Warriors X-Factors That Will Decide GS's Fate Amid 2021 NBA Playoff Race

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistMay 6, 2021

Warriors X-Factors That Will Decide GS’s Fate Amid 2021 NBA Playoff Race

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    Barring a colossal collapse over the next 10 days, the Golden State Warriors will play a form of postseason basketball.

    Whether that includes a ticket to the actual playoffs, though, depends on how the Dubs fare in the play-in tournament.

    That's almost assuredly where Stephen Curry and Co. are headed, as they sit 4.5 games back of the sixth seed and 3.0 games up on the 11th with only 10 outings left on their slate.

    Any success they can generate in the second season will follow a familiar formula at the top, with Curry working his magic on offense and Draymond Green quarterbacking the defense. But that's where the similarities stop with this Warriors' squad and previous iterations, since Klay Thompson is sidelined by a torn right Achilles tendon.

    The Curry-Green combo can be tremendous, but it will need more help to make any significant noise. The following three players stand out as X-factors who will determine how far this club can go.

Kelly Oubre Jr.

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    There haven't been many constants with Kelly Oubre Jr. this season, but floor time makes the short list.

    His offense might be a crapshoot—back in February, he followed his season-high 40-point outburst with 14 points on 16 shots—but his defense keeps him near the top of this rotation. The fact he can pester either guard spot is critical next to Curry. It's the same thing a healthy Thompson would be doing.

    But a healthy Thompson wouldn't suffer through the same kind of shooting droughts Oubre has endured. He's a better shooter than he has shown (31.6 percent from the field, 69.5 at the line), though perhaps not by much (career 32.6 and 76.4, respectively). And since he's not at all a shot-creator (1.3 assists per game), he doesn't add a ton of offensive value when his three-point stroke malfunctions.

    Saying that, he's just a single season removed from giving the Phoenix Suns 18.7 points per night on 45.2/35.2/78.0 shooting. If the Warriors can somehow summon that player, it would go a long way toward diversifying their attack and not making them so dependent on Curry's offensive sorcery.

Jordan Poole

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    Jed Jacobsohn/Associated Press

    It's no minor miracle that Jordan Poole has entered coach Steve Kerr's circle of trust.

    As a rookie, Poole was erratic—even for an NBA first-timer. His box scores showed one worrying stat after the next, and he at times looked over his head even on a team that was clearly going nowhere fast.

    It seemed this season would bring about more of the same, as he suffered through more inconsistencies, fell out of the rotation and eventually landed in the G League. But his 26-point return to the big league suggested a light bulb might have switched on for 2019's No. 28 pick, and he hasn't left the rotation since.

    The second unit is his to run now, and when he's had to make spot starts, he has held his own there, too.

    "Coach gave me the keys to the second unit a little bit. It allowed me to take charge, take control, be the scorer and aggressive playmaker in that unit," Poole told The Athletic's Anthony Slater. "However many minutes I get, whatever it is, I just know I'm going out there in that second quarter and the coaches want me to play my game."

    The Warriors have been on a season-long search for non-Curry scoring options. Those will only grow more crucial as playoff defenses zero in their focus on containing the two-time MVP. This version of Poole, who entered Tuesday averaging 13.7 points on 41.4/34.8/85.5 shooting, can be one of those emergency outlets.

Andrew Wiggins

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    The Dubs don't have a Big Three without Thompson. If they did, though, the third-banana duties would fall upon Andrew Wiggins.

    The top pick in 2014, he has emerged from his Feb. 2020 trade away from the Minnesota Timberwolves to the Warriors as a more efficient and effective player on both ends of the floor. His 47.3 field-goal percentage and 38.3 three-point percentage are both career-highs. This is also the first season in which he has averaged at least one block and one steal per game.

    He isn't a perfect player by any stretch, but the Dubs don't need perfection from him. They need aggressive, assertive offense to help provide the counterpunch for giving Curry too much attention on defense.

    "He's got that capability," Curry told reporters. "We want that aggressiveness from him. We want that killer instinct to come out."

    Wiggins could have a strong postseason, and the Warriors could fail to make noise. That's just the reality of life as a No. 8 seed. But Golden State almost certainly can't have a good playoff run without Wiggins doing the same.