Predicting Warriors' Rotation When Klay Thompson, James Wiseman Make Returns
The Golden State Warriors have been scary good at the start of the 2021-22 NBA season.
With both Klay Thompson and James Wiseman on the mend, though, they could turn truly terrifying before the calendar flips to the new year.
Thompson might make it back before Christmas. Wiseman's timetable isn't quite as clear, but it sounds like he's close. At some point, probably sooner than later, the Warriors will add both a five-time All-Star and 2020's No. 2 overall pick.
Imaginations can run wild with thoughts of this team's potential, but let's try to gain some clarity by mapping out the rotations of the full-squad Warriors.
This should be pretty straightforward, provided the Klay Thompson who returns bears a striking resemblance to the one who last suited up during the 2019 Finals.
If Thompson hasn't lost too many steps to an ACL tear followed up by a ruptured Achilles, then he'll reclaim his starting spot alongside sibling-in-splash Stephen Curry. Thompson can help with the tricky defensive duties in the backcourt—depending on the matchup, the hardest could go to Andrew Wiggins—and Thompson's gravitational pull on defenders by way of his shooting threat should continue to help free up Curry to attack.
Nothing changes up front. Wiggins has proved more than serviceable as the starting small forward, and if Thompson gets back to pumping in roughly 20 points per game, that could make Wiggins more efficient if he can pick and choose his spots. Draymond Green will only benefit from having another lethal shooter to find, and Kevon Looney's reliability should keep him the preferred option over James Wiseman at center.
The only potential debate here is the 5 spot, but it wasn't much of a debate the last time we saw Wiseman in action. Last season, the Warriors were 7.2 points better per 100 possessions with Looney than without, while Wiseman's presence led to a net decline of 13.5 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com. The split is wide enough to assume Golden State won't change the formula unless Wiseman's play really forces the issue.
The Warriors will have enough depth to tinker with their second unit, so they could keep a lot of these spots fluid and perhaps alter them based on matchups.
There will be some constants, of course. Jordan Looney should grab the sixth man reins and would need a really frigid shooting spell to lose his grip. Gary Payton II's defense has become an integral part of this success. Otto Porter Jr. and Damion Lee will find steady minutes as long as their shots are falling.
The big question is what happens with Wiseman, since Nemanja Bjelica has impressed in his stretch-5 role. Provided Bjelica's shooting doesn't disappear, this could allow the Warriors to ease Wiseman back in action, perhaps carefully managing his minutes and keeping him out of one side of any back-to-back sets to start.
Ideally, though, Golden State will want Wiseman to win this gig and eventually push for a starting spot. That's asking a lot based on last season, when his instincts and awareness weren't up to par. If he can just get to the right spots, though, his physical gifts and natural talents could shine. Bjelica could eventually move into a break-glass-in-case-of-emergency role as a spacing specialist.
From there, the Warriors will look for rest opportunities for Andre Iguodala and developmental minutes for Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody. Juan Toscano-Anderson could face a severe minutes crunch if one or both of Wiseman or Kuminga shows their seasoning is ahead of schedule.
For all of the attention paid to starting lineups, it's the closing group that best communicates the coaching staff's trust in its players.
While some matchup-dependent choices can be made at times, these five spots typically go to the five best players on the team. The Warriors haven't been in enough tight games to show their crunch-time hand often, but in clutch situations—final five minutes with a scoring margin of five points or less—they have so far leaned heaviest on Curry, Green, Wiggins, Lee and Iguodala, per NBA.com.
Curry, Green and Wiggins are locks to remain in the final five, and if Thompson looks like his old self, he'll easily snag a spot, too. That leaves just one more up for grabs, and coach Steve Kerr must decide whether to write anyone's name in ink there or use pencil to keep it flexible.
If Kerr wants another crunch-time constant, Iguodala probably gets the nod for his veteran savvy, lock-down defense and court vision. If Kerr takes the fluid route, that opens the door for Poole when shot-creation is needed, Lee or Porter when shooting is wanted, Payton when on-ball defense is desired or Looney when they want more size up front.
There's a universe in which Wiseman or Kuminga claims a spot in the closing group and arguably helps Golden State become its best possible version, but that will remain in Dubs' dreamland until one of these up-and-comers proves otherwise.