m completely aware that the only reason I’ve been here nine years is that I get to coach one of the all-time great players and human beings in NBA history.”
(Photo: David Berding / Getty Images)