The Trayce Jackson-Davis, Draymond Green combination has ‘changed’ the Warriors

HOUSTON — Jonathan Kuminga’s knee tendinitis flared up after the Miami Heat game. The Golden State Warriors rested him in Orlando the next night. Without him, Warriors coach Steve Kerr’s staff believed it was a great time to give the Draymond Green and Trayce Jackson-Davis frontcourt pairing a test drive. They started both against a gigantic Orlando Magic lineup.

But it lasted less than four minutes. Green was ejected. Had Kuminga returned in Charlotte two nights later, as was initially anticipated, the sample size of Green and Jackson-Davis together might still be tiny. They wouldn’t have started together. But Kuminga’s tendinitis lingered. He missed four more games. The Warriors started Green and Jackson-Davis together for all four. They won all of them with a steady defensive effort.

After the fourth win (and sixth in a row), a 133-110 extinguishing of the Houston Rockets’ playoff hopes on the road Thursday night, Kerr made a substantial statement that hinted toward his future lineup plans.

“Trayce and Draymond together have changed our team,” Kerr said. “It’s pretty dramatic, the rim protection and rebounding that Trayce gives us and what that allows Draymond to do.”

The Warriors are “hopeful” Kuminga will return Friday in Dallas. That isn’t a guarantee. They thought he’d return in Houston, but after a morning scrimmage, he was deemed “not quite ready.” Andrew Wiggins also tweaked his ankle and missed the fourth quarter against the Rockets. It’s minor, but his status against the Dallas Mavericks is shaky.

So, absences could redirect the plans, but Kerr is sending an early warning sign that Kuminga, who started 29 consecutive games before the knee issue, could be initially returning to a bench role.

“We’ve established something here for years: If we’re playing well, we’ll generally keep the same starting lineup,” Kerr said. “I’ve kept Steph (Curry) and Draymond out of the starting lineup when they’ve been in that situation.”

The immediate ramifications are small. Kuminga would still get chunk minutes as a reserve, and Kerr has changed up his starting lineup with impunity all season. Everyone but Curry has come off the bench at least once.

But a bigger-picture question about the frontcourt is emerging. Green is under contract for three more seasons, Kuminga is extension-eligible this summer and has played himself into a lucrative long-term payday, and now Jackson-Davis is the valuable cost-controlled center — owed only $6.5 million total over the next three seasons — who also appears ready for a starting job and 30 minutes every night.

Can they all play together?

“Switchable unit,” Green said. “Good rebounding unit. Good defensive unit with the length we present.”

But the presumed problem wouldn’t come on the defensive end. The concern is whether Kuminga, Green and Jackson-Davis can all survive as an offensive unit together when one doesn’t shoot 3s, the other two don’t draw out defenders on their 3s and all three thrive with increased spacing.

Kuminga, Green and Jackson-Davis have been on the floor together for only 18 minutes this season, spread over seven games. They put up a measly offensive rating of 92.5 in that brief time, getting outscored by 5 points. As this team tries to chase down playoff dreams, it also might be wise to get a better sense of whether those three can coexist in the same lineup before an important offseason.

“If we do it, Steph has to be on the floor, and probably Klay (Thompson),” Kerr said. “There’s a spacing challenge, for sure. But it’s something we could still go to.”

But the Warriors view this as a fortunate problem. Jackson-Davis, drafted with the No. 57 pick last June, has forced his way into the larger conversation, reminding Kerr and the Warriors’ staff of the benefit of pairing Green with an imposing defensive center, as he once had with a younger Kevon Looney, Andrew Bogut and David West.

“It allows me to take more chances,” Green said. “Not necessarily chances gambling for a steal, but to clog the paint up, make extra rotations. If I’m the five, I’m the last line of defense. The things that I do off of instinct, reading the game on the fly, it’s hard to do that at the five because you’re anchoring everybody. So if I just run over here to cover up something but I’m the five, that’s leaving the rim unprotected. But if I know the rim is protected with Trayce, I’ll just go do it.”

It’s been a process. In one of their first stints together earlier this season, Green thought someone had a free lane to the rim and came over to foul them before realizing Jackson-Davis was in a great position to contest the shot. Then, a few games back, Jackson-Davis came over for an early double-team while Green had someone bottled up. Neither could remember the player. But both remember Green’s reaction. He lit into Jackson-Davis.

“He yelled at me,” Jackson-Davis said, laughing. “Told me he had it covered.”

“Don’t come double with me, man,” Green said. “I’m good. I need you to clean up the back side. If the guy gets by me, then come help and I’ll fire back to yours. But I’m not too fond of double-teams.”

It’s the lessons that are only learned with time together. Green once went through this process with Bogut and West and Looney and others. He’s now getting the reps with Jackson-Davis, and the results are notable. They’ve played 169 minutes together this season. The Warriors are plus-55 in them with a 96.2 defensive rating.

It’s even better in their past four starts together: 73 minutes, plus-27, 92.5 defensive rating.

“It allows everyone to ball pressure more,” Green said. “Closeouts are tighter, ultimately knowing that we have a rim protector back there who has been great with his rotations, altering shots, blocking shots. …We’ve both gotten more comfortable trusting each other. For me, knowing if somebody gets beat, he’s going to be there. I don’t always have to make that extra rotation. Then, vice versa. He gets beat, he knows ‘Draymond is getting my man, let me go find his.’”

The Warriors killed the Rockets’ spirit early Thursday night. They ripped out to a 19-6 lead behind Thompson’s hot start (he finished with 29 points) and another great defensive surge. Houston was held to 6 points in the first six minutes.

Here is one of the Warriors’ early stops. Jackson-Davis switches onto Jalen Green, one of the league’s hottest scorers, tracks his drive out of the pick-and-roll and blocks it off the glass into a fast break.

Jackson-Davis has also been productive on the offensive end. He had the first 20-point game of his career against the Rockets, making 8 of 10 shots, all at the rim. He’s at 71 percent from the floor on the season, using his instinctual feel and soft, lefty touch to live off dump-offs and lobs against defenses trained to worry about all the Warriors’ flowing perimeter action.

“Trayce has filled that role,” Curry said. “It gives Draymond a little bit more freedom to be a pest out there, being help side, being able to attack the ball knowing that there’s a presence behind him. Trayce has done an unbelievable job of learning how to be aggressive, pick and choose his spots, how to protect the rim and just play sound defense. Then we’re trying to fly around that, and it even helps to have Wiggs applying so much ball pressure to their primary scorer. The pieces fit.”

(Photo: Nathaniel S. Butler / NBAE via Getty Images)

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