LOS ANGELES — The Warriors are on a mission to play past April 7. More specifically, though, the goal should be to avoid the play-in tournament at all costs.
The Warriors (29-29) are mired in play-in purgatory with just 24 games left of the regular season. FiveThirtyEight gives the Warriors a 72% chance of making the playoffs and a 5% chance of winning it all. Although they have the 13th best chance of making the postseason, they are still a top-seven favorite to claim the title.
Nothing about this season, however, suggests that a long-lasting winning streak is coming. The Warriors are projected by FiveThirtyEight to finish 43-39, tying for the sixth and final Western Conference playoff spot.
The Warriors believe that if they are healthy going into the playoffs, they have a chance in any seven-game series. But they’ve been way too inconsistent this season to take their chances in a win-or-go-home scenario that they could face in the play-in tournament.
The Warriors are currently in ninth place and would need to skip three teams to make the playoffs outright. They are one game behind the Dallas Mavericks, who are ranked sixth, and 2 1/2 games behind the fourth-placed Los Angeles Clippers.
Securing a top six place in the West is doable, but the Warriors will need to play much better in this final seven-week period than they did in the first four months of the season.
Keys to a postseason push, as outlined by Bay Area News Group reporter Shayna Rubin, include Andrew Wiggins returning to last year’s playoff form; Stephen Curry get and stay healthy; and the continued growth of Jonathan Kuminga.
The Warriors will play six games — all against Western Conference foes — in nine days from the break, starting Thursday against the Los Angeles Lakers, who upgraded their roster before the trade deadline. This stretch, which the Warriors will start and possibly end without Curry, could be a defining moment of their season.
Here are three looming questions the Warriors must answer:
Can Golden State improve its defense?
The Warriors have lost too many close games this season because they couldn’t make enough stops on the stretch. That’s why repairing their rickety defense remains the main concern for coach Steve Kerr and his staff.
Golden State’s previous title runs have always been driven by the locked defense, but this year the Warriors posted their worst defensive rating in Draymond Green’s tenure.
Point-of-attack defense is the Warriors’ biggest problem. Opponents have had a heyday with Golden State’s foul trouble and slow rotations, leading to open lanes or uncontested 3s.
The Warriors went out and got a strong defender in Gary Payton II at trade deadline. It cost them James Wiseman, number 2 overall, who was shipped to Detroit. But Payton won’t make an impact anytime soon, as he’ll be sidelined for at least a month with a core injury.
Needing a more immediate boost, the Warriors reportedly showed interest in Patrick Beverley, who was recently bought out by the Orlando Magic. But Beverly, a three-time All-Defensive team selection, decided to sign with his hometown team, the Chicago Bulls.
That leaves the Warriors with what they’ve got. Of course, Wiggins rediscovering his flow would improve the team’s defense. But the problem goes beyond just one player. The entire team must cling and stay engaged on that side of the ball. After all, basketball is possession and the Warriors have to respect that.
Will Jordan Poole turn it up a notch?
What the Warriors need most from Jordan Poole right now is consistency and focus on both ends of the field.
Poole averages 20.9 points, 4.5 assists and 2.8 rebounds, joining Kevon Looney as the only Warriors to have played in every game so far this season. Poole’s offensive production and playmaking have been solid, but he needs to curb his turnover problem.
Turnovers have been a team-wide problem – they average 16.4 per game – but Poole has been the biggest culprit, with 58 more than anyone else on the team.
Poole is struggling with the increased attention he is receiving from the opposing defense following last year’s breakaway and Curry’s absence. Due to the extra pressure, he is sometimes furious with the ball and rushes to make actions. Of course, Poole takes better care of the ball when he is focused and playing within his game.
Poole turned a corner last year after the All-Star break. He left a slump in February and finished the rest of the regular season as the curryless team’s top scorer. Will he get another end of the season like that?
What are they going to do with 15th place?
The Warriors have an open roster spot that they are expected to fill by converting one of their two-way players, Ty Jerome or Anthony Lamb, to a guaranteed deal.
The Warriors have made great use of both, and Jerome and Lamb have each made their own compelling case for the latter slot.
With Curry out, Jerome fits in really well as a true backup point guard. Playing behind Poole, who moved to the primary playmaker position, Jerome averaged 7.7 points, 4.4 assists and two rebounds while totaling just four turnovers in the past seven games.
Meanwhile, Lamb has been an oft-used insurance policy as the team’s frontcourt has been depleted by injuries for several parts of the season. The six-foot-tall forward averaged 7.2 points, 3.2 rebounds and 1.7 assists in 43 games this season.
Don’t expect the Warriors to make a decision on that 15th spot until they have to. Jerome and Lamb can play up to 50 NBA games with their current deals. Lamb is seven games away from reaching that threshold, while Jerome, who has played 36 games this season, has a little more leeway.