Warriors badly miss Gary Payton II, grit provided by championship role players

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Monte Poole: Warriors' needed grit will be hard to find originally appeared on NBC Sports Bayarea

After yet another nonchalant defensive performance left the defending NBA champion Warriors searching for solutions to problems that have plagued them most of the season, coach Steve Kerr tapped into a ton of truth.

“There’s no collective grit,” he told reporters in Phoenix, where the Warriors were roasted, 130-119, by the Suns. “We lack grit right now. And when you don’t have grit, the game is really easy for the other team.”

Where, then, is their grit?

It went away last summer, with the Warriors offering hugs, handshakes and championship rings as parting gifts.

Juan Toscano-Anderson, an Oakland native and perhaps the grittiest of last season’s Warriors, is now in Los Angeles wearing Lakers purple and gold.

Gary Payton II, who sprouted from his Hall of Fame father’s gritty Oakland roots, left The Town for Portland, which offered a three-year contract that in Year 1 quadruples his Warriors salary.

Otto Porter Jr., equal parts smarts and savvy, went off to Toronto, which presented him with a two-year contract worth nearly six times what he made last season with the Warriors.

Nemanja Bjelica, who brought assets similar to those of Porter, left for a multiyear contract in Turkey.

Damion Lee, who without grit wouldn’t be in the NBA, took his persevering self to Phoenix, which offered a nominal raise.

After winning the NBA Finals last season, the Warriors charted a different path. They waved goodbye to those approaching 30 -- or already beyond it -- to make room for those approaching 20.

The Warriors in the last three drafts chose six teenagers, not one of whom was NBA-ready. And it shows. How could it not? No one has cracked the rotation, leaving the veterans and newcomers like Donte DiVincenzo and JaMychal Green with the gargantuan task of stitching together what came fairly easily last season.

As a result, this vet/kiddie roster has been a mess. Lapses in focus and fundamentals, failures to follow game plans, fouling out of desperation or poor position, not knowing the habits of opposing personnel and a defense that often seems reluctant to physically engage.

The Suns, missing two starters and two more rotation players, were the latest team to take full advantage, shooting 51.2 percent from the field and 52.5 percent beyond the arc.

“These are NBA players,” Kerr said. “They spend all summer shooting thousands of jump shots, just like our guys do. When those jumpers are easy and the game is easy and they don’t feel any physicality, it’s a Drew League game. We’re playing a Drew League game right now.”

The Drew League is summertime ritual in Los Angeles. It’s elite pickup basketball, and sometimes NBA stars past and present show up to show out. Play for the crowd. Individual creativity on offense is commended and supported. Defense is a myth.

It’s wonderfully entertaining but bears no resemblance to championship-level NBA ball.

Every member of the Warriors, coaches and players, even Stephen Curry in the midst of a fantastic season, bears some responsibility for the product on the floor and a 6-9 record that tells no lies.

The Warriors are 27th in defensive rating, 27th in rebounding percentage, 25th in rebounds per game, 22nd in second-chance points allowed, 28th in points allowed off turnovers, fourth in turnovers per game, dead last in free-throw attempts and first in most free throws against.

“We had five guys that played significant minutes in the playoff run that are not here,” Curry said in Phoenix. “We have guys that have a great opportunity to step into those roles. We still have a lot of confidence that we can get there. Our starting unit, we know we have not been perfect. We have to be honest ourselves about that, too, because our record kind of speaks for itself.”

Guys with the opportunity to step into roles vacated by the departing vets include recent lottery picks Jonathan Kuminga, Moses Moody and James Wiseman, who hopes to find some rhythm during his stint in the G League. They are lottery picks, drafted to become stars that represent the next phase of Warriors basketball.

They are somewhat accustomed to having strangers sniff their potential. They haven’t had to scratch and claw and fight to stay in the league because they know they are franchise investments. They don’t know grit like those they are struggling to replace.

Right now, the most reliable reserve is two-way forward Anthony Lamb, who played four years at the University of Vermont and turns 25 in January. His hunger is visible.

But grit is in short supply with the current roster. The Warriors lost five players whose hearts beat for their roles on the team. Five guys with substantial basketball knowledge, a deep appreciation for opportunity, high degrees of tenacity. They were fighting to stay in the league or desperate to revive careers.

The Warriors miss the toughness and sacrifice they brought to each game, whether playing on the court or cheering from the bench. What they did was, well, inspirational, nourishment for team chemistry.

Their absence is felt by the veterans, who are struggling to rediscover the chemistry that pushed them through many dark moments last season and, eventually, carried them through The Finals.

Yeah, those intangibles are missing.

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“Just put the focus on the team, whatever that really means for everybody, because we’re all built different, we all see the game differently,” Curry said. “But if your energy can be focused on the team and having each other’s back, whether it’s vocally or with your energy or body language, whatever the sacrifice might look like on the court when you’re out there in your minutes. That usually creates good vibes. And you can feed off that and get yourself out of a hole.

“You can’t obsess about the stat sheet or what it looks like, because that’s not how the game is played. You can’t kind of will yourself into whatever that night you might want if you’re not really focused on winning.”

Grit comes naturally to those who know repeated rejection but keep grinding. That’s the stealth ingredient on which the Warriors were built – particularly Draymond Green and Curry.

If this roster remains in place and is not capable of summoning it, this season will be remembered largely for its towering amount of exasperation.

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