How Jonathan Kuminga’s significant progress unleashed the Warriors’ fresh “Death Lineup

How Jonathan Kuminga’s leap has unlocked the Warriors

The Golden State Warriors are 10-3 in their last 13 games. During that stretch, Jonathan Kuminga is averaging 17.9 points, 5.5 rebounds, and 3.5 assists pre game on 57.9 percent true shooting.

These two occurrences are not a coincidence. After reports of frustration from Kuminga with head coach Steve Kerr, the third-year forward has seen an increase in opportunity.

Kuminga has responded to this new chance by playing the best basketball of his career and maybe saving the Warriors season in the process.

How Jonathan Kuminga made the leap

In a lot of ways, Kuminga plays basketball like a lite version of Zion Williamson (both in terms of production and weight). Kuminga uses the power, size, and speed he was blessed with to be a menace in the paint.

Since Jan. 30, Kuminga is fifth in the entire NBA in points in the paint (162 total points), behind only the best of the best in this practice. For Kuminga, most of these opportunities come through drives (first clip in the montage below), rolls (second clip), cuts (third), putbacks (fourth), transition forays (fifth), and quick-hitting post-ups (sixth).

When Kuminga isn’t scoring in the paint, he’s getting into the paint and forcing defenders to foul him. He’s averaging 5.8 free throw attempts per 75 possessions (92nd percentile per Dunks & Threes). For how efficient Kuminga is around the rim (70.5%, 89th percentile), two free throws (72.2%) is even better offense for his team.

The tools that make him dangerous on offense also make him quite useful as a defender. According to Defensive Estimated Plus-Minus (DEF EPM), arguably the best one-number metric on the market, Kuminga is in the 83rd percentile among defenders.

Kuminga is big and strong (6’8 and 210 pounds) in a game that favors size and physicality. This helps him crash the offensive and defensive glass and defend larger adversaries.

However, the big appeal with Kuminga on defense is the pogo sticks on his feet. Rim protection is an important part of defense (some would argue that it’s the most important part). And while he can’t be a team’s primary rim protector, he doesn’t need to be (since he’s a power forward). He just needs to offer good secondary rim protection, which he has done a great job of over his recent hot stretch.

How Kuminga has changed the Warriors

Ever since they took the league by storm in the mid-2010s, the Warriors have made their bones as an offense with their perimeter shooting. They didn’t get to the rim as much as other contending teams, but it was okay because they were so ahead of the curve from beyond the arc.

Nowadays, the entire league has evolved to meet the standard the Warriors set for the league at the apex of their dynasty. So, Golden State’s weakness has become that much more damaging. Before January 30th, Golden State was 29th in the entire NBA in points in the paint per 100 possessions (per NBA.com). And as a result, their offense was just slightly above average (11th in offensive rating).

Now, with Kuminga making ferocious escapades into the paint on a nightly basis, the Warriors are 13th in points in the paint per 100 and 7th in offensive rating since January 30th.

The reason Kerr lived with the below-average rim rates from his team all these years (outside of their competitive advantage from three) is that he was worried about the toll adding more offense would have on his team’s rebounding and defense. That’s why Kerr has religiously started games with five-man lineups featuring Draymond Green and Kevon Looney.

However, with how much the NBA offense has improved since the beginning of Golden State’s dynasty, Looney’s strengths (rebounding and interior defense) are now outweighed by his weaknesses (scoring and speed).

(Sidebar: Looney’s value as a player depreciating isn’t the result of traditional big men being phased out of the game. In fact, the best bigs today weigh nearly as much as they did in the late 1990s. They are just more skilled on offense nowadays than Looney is.)

Kuminga gives the Warriors a boost in scoring and speed while also providing most (not all) of the value that Looney brings in terms of rebounding and paint protection. On the season, Kuminga is in the 55th percentile in block percentage among forwards (per Cleaning the Glass). And as a team, the Warriors are still in the 51st percentile in offensive rebounding and 50th percentile in defensive rebounding during Kuminga’s minutes. So, they are staying afloat on the glass despite not using their double-big lineup as much.

To simplify all this word vomit into something short and sweet, Kuminga gives the Warriors an element that their double big lineup doesn’t while also not conceding all of its benefits.

Kuminga’s recent run has allowed the Warriors to unlock the latest iteration of their vaunted “Death Lineup.” This year, when franchise icons Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Green share the court with Kuminga and Andrew Wiggins, the Warriors are a +8.6 per 100 in 296 non-garbage time possessions (65th percentile).

This iteration of the Death Lineup includes a tune-up that makes it even more terrifying to the rest of the league. When you substitute Thompson and plug rookie Brandin Podziemski in that lineup, the Warriors are +21.2 per 100 (89th percentile) in 307 non-garbage time possessions. These numbers are in line with the statistical footprint of the best five-man lineups of past championship teams.

Where Kuminga still needs to improve

All this talk about Kuminga’s growth and new Death Lineups is great (especially considering how the first portion of this team’s season went), but the Warriors are still not without their shortcomings.

Kuminga may be a great physical athlete and paint scorer. But he’s still a poor outside shooter (16th percentile in 3-point percentage) and a bad passer (13th percentile in Passer Rating) with a weak handle (29th percentile in turnover percentage among forwards). And despite his size and verticality, Kuminga doesn’t have a high motor or affinity for off-ball defense and rotations (as evidenced by his 35th percentile steal rate).

This generation of the Death Lineup is also more flawed than its predecessors. Podziemski is a better driver, playmaker, and off-ball defender (and he plays with more energy) than Thompson. But he’s not as good of a shooter/spacer, and he doesn’t boast as much size as the other Splash Brother. So, the Warriors are leaving something on the table regardless of which one of them they put in the lineup.

The frontcourt trio of Kuminga, Green, and Wiggins has had great success together so far. But their fit could get murky in the playoffs as they are a below-average spacing group compared to the other frontcourts of contending teams.

How much will Golden State’s lack of size and spacing derail the Warriors this spring? That remains to be seen. But for now, we can pencil in the new-look, Kuminga-bolstered (yet still flawed) Warriors as an outer circle title contender this postseason.

That’s not where they were at their peak. But it does mean that the dynasty lives on to fight another day.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *