Kawakami: Jonathan Kuminga is the change agent in the Warriors’ urgent evolution

SAN FRANCISCO — The most stunning thing wasn’t that Jonathan Kuminga dribbled the ball, kept dribbling the ball, didn’t look like he considered passing it for a moment, then shoved his way to the basket while his teammates stood and watched, though all of that was pretty stunning in this Warriors era, I must admit. The real shock was that Steve Kerr, Stephen Curry and the rest of Kuminga’s teammates seemed fine with this.

More to the point: They actually seemed to want this.

Kuminga put up the shot in heavy traffic near the rim and missed in the second quarter of Tuesday’s victory over the Philadelphia 76ers at Chase Center. But Kerr didn’t move from his seat on the bench. The Warriors ran back on defense. Nobody dropped their head. Nobody acted like any rules had been broken. It felt like a normal NBA isolation play that didn’t quite work, but of course, that was all very non-normal in the context of this team’s hoary history of free-flowing, pass-the-ball-quickly-and-move principles. And winning championships.

So yeah, things are looking very different for the Warriors these days. There’s been a necessary, noticeable recalibration after Kerr and the stalwarts stuck to most of the proven ways for months of this struggling season. Right now, things feel more urgent. Things feel much more uncertain and impermanent, but that’s a natural development at some point for any dynasty, or the end of a dynasty.

Of course, the Warriors will look pretty similar and do some similar things for as long as Curry lives, breathes and shoots sublimely from distance. But we’re witnessing a conceptual adaptation. The Warriors are no longer determined to do exactly the same things that have worked for so long — because they haven’t quite worked for several months now.

Really, given the stakeholders and pride involved, the biggest shift is the Warriors deciding there had to be a shift.

“When teams are chasing you for 10 years, at some point they’re going to figure it out, make it tough,” Draymond Green said after the game. “You know, it started to get tough. Steve has always been one of the greatest coaches I’ve ever seen at making adjustments, whether that’s in series, whether that’s in games, whether that’s in seasons.

“He’s one of the greatest at identifying what needs to happen and making those adjustments. … Credit to the guys in the locker room for buying into what those adjustments are. As you can see, as our season has gone on, some roles have changed, and yet everyone is buying into that.”

It’s very clear that Kuminga is the main change agent in all of this. He’s talented enough and hard-working enough for future Hall of Famers to make accommodations. He’s stubborn enough to keep pushing for this. And the Warriors are needy enough at this point to understand that their best shot at playoff relevance is to finally push Kuminga into the spotlight and to live with the results.

As Draymond said, the dynastic veterans carried along some older guys like Andre Iguodala and David Lee in the early days of this run, and now it’s clearly time for Kuminga, Brandin Podziemski, Moses Moody and Trayce Jackson-Davis to help carry some of the main responsibility now. But to get to that point, in Kuminga’s third NBA season, the Warriors coaching staff and veterans had to believe that Kuminga was worth it. And the Warriors coaching staff and veterans had to need Kuminga to do this.

Jonathan Kuminga scored 26 points on 11 of 19 shooting in Tuesday’s win, his seventh straight game scoring 20 or more and shooting 50 percent or better. (Thearon W. Henderson / Getty Images)

That’s guaranteed Kuminga plenty of playing time, which lately has meant shoving Kevon Looney, one of Kerr’s favorite players ever, to the fringes of the rotation. That’s locked in a commitment to playing Kuminga with Andrew Wiggins, which was a disaster combo early this season, mostly when Draymond was suspended. But with Draymond back now and installed as the main center, the Kuminga-Wiggins pairing gives the Warriors their most dynamic lineup by far. Which has led to more isolation sets for Kuminga, even sometimes stashing Curry in the corner while Kuminga goes to work trying to maneuver his way to the rim.

“I don’t think it’s necessarily, like, ‘Oh, we want to go iso here,’” Draymond said. “But also understand that you’ve gotta take some of what the defense gives you. And then when you start with what the defense gives you, what you ultimately want to get to opens up more. I think that’s what we’re trying to do.”

If that means Curry and Klay Thompson aren’t set up on the famous split-action every single offensive possession or that Kerr has to keep playing the young guys through some errant defensive play, that’s the way it has to go. And it likely means that Moody, when he’s back, could edge into some of Klay’s playing time when the matchup is right.

Plus, if this works, it’s a two-way gain: The Warriors might not be title contenders in any formulation of this roster, but they’re probably better set up for some kind of playoff run if they’re maximizing Kuminga, Moody and Wiggins; and by doing this, the whole situation is likelier to be even better next season.

“This team is different than teams we’ve had in the past,” Curry said. “Because this team is different, some of the patterns that we have been used to, and with Draymond out for so long, it opened up opportunities to kind of reassess how we’re trying to create shots, how we’re trying to create momentum offensively.

“And even how teams are guarding us has gotten a little bit more extreme, trying to take me and Klay out of the off-ball stuff and crowd our space and make other guys try to handle and make plays. So you have to lean into that and get a little bit organized. There’s times throughout the year where we do simplify the offense a little bit to try to get out of a rut or kind of a downswing.”

Also, this is precisely why the Warriors have stuck with Draymond through so, so, so, so very much. Maybe he blows up again and gets suspended at another very key moment of this season. Maybe he can’t sustain the very high level of play he’s delivered since he came back from his most recent banning. But he’s been at a mostly even keel since his return so far. And the Warriors continue to be better with Draymond on the court than they could ever be without him; in this very specific case, dropping Draymond in at center alongside Kuminga and Wiggins has given this team a new kind of identity.

Earlier this season, if Curry and Klay weren’t lighting it up, the team was done, because it probably wasn’t coming from anywhere else. But with Draymond willing Wiggins and Kuminga to the right spots and pushing them to be their best selves, suddenly, the Warriors have some other options. Even some real transition options — Kuminga is their best open-court player in years and they’re getting two or three buckets a game lately just by him running after opponents’ missed shots, getting an outlet pass and finishing through whoever dares try to stand between him and the basket.

This all comes at a very important big-picture moment for the Warriors, of course. Wiggins’ presence had been blocking Kuminga’s way, which led to serious thought of trading Wiggins at the upcoming deadline just to clear minutes and money; it’s also what led to Kuminga requesting a trade a few weeks ago; but if the duo can play together like they’ve done the last few games, everything about this roster makes more sense.

Maybe it took this long for Kuminga to understand how much he was needed and how he had to adjust to make sure he could help lift the team, and it took equally as long for Kerr to figure out how to adjust his own thinking to match Kuminga’s growth curve. It took some time both ways. The Warriors couldn’t give James Wiseman that time, but also I’m not sure Wiseman ever would’ve been worth it. Kuminga is worth it. And he’s only going to get better, which can’t be said about the dynastic veterans.

“We’re giving him lots of minutes, and with the minutes comes production and mistakes,” Kerr said of Kuminga. “And we’re just trying to help him understand that if he can continue to produce by sprinting the floor and getting those buckets in the paint, we’re willing to live with some of the defensive mistakes and stuff that he’s going to get better and better with. I think he’s really been much better defensively in terms of game-plan discipline with more minutes. So JK’s playing well, playing hard, and it’s really fun to see him starting to grow.”

None of this means that the Warriors will charge back into a top seed by playoff time, by the way. They’re still only 20-24, still outside of the Western Conference top 10 and still have a very busy schedule coming up. But they’ve got Moody, Gary Payton II and Chris Paul all due to return from injury in the next few weeks to months and a fairly solid rotation going right now.

The Warriors have gone through a lot of trouble and terrible tragedy this season, but the schedule says they still have 38 games left, and it’s not like a run into, say, the West’s seventh or eighth spot is out of the question. The retooling might’ve come exactly when they needed it. Most importantly, it seems that Curry’s game isn’t being hurt by the changes.

To that point, Curry noted that the Warriors recently discussed this moment and the changes that needed to happen to get back into some sort of playoff relevance.

“We had that conversation a couple, or probably last week,” Curry said. “We’ve been playing better offensively. I think there’s a little bit more organization on that end. Now you have to marry that with the defensive side. Even though we lost the two games before (both by 1 point) and won tonight, our offense has been really solid. I think we’re getting better. We’ve just gotta keep going.”

The franchise rightly believed that the 2022 championship was validation of hanging onto the core players and core principles for longer than many others would’ve, then last season’s Game 7 victory over the Kings reinforced it again. But old titles and first-round Game 7s don’t last forever. Eventually, the time comes, even for a dynasty. You either evolve or expire.



A decisive Jonathan Kuminga seals Warriors win over 76ers

(Top photo: Noah Graham / NBAE via Getty Images)

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