Why The Golden State Warriors Shouldn’t Trade Away Their ‘Kids’
August 19th 1995 is a day that soccer pundit, and decorated former Liverpool player, Alan Hansen has never lived down. Speaking on the flagship English Premier League programme Match of the Day, Hansen gave a scathing review of a young Manchester United team’s opening day 3-1 defeat at the hands of a middling Aston Villa team.
That offseason United, who had won the English Premier League in its first two seasons but fallen short in their quest for a third title, sold three of their most important veteran players. Their talisman, Eric Cantona, was suspended for the opening months of the season. Yet their legendary manager Alex Ferguson had not signed any new players. Instead Manchester United rolled into that season with a crop of young, unproven, players. This was the context in which Hansen let fly with six words that have haunted him ever since – “You can’t win anything with kids.”
The problem was those kids included David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Gary and Phil Neville, Nicky Butt, all 20 or under, and the already established, but only 21-years-old, Ryan Giggs. They were the golden generation that turned Manchester United into one of soccer’s greatest, and most dominant, dynasties. That season they won the league and FA Cup double, the following year the league again, and then in 1999 an historic treble of the league, FA Cup, and European Cup. They followed that up with three more Premier League titles in the next four seasons. Naturally, the United team shop printed up the slogan on a t-shirt and sent it to Hansen.
The Golden State Warriors have their own timeline dilemma
In Hansen’s defense he later stressed, rightly, that Manchester United had still retained their veteran core including legendary goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel, and Cantona. The “kids” had essentially filled in the gaps and then taken over the reins as the veteran core aged out.
Fast forward a quarter of a century, and cross the Atlantic ocean, and you might just find another dynastic team grappling with the same issues. It’s no secret the Golden State Warriors are trying to reboot their franchise with a new generation around an established veteran core of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. At the same time they’ve got their hands on three recent lottery picks in James Wiseman, Jonathan Kuminga, and Moses Moody.
As a result there’s no shortage of NBA pundits shouting about the Warriors’ need to trade their young players for established veterans to help them win now. The Golden State front office appear much less inclined to partake in the frenzy than many outside the franchise.
How good are these Warrior “kids”?
Hansen uttered those words because they were typically true in professional sports. The problem was that Manchester United generation were really that good. The jury is out on the Warriors next generation, but there are some early promising signs.
Kuminga in particular looks like the real deal in his Warriors debut. While it’s always risky to draw too much out of the Summer League, what is clear is that Kuminga plays with a force and power that the Warriors have never really had at the forward position. His vision and feel is much further advanced than some of the pre-draft assessments suggested, even if his execution remains a work in progress. And he attacks the game in ways in which he can make an impact. Whatever he is doing on the court, he stands out.
There is a long way to go to refine his game, but there can be no question Kuminga is physically ready for the NBA. What’s more he appears to have a skillset with his ability to create shots and play with force that could not just fit quite nicely into the Warriors system, but actually enhance it. Beyond that, he clearly does have the superstar potential that had him tabbed for a long time as a top-5 pick in this deep draft.
Meanwhile Moody looks much as advertised. He plays with a poise and savvy beyond his tender years, and possesses the size and length to be an impactful defender. Offensively he has work to do. His lack of burst means he’s struggled to beat his man, and struggled to finish at the rim at times. But his shooting stroke looks good and he’s got a decent array of floaters and crafty moves to compensate for that lack of elite athleticism. Even if he doesn’t turn out to be more than a high-end role player he’s a smart, long wing who can defend and shoot. For the Warriors, that’s an ideal fit. And he’s only 19 so there’s still plenty of room to grow into something more.
Even though Wiseman is the longest-tenured of the three, the biggest question marks hang over him. The Warriors basically have to treat this season as Wiseman’s rookie year after a season disrupted by Covid protocols and ill-timed injuries. They are expecting him to be ready for training camp, which should give him a much better grounding for the season than last year where he came in off a sum total of three college games and a year of pandemic-enforced largely solo gym work.
They’ve already been making noises about bringing him along more slowly, and potentially using him off the bench initially. The coaching staff will need to get creative to figure out how to utilize his unique mixture of size and skill, rather than resort to just using him as a vertical spacer, when his game could be so much more diverse.
At the same time Wiseman will need to take a big leap forward in his understanding of defensive concepts and processing of plays on that end to be a net-positive on the floor as a center. But those are things that can be learned, and his experience last year will gives him something to work off.
The timeline dilemma may be overblown
The reality is the Warriors timeline dilemma may be somewhat overblown. Yes, they have Curry, Green, and Thompson all over 30. Yes, they have Wiseman, Kuminga, and Moody, all 20 or under. But other than that Jordan Poole is the only other player on the roster under 25, and he’s already broken through as a potential rotation piece.
Indeed after their moves in free agency, the Warriors actually have a decent core of established players. Andre Iguodala’s return is the headline but Otto Porter Jr and Nemanja Bjelica join a supporting cast of Andrew Wiggins, Kevon Looney, Juan Toscano-Anderson, and Damion Lee, who are all in their mid-late 20s and demonstrated last season they can be part of a winning Warriors team.
That means the Warriors already have 10 players 25 or over who can form a coherent team, and another player in Poole who has proven he can help them when it counts. Provided Thompson can work his way back from injury that is the basis of a scary playoff team in a pretty open Western Conference.
After their performances in Summer League, it looks as if Kuminga and Moody may well be able to play roles this season too. Indeed it’s worth underlining that the Wiseman experience last season was such an outlier in terms of his unusual route to the NBA, that there is a risk that gets overblown when it comes to Moody and Kuminga. Both had a much smoother paths to the pros, with Moody playing in a solid NCAA program and Kuminga spending the last year practicing with, and playing against, top talent and fringe NBA players with the G-League Ignite.
So while the Warriors probably do need one or two of Kuminga, Wiseman or even Moody to pop in their first couple of seasons to really tilt a title chance their way, they aren’t far off and that doesn’t seem too outlandish an expectation.
The secret ingredient
Ultimately Manchester United’s success was not just down to the players, kids or not. Manager Alex Ferguson was at the center of it all too. It was his judgement that those players were ready at that point, and his guidance that enabled them to perform at the level they needed to.
Are the Warriors coaching staff similarly ready for the challenge ahead? Last season Steve Kerr and his team conspicuously struggled on this front. Wiseman was thrown to the Wolves before he was ready and it showed. But the Warriors have upgraded their development staff with some high-profile additions, including former Brooklyn Nets coach Kenny Atkinson, Nikola Jokic’s former coach Dejan Milojevic who might be their answer to the Wiseman questions, and Jama Mahlalela whose pedigree stems from a long and successful run with the Toronto Raptors developing players such as Pascal Siakam.
They’ve also got some of the best basketball brains in the business for those players to learn from on the court in Iguodala and Green. And former Warriors favorites Shaun Livingston, Leandro Barbosa and Zaza Pachulia are dotted around the organization, ready to help.
Will that be enough to prove the Hansen-esque proclamations currently raining down on the Warriors as misguided as that ill-fated declaration on Manchester United’s youth? Only time will tell, but it’s not hard to see why the Golden State top brass might want to find out.