Warriors’ bench is NBA’s best right now, and Chris Paul is just getting started

CLEVELAND — Even in the afterglow of the Golden State Warriors’ fourth road win of the season on Friday in Oklahoma City, Chris Paul acknowledged that the team is still navigating through the kinks.

The Warriors, who surrendered a season-high 139 points against a Thunder team that was without All-Star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, still have ways to go before they can be considered an elite defense. Newcomers are still trying to make sense of their roles on offense. Lineups and closing units have yet to be clearly defined. This early season threshold can make or break a team in the long run.

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Paul could not remember which game it was, but said Golden State recently used its press-break offense against an opponent for the first time. The Warriors’ veteran core of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Andrew Wiggins, Draymond Green and Kevon Looney offers a sense of familiarity. But outside of those five, so much about this team is completely different.

That’s what makes the Warriors’ 5-1 start heading into Sunday’s game at Cleveland so impressive. They are managing to win while adjusting to the unpredictability that having new personnel creates. Lessons are being learned through the lenses of victory rather than defeat, and that is important for this group.

Because if the team was forced to weave in these new pieces while also enduring a rough start, then the fabric would be at risk of tearing apart.

“Being in team sports for so long, things could be a lot different right now if we were trying to figure stuff out and we were losing,” Paul said. “When you’re winning games, everyone’s spirit is just better.”

The best evidence to support just how well their pieces are fitting together can be drawn from second-unit success. Golden State’s bench has a net rating of 8.0 in 121 minutes through six games, the best in the NBA. It is plus-5.8 with Curry off the court versus plus-1.8 with him on it, and multiple reserves have had a part to play in that drastic improvement compared with last season.

“That second unit has been dicing teams up and winning games for us,” Green said.

Friday night, Jonathan Kuminga shook off a rough start to score 17 of his 19 points in the second half. Gary Payton II played tenacious defense as part of the closing unit and was a team-best plus-9 in 22 minutes. But most impressive against the Thunder might have been Dario Saric.

The 6-foot-10 Saric had a season-high 20 points and made 4 of 7 3-point attempts. He has made at least one trey in each of his first six appearances with the Warriors. If he can continue to stretch the floor at a high level, the team will awaken an element of its offense that was mostly dormant last season. Golden State can already feel his impact, and will continue to encourage him to shoot.

“There was a reason why he was our No. 1 target in free agency,” Green said. “We went all in for us to have him here. We knew how much he’d help this team. The chemistry that him and (Chris) have is great, and he’ll continue to help us as we go.”

That is what makes the Warriors’ second unit so dangerous. Whether it is Saric, Kuminga, Moses Moody or someone else, anyone is capable of having a big night, and everyone is making an impact this season.

“That’s just the depth of our team, and you need that over the course of a season,” Paul said. “You know what you’re going to get out of Steph, Klay, Dray, different guys. I think us building up the confidence of our bench and that unit all season long is going to be big.”

Of course, it is Paul, 38, that has consistently put the reserves in the best position to succeed. The veteran point guard has recorded 54 assists to just 6 turnovers this season, although he is shooting just 33.9% from the field and 4.8% from 3. He had 13 assists and zero turnovers off the bench against the Thunder, a final tally that left Curry in awe.

“It’s impressive to say the least, his ability to see the court,” Curry said. “He really got JK going. Well, JK got himself going. But he got JK in the right positions. He got Mo some good looks. Dario, he obviously got him some good looks the whole game. He just has a knack for it — he’s had it his whole career. And watch out when (Paul) starts making shots. That’s going to be the fun part, when he puts it all together. … I’m super jealous of the assist-to-turnover ratio. I did not have that in my bag.”

However, Green made it clear the Warriors’ top five reserves are not the only key bench players on the team.

Rookies Brandin Podziemski and Trayce Jackson-Davis were absent from Friday’s game, assigned to their first G League stint of the season in Santa Cruz with second-year guard Lester Quinones. While those three are out of Kerr’s rotation at this point, Green said the energy they offer the bench on a nightly basis is important. As Golden State’s second unit continues to establish its identity, everyone has a part to play.

“We need them,” Green said. “They’re a big part of the fabric of this team.”

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