Kawakami: How Chris Paul’s return can really help the Warriors, and how it probably can’t

Klay Thompson, as he almost always does, boiled a complex situation down to the simplest and sharpest base formula:

Soon, Klay said, he and Chris Paul will be the heart of the Warriors’ reserve unit, a future Hall of Fame perimeter parlay perhaps unprecedented in modern NBA history. Stephen Curry checks out, and a couple more legends check in.

“I’m excited to step on the floor with him and lead that second unit,” Klay said of Paul over the weekend. “I think we could be … you can’t really ask for a better backcourt to come off the bench with. It’s very exciting, to be honest.”

Klay, of course, is in perfect position to discuss it this way because he only recently was moved to the bench for the first time in more than a decade and before that had times when he was pulled from the closing lineup, even as the Warriors revved themselves back into the playoff conversation. Klay hasn’t loved it, but he’s accepted it, and already has had some glorious moments coming in firing away off the bench.

So now it’s almost time for Paul, who is set to return Tuesday in Washington after sitting out since breaking a bone in his left hand on Jan. 5, in a victory over Detroit that brought the Warriors to 17-18. They lost four of five after he got hurt, suffered through the tragic death of assistant coach Dejan Milojević, then eventually fell all the way to 19-24. But since then, the Warriors have gone 10-3 after some fairly major rotation adjustments, including committing to Jonathan Kuminga at forward, moving Draymond Green in as the full-time center and switching rookie Brandin Podziemski into the starting lineup over Klay.

Where does a healthy Paul fit into this? Somewhere. Somehow. It’s not completely known because they sure don’t want to mess up the good thing they’ve got going here. And sometimes the unknown creates apprehension.

What we’re seeing is the normal Warriors way of handling this: Talk it out with themselves and in public, point to what’s been working, underline that the most important thing is to win games, and to let Paul and everybody know that some nights there will be plenty of minutes and some nights there might not be. Even for future Hall of Famers.

To be clear, the Warriors know that Paul can upgrade a lot of things for them, just like he did before he hurt his hand. Paul is still part of the Warriors’ first and third most efficient heavily played (60 minutes together or more) five-man units this season — a net rating of plus-25.2 in 63 minutes alongside Curry, Klay, Kuminga and Kevon Looney and a plus-18.2 net rating in 93 minutes switching Wiggins in for Kuminga in that group.

The second most efficient Warriors unit, though, is part of the rub: It’s the new starting lineup of Curry, Draymond, Podziemski, Wiggins and Kuminga at plus-21.6 in 148 minutes. The Warriors have been using Klay as Option 1B in this group. Gary Payton II is Option 1C, used for specific defensive assignments. Looney is a defensive 1C possibility. This group has turned their season around.

And notably, if Steve Kerr largely sticks with those eight or nine players, the 26-30 minutes a night that Paul was getting in the first part of the season just aren’t there. So what do the Warriors do?

“First, you’d be an idiot not to think CP can help us,” Curry said late last week. “He has an ability to exist in whatever lineup he’s out there with and elevate ’em. The question is, from a night-to-night perspective, you start with the idea of, OK, who’s going to close the game? Coach talked about it (recently); we’ve been talking about it all year. That could look different night after night, minutes could look different night after night, and that is the challenge of this team. Sounds like a broken record from early in the year. But I feel like we’ve developed as best of an idea as we’ve had all year by how we’re trying to play and the fact that winning is fun. No matter what it looks like, everybody’s going to have a piece or a chance to impact that.

“We have to keep talking about it because it is the elephant in the room every night — who’s going to be out there to finish games? What’s the minute log going to look like? But if we can be as selfless as possible and not care about that, then everybody’s talents can help us win. CP included.”

Steph Curry and Chris Paul

“You’d be an idiot not to think CP can help us,” Steph Curry said last week. “He has an ability to exist in whatever lineup he’s out there with and elevate ’em.” (Bill Streicher / USA Today)

It’s interesting that this conversation loops back to the main issue of last offseason, once the Warriors acquired Paul for Jordan Poole (hey, guess who they’ll be seeing Tuesday!): Would Paul, in the final guaranteed year of his current deal, at 38, be frustrated if he has to come off the bench for the first time in his career? And if he’s in the second unit, would he also have to accept games when he was limited to 14-20 minutes because he was often out of the closing group, too?

Paul got heavy minutes to start the season because he was needed, because everything else was so scattered and he was an oasis of calm offensive leadership, especially in the hurly-burly of Draymond’s early injury and two suspensions, Wiggins and Klay’s staggering starts and Kuminga’s climb into the rotation after some iffy moments. But … those things have all changed in a very positive direction while CP3 has been out.

For now, the Warriors know that Paul will lead the second unit in the 14 or so minutes when Curry rests. And Kerr traditionally plays his backup point guard alongside Curry for a few stints a half, the way Lester Quiñones has been deployed recently. But that’s still only a maximum of 20 minutes or so per game, if CP3 isn’t closing regularly. And at the moment, he’s not guaranteed a spot in the finishing group.

Obviously, there will be times when he should close. If you doubt that, watch a few lowlight reels of the Warriors kicking the ball away in crunch time to fumble multiple games this season. But Paul will be one option to close games and probably not, at least initially, a main one. There will be an easy explanation for limited minutes in the first week or so as he ramps up his conditioning. But after that, CP3 will at times have to bend to the Warriors’ process more than they’ll bend to his.

If they can meet in the middle for 20 highly efficient minutes a game with Paul getting closing minutes once or twice a week and maybe more often in the playoffs, the Warriors might really have something.

“I’m excited about it because when he got hurt we were not in a great place,” Curry said. “Trying to establish our identity. We’ve had a pretty good run, built some momentum since he’s been out. But he’s such a connector, floor general and a guy that gets everybody in the right spots.

“So whether it’s when I’m on the bench or the rotations where we’re on the floor at the same, it’ll hopefully elevate us to another level where he gets comfortable, he gets his legs underneath him and again, just does what he does. That on top of how we’ve been playing up until tonight hopefully will allow us to keep building.”

Here are some specific ways Paul can — and probably cannot — really help the Warriors in the final 26 games of the regular season and into whatever part of the postseason they get.

Give Curry a real break

Curry seemed notably fresher early this season when he rested comfortably knowing that CP3 was leading a strong second unit; and now, a non-Curry unit of Paul, Klay, Dario Šarić, Trayce Jackson-Davis and probably Wiggins might be the most formidable backup group the Warriors have had since the height of the dynasty.

And in a repeat of their early-season roles, CP3 can give Curry mini-breaks, too, while they’re on the floor together for four- or five-minute stretches when Paul can take over a lot of the ball-handling responsibilities against teams lined up to pressure Curry. With Kerr noting several times recently that Curry has seemed fatigued by the recent pile-up of games sandwiched around all his duties during All-Star weekend, the Warriors will definitely count on CP3 for this again.

“For sure,” Kerr said. “Obviously, Chris, when he comes back he’ll play all of the non-Steph minutes. And then he’ll be out there with Steph as well. It’s easier for us to put Steph off the ball and take some of the wear and tear off of him when Chris is out there, because he doesn’t have to bring it up and battle pressure and all of that.”

Also, though Curry doesn’t want to hear about possibly resting one side of any of the Warriors’ five remaining back-to-backs, CP3 gives them a very solid starting option if and when the Warriors decide Curry needs a full rest. It’s also a great chance for the Warriors to give CP3 a 36-minute run here and there.

Option to close

Who’s locked into the closing lineup? Curry and Draymond, obviously, and probably Kuminga and Wiggins most nights, though Kerr can experiment with the two forward positions. That leaves one full-time spot in the closing group, with Kerr alternating between Podziemski and Klay recently.

If CP3 plays in this group, it’d likely be over those two … or Wiggins or Kuminga. That’s a lot of firepower ahead of Paul. In any realistic formulation, it’s hard to see CP3 walking into big minutes at the close of games.

“Once we’re fully healthy, we’re going to have a numbers crunch literally every night,” Kerr said. “We’ll have to decide who’s closing each half. It’ll probably be fluid based on how the game’s going. But I think the only way it can work is if everybody buys in, everybody accepts the fact that every night could be a little different.

“But we can’t wait to get Chris back, obviously. He’s been one of our best players, he’s in all of our best lineups. Great player, great point guard, does so many good things for us. It’s great to have the option to close with him. Just like it’s great to have the option with several other guys, too. It won’t be easy, but like I said, as long as everybody is committed to just winning the game and recognizing that every night could be a little different, I think we’re going to be in good shape.”

One interesting note in this: Due to Draymond’s injuries and suspensions and CP3’s injury, the two savvy veterans just haven’t been on the floor much together this season (only 55 total minutes) and it hasn’t been too good when they have (minus-9.2 net rating), with some really bad rebounding analytics.

Chris Paul

Chris Paul returns Tuesday to a very different Warriors team from the one he left. Finding minutes to close games may be a challenge. (Ezra Shaw / Getty Images)

Get Šarić going

Kerr is plainly focused on the CP3-Šarić pick-and-pop two-man game, which worked well to start this season (plus-6.4 net rating in 496 minutes together) and was a solid connection back to the duo’s Phoenix days. But the next few weeks probably will also be a bit of a last gasp for Šarić, who is counted on to stretch the floor but is only shooting 20 percent from 3-point distance in 10 February games.

Add in Šarić’s porous defense in the paint and it’s not hard to imagine Kerr moving more to a Jackson-Davis/Draymond-or-Kuminga frontline on the second unit and removing Šarić from the rotation completely. But Kerr doesn’t want to do that. And he needs CP3’s help here.

Other problems, though

There are some CP3 potential lineup combinations, though, that I’m sure Kerr will likely try to avoid, for several reasons.

Though CP3 has been one of the great smaller defenders of all-time (nine career All-Defensive Team nods, as he will rightfully remind us frequently), at 6-foot and so many years into his NBA career, he’s not the ideal defensive backcourt partner with Curry. Specifically, the Curry-Klay-CP3 trio looked especially clunky early in the season. I don’t think that Curry-CP3-Podziemski is any better. There are issues.

Also, CP3 obviously isn’t going to help the Warriors’ mismatches against taller teams like Denver, Minnesota and the Lakers.

One counterpoint: Though I know many Warriors fans are worried that CP3’s return will slow down a team that has lately been playing with energy and pace, his analytics on this topic are just fine this season, and in fact, the Warriors have played at a faster pace with CP3 (100.45 possessions per 48 minutes) than they have with Podziemski (100.91 possessions per 48 minutes).

As a team, the Warriors are 12th in the league at a 100.23 pace. The Wizards are first at 103.66, so how fast do you really want the Warriors to play?

Really, the CP3 factor mostly comes down to the Klay clarion call. With their starting lineup going well (until they got slammed by the Nuggets’ supreme starting group on Sunday), the Warriors really just need Paul to add more leverage to their second unit. And if CP3 and Klay can make all this happen, the Warriors could be a very tricky team to face in the playoffs.

“They should win most of those minutes that they’re out there,” Curry said of the Paul-Klay combo. “That’s what it takes to be a really good team, is having those combinations, with experience, talent and just the know-how. Like with what Trayce has been doing and that group, mixing and matching who’s out there with him, it should be a nice chemistry there.

“It should be fun because obviously our starting lineup’s been playing a lot better as of late. And if you can get off to a good start and you have those two guys coming in, we’ve got a lot of smiles and confidence in what they’ll be able to do out there on the floor.”

It’s the last phase of this emotional, challenging season. It’s up to Kerr to figure out how to use Paul and up to Paul to figure out how he deals with it in his first and maybe last eventful Warriors season. It absolutely will not be boring.



The Steve Kerr-Jonathan Kuminga breakthrough that jump-started the Warriors

(Top photo of Chris Paul during a December game against the Boston Celtics: Mike Rasay / NBAE via Getty Images)

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