With due respect to the Miami Heat (made out of iron, love to fight), the Philadelphia 76ers (very tall), and the Utah Jazz (the Utah Jazz), the best basketball in the NBA right now is being played by the Golden State Warriors. Last year’s bridge squad of misshapen weirdos supporting the lone two healthy superstar holdovers from the team’s title years has given way to a somewhat more correctly shaped cadre of weirdos who are doing a much better job supporting an even more-rested Steph Curry and Draymond Green. The team’s fate no longer hinges on dubious propositions like “Kelly Oubre being a normal guy” or “James Wiseman acquiring the use of his limbs.” Jordan Poole is hitting shots, Nemanja Bjelica is performing his patented refrigerator-shaped version of swagginess, and the rest of the cast is stepping up when needed. Wednesday night’s primetime win against the Hornets showed off how much better they are, and last night’s hero was Gary Payton II.
Payton has bobbed around the league for six seasons, logging less than one regulation season’s worth of games for four teams over that stretch without ever carving out a suitable niche for himself. He’s always been a skilled defender—his nickname is The Mitten, which is only partially a tribute to his Hall of Fame dad’s Hall of Fame nickname—though he’s never offered much more. The gap-year Warriors and last year’s also-rans were stocked with this sort of player. Intriguing, flawed, one or two breaks from cohering into a useful player. I don’t know if Payton can or will hit in the way, say, Juan Toscano-Anderson has, but he was pretty shockingly great against Charlotte. Three steals, 14 points, and plus-18 is not that eye-popping a logline, although it is a lot to pack into 17 minutes of floor time. More than that, though, no one watching the game could have missed the impact Payton had on it.
The Warriors currently have the best defense in the league. They have played seven games and Payton has played 50 minutes, so we don’t need to blow anything out of proportion here, though I must note that Payton absolutely put Ish Smith in the pain cave when assigned to him, and even troubled LaMelo Ball. Golden State goes at least 11 deep with real NBA players (if you count Payton but do not count some injured/very young guys we’ll get to in a minute), and everyone off the bench except Bjelica is pretty nasty on defense. While Steph Curry spent the title years brazenly profaning the laws of geometry, the team’s success also owed a great deal to its defensive backbone. The return of their rigid defense is as much a reason to be excited as Poole rounding the corner into straight-up goodness. Payton’s a bit player here, sure, though he seems to have finally found a defined role that suits him very well. He earned more or less all of his 14 points by standing in the right spot, which is most of the game when you play with passers like Green and Curry. If he can do that while pulling off sequences like his strip of Ball followed by a block on Miles Bridges, Payton absolutely should stick.
As good as they’ve been in the early going, what’s truly scary about the Warriors is how unformed they still remain. Klay Thompson hasn’t set foot on the court this year, 2021 lottery picks Moses Moody and Jonathan Kuminga are fringe guys thus far, and James Wiseman still is not back yet. There’s real growth potential here, especially since a more fully realized Wiseman would fill in some of the last few gaps the Warriors have (rim protection, vertical threat) and Moody and Kuminga could enhance the bench’s existing run-around-and-do-stuff capabilities. The top of the Western Conference is a lumpen cluster of flawed teams (and, again, the Utah Jazz), and I don’t think it would take more one of those four current non-factors turning into a truly productive player for the Warriors to become legitimate title contenders. In the meantime, there will always be the Gary Payton II experience.