The Golden State Warriors have finally righted their wayward ship, entering Monday’s Christmas clash against Nikola Jokic and the defending-champion Denver Nuggets winners of five straight games. The Dubs’ quality of competition hasn’t exactly been stiff.
Even the Boston Celtics were playing without Kristaps Porzingis, a two-way game-changer, and the Portland Trail Blazers and Washington Wizards are bottom-dwellers for a reason. The Brooklyn Nets aren’t quite a surefire play-in team. Some much-needed holiday optimism pervades Golden State regardless, the result of not just a winning streak but the team-changing manner in which it’s been accomplished.
The Warriors are 5-1 since Draymond Green was indefinitely suspended, a timeframe that coincides with Steve Kerr’s decision to finally pull the plug on his team’s championship starting lineup. Jonathan Kuminga is playing the best basketball of his career, Klay Thompson has broken all the way out of his early-season shooting slump and Trayce Jackson-Davis continues to push harder and harder for a bigger role with every towering dunk, block and offensive board.
No one is debating whether Golden State’s peak depends on Green’s availability and Andrew Wiggins—every step forward seemingly negated by two steps back of minor injury or illness—reverting to form as a two-way impact player. This team’s budding identity serves as a blueprint for future success regardless, though, one that should make the Warriors a much tougher nightly out against most teams as the 82-game grind wears on.
Denver, obviously, isn’t most teams. No player in basketball poses more all-court dilemmas for defenses than Jokic, a shuffling, hulking seven-foot bucket who scores from all three levels of the floor and exploits every crease created by screens, cuts and extra attention he draws with the pass. Jamal Murray is back from a hamstring injury and rounding into form, too, coming off a 26-point second half in a win over Brooklyn on Friday night.
A showcase road matchup with the Nuggets was always going to be one of the Golden State’s toughest of 2023-24. But Green’s absence leaves the Warriors absent the singular defender perhaps most equipped to slow down Denver’s unique offensive attack better than any other in the league, not to mention an elite screener and processor who’s been taking regular advantage of pressure points provided by the Splash Bros. for a decade.
Let’s dive into why missing Green prevents the Dubs’ Christmas battle with the Nuggets from being a true litmus test of their recent surge.
Defending Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray
It’s never been more obvious Jackson-Davis needs to get more minutes going forward than Looney. His presence finishing as a ball-screen dive man and dump-off option from the dunker spot makes the Warriors’ offense seem wide open compared to Looney’s, no surprise given Jackson-Davis’ pogo stick leaping ability and the latter’s increasingly lacking athletic pop. The rookie has also proven adept at splitting the difference in pick-and-roll defensively, and is easily Golden State’s most threatening weak-side rim-protector.
But there’s a reason most calls for Jackson-Davis to get more burn don’t include relegating Looney to the bench entirely. Jackson-Davis is undersized for a center, not nearly big or experienced enough to tangle with Jokic one-on-one. Though Looney isn’t a capable switch defender anymore and has been a half step slower than normal rotating on the back line at times this season, he’s still one of the stoutest post defenders in basketball, with a strong base, quick hands and keen anticipation.
If there’s any game left on the schedule beyond a pair of tilts with Joel Embiid and the Philadelphia 76ers in a few weeks that Looney should play more than Jackson-Davis, it’s definitely this one. The problem is that Golden State won’t have Green’s unique ability to put out fires away from the ball as a roamer nor switch onto Jokic when he’s involved in the primary action. Kerr will have to stick Looney to Jokic when they’re out there together, opening up cutting and passing lanes for basketball’s most flawless offensive player that wouldn’t exist if Green was on the floor to play two off-ball or take on Jokic himself.
There’s no good answer to limiting Jokic, especially when he’s working the two-man game with Murray. Stashing Green on Aaron Gordon or even putting him on Murray to automatically switch screens and hand-offs with Jokic is the Dubs’ best one, and Kerr has no means of replicating it without him.
Don’t be surprised if the Nuggets ring in the holidays with a dominant offensive performance, forcing the Warriors into a shootout at altitude. Among the biggest questions about Monday’s game? Just how long Kerr will stick with Looney if Denver is easily racking up points.
Can Jonathan Kuminga, Trayce Jackson-Davis attack numbers advantages?
Much is being made of Kuminga’s burgeoning confidence going right through overmatched defenders off the bounce and splashing smooth triples from all over the floor since he became a starter. Just as important for the Warriors has been his increased willingness and effectiveness finding the open man, more regularly going from “good-to-great” when he draws two defenders by kicking the ball out to open shooters.
Green has made a career out of winning similar numbers advantages, always making the right decision in 4-on-3 situations while catching on the short roll. Denver dials back its aggressive pick-and-roll defense against some opponents, but that’s impossible facing Golden State. Jokic will be stretched to the perimeter every time Curry or Thompson handles in ball screens or flies off a dribble hand-off involving his defender, creating frequent opportunities for Looney and Jackson-Davis as dive men.
The Nuggets won’t be scared by Looney playmaking in that scenario. He lacks the lift and quickness to score around the rim on self-created shots. Jackson-Davis is a far more threatening release valve on the roll, capable of exploding for aerial finishes after a couple bounces and further drawing the defense before finding open teammates. Kuminga’s effectiveness cutting from the weak side or spotting up from deep will loom large when Curry and Thompson goad Denver into those defensive rotations.
When fully healthy and fully engaged, the Nuggets can close those gaps with title-worthy quickness and precision. Green processes the game faster than even the best amped-up defenses move, though. Can Looney and Jackson-Davis come close to doing the same? As much as the Warriors will miss Green defensively, their success making those split-second decisions could prove nearly as pertinent to Golden State’s chances of pulling off a Christmas upset as how they fare filling in for him on the other end.