The Golden State Warriors kicked off 2020 with a whimper, winning just one, solitary game in the entire month of January. Though the injury ravaged Warriors sit at a league-worst 10-39, the Cleveland Cavaliers are not far behind, sitting in a three-way tie for second worst with a 13-36 record.
Maybe the rivalry has died down, with neither team fighting for anything more meaningful than just winning a rare game (both teams are 1-9 over their past ten contests), but maybe there’s still some fire to a matchup between two teams that faced each other in the Finals so often. But how much does the frustrated passion of Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson matter against a roster consisting of only one player that played against them in all those Finals showdowns of yore?
WHO: Golden State Warriors (10-39) at Cleveland Cavaliers (13-36)
WHEN: Saturday February 1, 2020; 5:00 pm PST
WHERE: Loan Shark Arena, Cleveland OH
WATCH: NBC Sports Bay Area
In a season that has been defined more by who wasn’t on the court than who was, this development is as important a date as there is this season. Curry hasn’t played since the day before Halloween, when he broke his non-shooting hand in a weird entangled fall.
He’s looked good warming up recently, and doesn’t seem to show any signs of being slowed down by his left hand.
January 31st 2020
Curry’s return will immediately improve the Warriors - who are rumored to make an official announcement either Sunday or Monday, as per Anthony Slater of the Athletic. It’s not a secret that Curry has been arguably the most impactful player of the past decade. As Tom Haberstroh pointed out recently, Curry was the undisputed king of on/off court impact over the past ten years:
With Curry on the court from Day 1 of 2010 through his broken hand on Oct. 30, 2019, the Warriors were +4,803.The next closest player was some guy named Kevin Durant. Remember him, Warriors fans? KD finished the decade at +4,745.LeBron James (+4,699), Chris Paul (+4,271) and Warriors teammate Klay Thompson (+3,675) round out the top five in plus/minus during the 2010s.
With Curry on the court from Day 1 of 2010 through his broken hand on Oct. 30, 2019, the Warriors were +4,803.
The next closest player was some guy named Kevin Durant. Remember him, Warriors fans? KD finished the decade at +4,745.
LeBron James (+4,699), Chris Paul (+4,271) and Warriors teammate Klay Thompson (+3,675) round out the top five in plus/minus during the 2010s.
For Golden State, the immediate interest is in seeing him play alongside D’Angelo Russell. Can this sort of offensive-focused tandem not just coexist, but thrive? It’s the $117 million max contract sized question that is at the epicenter of all the questions surrounding the Warriors big offseason acquisition.
In limited time together, the early returns were not great. According to NBA.com’s lineup data, the duo of Curry and Russell appeared in four games together, sharing the court for a grand total of 74 minutes. The result: a net rating of -30.3 points (per 100 possessions); scoring at a rate of 96.6 points and coughing up 126.9 on defense.
Now, you have to take these numbers with a grain or three of salt, as not only are the 2-man lineup numbers wonky in general, but at just 74 minutes over the course of four games, there’s all sorts of caveats around forming judgments on small samples with two ball dominant players who haven’t had time to get used to each other.
Ironically, it was just this sort of lineup issue that Curry walked into when he joined the Warriors as a rookie alongside incumbent starting guard, Monta Ellis. For giggles, here is that old exchange, from media day, as transcribed by Tim Kawakami:
-Q: Can you see yourself playing with Curry in the backcourt?-ELLIS: I can’t answer that. Us together? No.-Q: Why not?-ELLIS: Can’t. We just can’t.-Q: Too small? Too similar?-ELLIS: Just can’t.-Q: The Warriors say you can.-ELLIS: They say we can? Yeah. If they say it. But we can’t.
-Q: Can you see yourself playing with Curry in the backcourt?
-ELLIS: I can’t answer that. Us together? No.
-Q: Why not?
-ELLIS: Can’t. We just can’t.
-Q: Too small? Too similar?
-ELLIS: Just can’t.
-Q: The Warriors say you can.
-ELLIS: They say we can? Yeah. If they say it. But we can’t.
Without Curry, the Warriors have struggled more on offense than they have on the defensive side, but expect Golden State to be watching this tandem very closely as it’s success or failure will go a long way towards determining the team’s offseason priorities. So far, it doesn’t sound like the team has been floored with fantastic offers for Russell, and Monte Poole was on Twitter yesterday reminding everyone that the Warriors are “not yet feeling any real urgency.”
But it’s the “yet” part that is interesting. If the pairing continues to struggle, Golden State may be interested in lowering their asking price for Russell - who is young and talented and certain to draw interest… if the price is right.
The Cleveland Cavaliers are in the unfortunate situation that is the result of LeBron James ditching the team after getting them to invest in his buddies. They’ve managed to extricate themselves from a very bad J.R. Smith contract, but are still carrying Tristan Thompson’s bloated deal, and trying to figure out what to do with Kevin Love.
In case you forgot, James pressured the team into signing J.R. Smith to a four-year, $77 million deal a year after Smith averaged 12 points per game on the team that beat an injury ravaged Warriors squad for the first title in franchise history. Smith was recently bought out by the Cavs, leaving about $1.5 million on the books for the privilege of not playing him over the next three seasons.
But Tristan Thompson is the real gem of the LeBron James era of contracts in Cleveland. He is making an astonishing $18.5 million dollars this year, as part of an outrageous five-year $88 million deal that will come to a merciful end after this season.
Finally, the last holdover: Kevin Love. A good-to-great player that just isn’t quite good enough to pull a subpar roster out of the cellar, he’s making around $29 million this year - the first in a four-year $120 million extension signed over the past offseason.
So in light of all that salary ballast, the Cavaliers roster isn’t doing too bad. With a team in the weird position that Cleveland finds themselves (old and bloated contracts alongside a ton of young players), it’s not too concerning that their net rating of -8.8 is essentially tied with the Warriors for worst in the league. This is a team that isn’t looking to the playoffs, so tanking for a good draft pick is one of the best outcomes they can hope for right now.
They’ve got an assortment of promising young players, though many of them may have ceilings closer to the top of the bench rotation, rather than high quality starters on a playoff team.
To add a wrinkle to this matchup, could there be some beef building? Was Colin Sexton snubbed for not making the rookie/sophmore game this year while Eric Paschall got the nod? Some people seem to think so:
The funny thing is, it’s an All Star game, so yes, playing for small market teams can indeed hurt a players chances.
There’s also the fun factor. Paschall has a game meant for the All Star format - where his burly shoulder-leading shots and above the rim explosiveness should translate well to the wide open style that is a feature of these games. Sexton scores more points, but his game is a bit less visually appealing.
I’m going to go out on a limb here, and predict a Golden State victory. Their second win of the year 2020!
The Cavs have the second-worse defense in the league, and the Warriors paltry offense should be able to make some headway. Hopefully the squad will be pumped up after getting some good news on Steph Curry’s return to add a little extra juice, because Golden State sure could use a win to lift everyone’s spirits.
And here’s a tank update, just for fun. Win or lose, there will be a silver lining for both teams tonight.