The Warriors’ Ultimate Gamechanger: Exploring the X-Factor That Could Decide Their Fate Against the Kings

The Golden State Warriors are finally full-strength at just the right time.

Andrew Wiggins surely won’t reach last year’s postseason peak in a first-round clash with the Sacramento Kings, but his rapid re-acclimation after two months removed from game action is the defending champions’ only major personnel concern entering the playoffs. Steve Kerr has the entire roster at his disposal for the first time since effectively replacing James Wiseman with Gary Payton II at the trade deadline.

Their tumultuous regular season in the rearview mirror, do these Dubs actually have what it takes to repeat? We’ll start to find out for sure in a highly anticipated battle with Sacramento for Northern California bragging rights, a series that could at last unlock Golden State’s most intriguing five-man lineup—as long as Jonathan Kuminga is ready to meet the moment.

Here is the Warriors’ biggest X-factor against the Kings in the first round of the playoffs.

Warriors’ biggest playoffs X-factor vs. Kings: Jonathan Kuminga

Golden State is a heavy favorite versus Sacramento despite Wiggins last taking the floor before the All-Star break. If he somehow manages close to the level of two-way impact he reached against the Boston Celtics last June with the Larry O’Brien Trophy on the line, the Warriors could take down the Kings with even more ease than betting markets and assumptions of casual fans suggest.

Wiggins’ ceiling means that much to the Dubs, especially facing a foe like Sacramento—at an imminent, unavoidable disadvantage defensively that means its league-best offense must click on all cylinders.

But it’s foolish to think Wiggins will immediately be the all-court force he was during the biggest moments of last year’s title run while being thrust right into the playoff pressure cooker. He was a shell of himself upon returning from a month-long injury absence in early January, only showing consistent signs of getting back to form right before a family matter shelved him again for even longer.

Wiggins’ physical tools make him among a small group of players who really can flip the switch seemingly at will. He can’t scrape his ceiling without a proper sense of timing and continuity on both ends, though, let alone being comfortable throwing his body around the paint to make a real difference on the glass. It’ll take a bit for Wiggins to be near his best.

Kuminga’s steady upward trajectory throughout 2022-23 ensured he’d be part of the Dubs’ playoff puzzle, but the uncertainty surrounding Wiggins makes him an even bigger piece of it.

Go ahead and pencil in Kuminga for at least 20-plus minutes off the bench every game of the first round. He’s the Warriors’ top blend of size, explosiveness and role versatility on the wing with Wiggins still getting up to speed, poised to thrive in a series bound to be played in the open floor. Both Golden State and Sacramento finished top-seven in lowest time to shoot, per Inpredictable, playing even faster compared to the rest of the league after giving up a basket.

Kuminga’s rare athletic gifts aren’t just useful in transition. He fought harder on the boards late in the season after being challenged by the coaching staff, and was a more reliable, disruptive help defender as his sophomore campaign went on—at least when totally locked in, which shouldn’t be a problem given stakes of the postseason.

Especially while matched up with Kings bench units, Kuminga should have ample opportunity to make his presence felt in help,

But Kuminga looms largest in this series as a primary defender.

The Warriors weren’t afraid to switch two-through-five onto Domantas Sabonis in these teams’ three meetings before mid-November. With Kevon Looney on the floor next to Draymond Green, they even tasked the latter with defending De’Aaron Fox, allowing him to double Sabonis as necessary while roaming off a streaky three-point shooter.

It’s asking too much of Kuminga to hold up one-on-one versus Sabonis on the block. Some amount of help is inevitable in that scenario, but that doesn’t mean Golden State will hesitate to switch Kuminga onto Sabonis if Fox is his primary defender, just like Wiggins.

A connected dynamic could help Kuminga’s value to the Dubs explode in the playoffs: His viability as part of small-ball lineups in crunch-time.

Injuries and absences prevented Golden State’s eyebrow-raising quintet of Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Wiggins, Kuminga and Green from notching meaningful court time during the regular season. At least in theory, Kuminga’s obvious growth off the ball defensively and playing within flow of the offense makes him the Warriors’ ideal fifth man in the clutch alongside their core four.

If he avoids defensive lapses and fully commits to rebounding, the only factor that could prevent Kuminga from seeing the floor in crunch-time against Sacramento is floor-spacing. The Kings held off the Warriors on November 13th at Golden 1 Center by throwing aggressive traps at Curry late, forcing his supporting cast to make open shots or put the ball on the deck.

It didn’t go well.

Kuminga was watching from the bench back then, a couple weeks removed from beginning his sustained breakout.

He’s shooting 45.2% from deep since returning from a foot injury in mid-January, on admittedly low volume. Even if his jumper goes cold or is spooked by Sacramento daring him to shoot, Kuminga has all the ball skills, burst and finishing nuance needed to attack space and create a good look.

Kuminga’s play will be key against the Kings no matter what. If he’s good enough to regularly be on the floor with Golden State’s stars for the most high-leverage moments, though, it won’t just help the Dubs advanced past the first round, but could emerge as a pivotal swing factor on their quest for back-to-back titles.

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