One of the toughest questions facing the Golden State Warriors this season will be the role of Chris Paul, who for the first time in his career is a candidate to come off the bench.
Paul has started all 1,214 games over his 18-year career, never once coming off the bench, and according to ESPN/Andscape reporter Marc Spears, that starting streak will continue as the Warriors, at least to start the season, plan to start Paul alongside Stephen Curry in the backcourt.
“I do expect him to start. And I think it’s like five-minute spurts,” Spears said during a recent appearance on the Good Word with Goodwill podcast. “I don’t know that they really want his minutes to be high, but I think they’re gonna try it. I could be wrong, but that’s the gist I’m getting. This isn’t an opinion that he’s expected to start. It’s what I’m hearing. He’s never not started in his career.”
Paul starting for the Warriors isn’t so much about what he has left in the tank as a starting-caliber player; it’s more about whose place he’ll be taking. Pencil in Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. That leaves either Andrew Wiggins or Kevon Looney as the odd man out. Chances are, it would be Looney headed for a reserve role, and that feels like a mistake for a team already at a nightly size disadvantage.
Steve Kerr loves to play small. He’s had a ton of success doing so with the Warriors, but Looney has also been one of the key figures in Golden State’s post-superteam days; there is no way the Warriors win the 2022 title without him.
Moving Looney to the bench doesn’t remove him from the equation, of course. As Spears notes, Paul may play in short bursts, with Looney entering perhaps with the rest of the starters still on the court. But by this point the rotations will be nearing a shift, and the less time Looney spends with full starting unit, the worse for the Warriors.
Last regular season, the Warriors’ starting five of Curry, Thompson, Wiggins, Green and Looney outscored opponents by 22.1 points per 100 possessions, per Cleaning the Glass, which was by far the best mark of any five-man lineup in the league that logged at least 500 possessions together, and nearly double the net differential of the reigning champion Nuggets’ best five-man lineup.
During Golden State’s 2022 title run, no five-man lineup with at least 250 possessions together achieved a better postseason net rating than the plus-17.1 per 100 that the Warriors boasted with the aforementioned five. This lineup has been consistently dominant over big, important sample sizes.
Breaking it up, if only for the start of the game as a nod to Paul’s comfort level, is a big risk. The Warriors no longer operate with the wide margin for error that they enjoyed for much of their dynasty. Messing with what is the surest five-man unit you have, even if only for a few stretches of game time, could have a real impact on their bottom line.
If the report winds up being true and Paul indeed does start the season with the first five, Kerr will no doubt be monitoring things closely. The Western Conference is loaded. Playoff spots aren’t guaranteed, and certainly not a top-six seed to stay out of the play-in. Every minute of every game matters. It’s easy to take the stance than if Paul isn’t performing he won’t close games, but by then the dame might already be done by way of a first-quarter hole.
We’ll see how it plays out. But make no mistake: starting Paul, if, again, that’s what ends up happening, is a real risk. And with that could come real consequences.