SAN FRANCISCO — After their fifth consecutive loss, the Warriors locker room was jarringly empty. No bowed heads and brooding moods to be found. No sulking. No visible signs of frustration. No people. Nearly an hour after their latest Chase Center thud, a 128-109 drubbing Thursday at the hands of the Oklahoma City Thunder, most of the players were on the practice court.
An unofficial players meeting seemed to be taking place, enough for the Warriors to close the view of their weight room and practice court with a black curtain. But balls were bouncing. Weights were clanking. Music was playing. And a collection of players were huddled on the court. In the middle was Stephen Curry, his yellow hoodie easy to spot. Chris Paul was in it. Jonathan Kuminga. Gary Payton II, one of the few already fully dressed.
In times like these for the Warriors, one of the best people to hear from is Kevon Looney, who keeps it realer than a hundred-dollar bill with the line across.
“I wouldn’t say I’m worried,” Looney said, pausing at his locker before pulling his shirt over his head. “Ahhh, I guess you can say worried a little bit because you can’t be losing games like this at home. I think we’ve got enough to be good but we‘ve got to figure it out.”
That’s what it seems like they were trying to do after the Thunder made easy work of the Warriors, shooting 50.6 percent from the field including 19 of 32 from 3. OKC was the latest younger, athletic, long and aggressive team to come into Chase Center and make the Warriors look old, slow and not skilled enough. So they appeared to be searching for answers.
Noticeably absent from the scene, from the vibe of resolution, was Draymond Green. Serving the first of his five-game suspension. Whatever was happening felt like a slamming of the brakes, a concerted effort to address this skid. And what was clear in their inability to do anything with the Thunder on Thursday night, as it was when Minnesota stepped on the gas late two nights before, was even more obvious in this postgame buzz: They need Draymond.
They need his defense. They need his experience. They need his genius. They need his leadership. They need that special thing he brings when he’s at his best. They need his best.
The NBA universe is on Green’s neck again, after he locked on to Rudy Gobert’s in the latest incident reaffirming his status as the league’s chief villain. It prompted a much heavier hand from the NBA’s penal system — a rebuke of their No. 1 public relations nuisance and an attempt to modify his behavior.
But in the locker room, this incident landed differently. The last couple of times Green’s overboiling emotions produced chaos, the frustration in the locker room was tangible. This time, though, their support of him shined. If he is going to fly off the handle, bring drama and the NBA law to their realm, this was a worthy reason. This was born of why they love him, because Green in your corner means you’ve got a rider with you.
“We’ve got his back,” Payton II said. “And we gon’ hold him down until he gets back.”
Sources in the locker room said Green apologized and displayed contrition. He told the team his intentions were pure — protecting his teammate — but he took it too far.
“It’s something we are working hard on behind the scenes,” coach Steve Kerr said. “Draymond has to find a way to not cross the line. And I’m not talking about getting an ejection or getting a technical, I’m talking about a physical act of violence. That’s inexcusable. We have to do everything we can to give him the help and assistance he needs to draw that distinction.”
But the message that should land with Green, that almost has to considering where the Warriors sit, is the resounding importance he has to this team. Because 12 years later, as the Warriors build toward a fifth crown, he’s still proving irreplaceable for Golden State. They signed him to a $100 million contract, leaning all the way into the precedent he helped build. No matter who they’ve signed or drafted, no matter what scheme they run, what was is still true. They need Draymond on the court and in their midst.
Their defensive rotations produced a buffet of open shots for the Thunder. Guards Isaiah Joe (7-for-7 from 3) and Josh Giddey (3-for-3) feasted like a free banquet.
The Curry-less Warriors had no answer offensively. Klay Thompson’s slump dug a new rock bottom: 5 points on 1-for-10 shooting in 27 minutes. Andrew Wiggins found some success attacking inside. But his shooting is still way off. He missed all four of his 3s and is now 5-for-37 on the season. His long-distance percentage has current mortgage rates looking over their shoulder. Wiggins also turned it over five more times and is a team worst minus-74 on the season.
The Warriors need Draymond on the court.
Rudy Gobert calls out Draymond Green’s ‘clown behavior’ as he gets the better of latest spat
And it is vitally clear now that anything he does will warrant a response from the NBA that includes a Draymond Green tax. Their tough-on-crime approach is aimed directly at him. So he has to presume from now on, whether he has justifiable reasons for his actions, he’ll get a suspension with a lecture.
So even when he is trying to help his team, he’d be hurting it. Even when he’s right, he’s going to be wrong. And when he’s wrong, it will be compounded harshly.
The Warriors and Green have been juggling with his fire for years. The rewards are bountiful — four championships, six NBA Finals appearances and one of the most valuable sports franchises in the world. The costs have been significant, too — losing the 2016 finals, the departure of Kevin Durant, the viral video of him punching his teammate — but always clearly worth it for the Warriors. Because while much of the outside world is fed up with Green, the Warriors keep chugging along with him, giving him consecutive $100 million contracts to keep him around.
Because the right balance of his fire and talent wins. And the Warriors, at their core, are about winning and not pageantry.
But a new era is upon them and Green. It may no longer take much for the league to act. Which means Green may need to operate at 85 percent of his burning capacity just to avoid overheating. And the Warriors just might need that 85 percent consistently — more than they need the 100 percent with a chance of combustion.
“His voice,” Looney said, discussing the intangibles they miss when Green is not there. “He helps us make adjustments a lot. When things aren’t going right, he’s one of the best basketball minds in the league. So he’s seeing things and he’s able to adapt and tell coach, ‘We should do this instead’ and we adjust. He makes things happen like that. Or he can just do it all himself on the court where he sees things happen. He cleans up a lot of mistakes. I think we missed that a lot from him. And he pushes the pace. When things aren’t going right, we can’t score, he pushes (it) and gets guys open shots and different guys good looks.”
Sure, if things were clicking elsewhere, maybe the Warriors could afford the risk of not having Green. If Thompson wasn’t mired in another season-opening slump. If Wiggins’ game hadn’t been kidnapped by the Monstars. If Kuminga was taking the expected leap. If Kerr and his staff were nailing the rotations and schemes. If their defenders scored a little more. If their scorers locked in a little better on defense.
But that’s not happening right now. And if they were, the presence and manifold contributions of Green would be that much more impactful.
This is shaping up to be one of those seasons where the Warriors can ill-afford long stretches of futility. There are questions as to how well this team, which needs to max out, can handle distractions and the circus that the Warriors can be.
They’ll probably endure this five-game absence, though it comes at a bad time. He wasn’t going to play all 82 anyway. But he’ll come back on NBA parole, knowing it doesn’t seem like they are built to handle life without him for long stretches.
They need him with them. Whatever solution is being devised behind the scenes likely doesn’t work without him.
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(Top photo: Kelley L Cox / USA Today)