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How Steve Kerr deploys Steph Curry and D’Angelo Russell in pick-and-rolls underscores larger Warriors dilemma

It goes without saying that the Warriors are going to be a fundamentally different team this season. Even when Klay Thompson gets back, assuming he does get back at some point this season, Kevin Durant’s absence creates something of a deployment dilemma for Steve Kerr — which is to say, how often, and how early, does Kerr choose to deploy the most dangerous version of the Golden State offense?

Stephen Curry is the most dangerous pick-and-roll player in the world. But when Durant was around Kerr was afforded the luxury of keeping that weapon largely under wraps until the highest-leverage games and possessions necessitated its full release — i.e. Game 6 of the conference finals against the Houston Rockets, when Curry scored zero points in the first half and 33 in the second once Kerr unlocked the Curry/Draymond Green two-man game. 

This year is different. The Warriors, in some people’s eyes, aren’t even guaranteed a playoff spot. Even if it feels like a stretch to suggest they’re in that precarious a position, it’s certainly fair to say they’ll have to be at their best far sooner than they’ve had to be in years past. December and January games will once again matter, as they do for all teams fighting for slippery playoff positioning. 

Last season, Golden State’s ball-handler’s produced 0.99 points per pick-and-roll possession, which ranked first in the league, per NBA.com. But they only attacked out of this set 10.8 percent of the time, which ranked last in the league. Curry himself scored 1.02 points per pick-and-roll possession, per Synergy, right about on par with Damian Lillard. But Lillard operated out of this set on 44.7 percent of his possessions, while Curry did so on only 21.6 percent of his. 

The Trail Blazers simply wouldn’t survive without riding Lillard pick-and-rolls, and you could argue the Warriors are now in that same spot with not just Curry, but D’Angelo Russell, who operated as the pick-and-roll ball handler on almost half his possessions last season in Brooklyn. It turned him into an All-Star. 

“Russell is the key to me,” a Western Conference scout told CBS Sports. “With Curry, yeah, he’s obviously great in the pick and roll, and I’d guess they’ll use that more. But he’s also the best off-ball player in the league. Without Durant, and then with Thompson out for the time being, Curry is really the only guy who scares you just by running around and making you chase him, and that’s what can open things up for them. My guess is they’ll try to keep [Curry] in that role as much as they can and hope Russell can be effective where he’s most comfortable. It’ll be interesting, that’s for sure.”

Earlier this summer, Warriors GM Bob Myers addressed the need for some change with regard to the Warriors’ offense, and how Russell will be expected to drive much of that change. And, yes, Curry pick-and-rolls will likely tick up, too. 

Kerr somewhat echoed those sentiments when he said the following to Anthony Slater of The Athletic:

“Yeah. For sure [we have to tweak the offense],” Kerr told The Athletic. “For sure. We’ll have to see what that means. I don’t think it’s going to look drastically different. But all you have to do is look at the roster and you see the continuity we’ve lost. When you lose continuity, it’s more important to have sets and calls that you can rely on. Random stuff gets more difficult if you don’t know each other well.

“Early on, anyway, we’re going to look at different sets and calls that get guys into positions where they can succeed,” Kerr said. “Then the system sort of grows from there.”

Indeed, the freelancing ways of Curry and Thompson were only as good as the unspoken connection they had with Durant, and even more so, Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston. They could’ve run that offense in their sleep and everyone knew where everyone else was going to be. The “sets” Kerr is talking about are likely ones that will make the newcomers most comfortable. Again, that mostly comes down to Russell, as everyone else will fill an ancillary role. 

But don’t be fooled. Curry is Golden State’s best player, and in the NBA, under normal conditions, you have to lean hard on your best player. The Warriors have had the luxury of not having to do that these past three years, because, frankly, it wasn’t clear who their best player was. It afforded them the advantage of being able to spread the floor and move the ball and keep defenses from having any idea where the shots were going to come from. They might have to be a little more predictable this season. 

If that means more Curry, and if Russell can use Curry’s gravity to thrive in comfortable spots, that doesn’t mean they can’t be just as dangerous. But they won’t have the margin for error they’ve had in teh past. They won’t be able to pick and choose their spots quite so judiciously. Kerr will have to make more frequent decisions with lineup deployment and when and where he asks Curry to just flat out take over. In other words, welcome to the real world of NBA basketball when you have a good but not all-time-great team. 

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