Questions Warriors Must Answer Before 2021 NBA Playoffs

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistApril 22, 2021

Questions Warriors Must Answer Before 2021 NBA Playoffs

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    The Golden State Warriors might have a .500 record and zero legitimate championship hopes, but there may not be a bigger wild card in the 2021 NBA playoff picture.

    They can thank Stephen Curry for that.

    The two-time MVP has enough knockout power on his own to frighten the biggest and best in basketball.

    Already this season, he has gone for 40-plus points in upset wins over the Denver Nuggets, Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers. And that fails to recognize his 38 points and 11 assists in a win over the Los Angeles Clippers, his 32 points and nine dimes in a takedown of the Utah Jazz or his 26-point, seven-assist effort in a triumph over the healthy Los Angeles Lakers.

    Those successes and others have likely positioned this team to qualify for the play-in tournament. The Warriors need to answer some questions before that tips, starting with the following three.

How Long Can Steph Keep This Up?

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    Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

    Just when we thought we might have seen it all from Curry, the three-time champion found a way to up the ante.

    Entering Wednesday, he had scored at least 30 points in 11 consecutive games, the longest such streak in NBA history by a player aged 33 or older. His numbers from the streak are the kind even video game hoopers can only dream about: 40.0 points and 7.1 threes per game with a 54.1/49.7/90.3 shooting slash.

    "Nobody's ever shot the ball like this in the history of the game," Warriors coach Steve Kerr told reporters. "Even by Steph's own lofty standards, this is above and beyond."

    When Curry plays like this, the Warriors can knock off anyone. That raises the question: How long can he actually maintain this level?

    The volume and efficiency combo is mind-boggling, and while it's unsustainable at these statistical extremes, the quantity-plus-quality blend of scoring and shooting is a Curry trademark.

Are There Other Scorers on This Team?

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    Jed Jacobsohn/Associated Press

    Curry is having an offensive season for the ages. He has basically been every bit as productive and efficient as he was in 2015-16, when he became the NBA's first (and still only) unanimous MVP.

    That season, Golden State's offensive rating was tops in the league and 12th-best all-time. This year, the Warriors rank 21st in the category.

    That says all you need to know about what Curry has—or doesn't have—around him.

    Second-leading scorer Andrew Wiggins has a below-average player efficiency rating for his career. Third-leading scorer Kelly Oubre Jr. has been as erratic as it gets (more on that later). Fourth-leading scorer James Wiseman is out the rest of the season with a torn meniscus. Fifth-leading scorer Jordan Poole was playing G League games in February.

    You get the idea.

    A defense's first, second and third priorities against the Dubs will be getting the ball out of Curry's hands or crowding him when he has it. The supporting cast needs to make those defenses pay for not giving it enough attention.

Where Does Kelly Oubre Jr. Fit?

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    While the Warriors weren't expecting a Klay Thompson clone when they acquired Kelly Oubre Jr. in November, the plan was to plug him in a similar role.

    He'd take on the toughest backcourt assignment on defense and play off of Curry and Draymond Green at the opposite end. Oubre has never been in the same zip code as Thompson as a shooter, but the hope was Oubre's superior athleticism could at least help weaponize him as an off-ball cutter.

    But whatever was supposed to happen for Oubre still hasn't come to fruition. His PER is his worst in three seasons. His box plus/minus is at a four-year low. His shooting rates are all down from last year, when he wasn't playing alongside a gravitational force like Curry. Oubre's net differential bettered only Wiseman's among rotation regulars, as the Warriors have fared 10.5 points better per 100 possessions without him.

    Golden State needs Oubre, but his role remains a mystery. He recently moved to the second unit, but it's tough to tell whether that will (or should) be permanent.

    The bottom line is, if he plays like he has for most of this season, the Warriors' playoff run won't last long.