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Warriors remaking offense around Russell

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OKLAHOMA CITY — When the Warriors signed D’Angelo Russell to a four-year, $117 million contract, speculation mounted as to whether or not Russell, the 23-year-old All-Star point guard accustomed to having the ball in his hands, could fit within Golden State’s motion offense. Now, the Warriors are tailoring their offense to him.

Facing injuries to offensive fulcrums Stephen Curry (hand) and Klay Thompson (knee), among others, Warriors coach Steve Kerr had to revamp his offense on the fly. Russell’s presence provides an offensive generator, albeit one that goes against the grain of the ethos Kerr worked so hard to establish during his tenure.

Gone (at least, temporarily) is the complex motion offense, making way for a steady stream of pick-and-roll play.

“It makes sense with the personnel that we have. D’Angelo is a tremendous ball-screen player, he’s one of the very best in the league. He causes a lot of problems for the defense,” Kerr said after the Warriors’ 114-108 loss to the Thunder Saturday.

Russell initiated a pick-and-roll 26 times against Oklahoma City. For the season, he is averaging 11.4 pick-and-roll possessions per game, good for eighth-most in the league - a number that should continue to climb. The Warriors are scoring on an impressive 49% of those possessions.

This rapid restructuring of the offense is reminiscent of general manager Bob Myers’ roster rebuild in the wake of Kevin Durant’s departure. Durant’s decision to sign with the Nets set in motion the sign-and-trade that brought Russell to San Francisco.

While Durant’s inclusion on the court was predictably seamless three years ago, Russell’s fit was expected to be a process. The Warriors during Kerr’s tenure mostly avoided traditional, high pick-and-roll, where a ball handler uses a screen set by a big man to get to the rim. Though the two-man game is a staple of basketball at every level, it discourages the ball movement that became the Warriors’ foundation.

Russell, meanwhile, is coming off a validating All-Star season in which he led Brooklyn to the playoffs. After Nets wing Caris LeVert went down with a dislocated foot early last season, Nets coach Kenny Atkinson reconstituted the offense around Russell.

Brooklyn ran pick-and-roll more than 23 times per game last season, nearly double that of the Warriors, who ran just 12.1 such possessions per game (even with a healthy Curry and Durant). But the 2019-20 Warriors have looked a lot like the 2018-19 Brooklyn Nets.

Russell scored 30, 52 and 32 points in his past three appearances (separated by a three-game absence due to a sprained ankle), becoming the first Warriors player not named Curry, Thompson or Durant to score 30-plus in three-straight games since Monta Ellis in 2012.

Despite the 0-3 trip, the Warriors return to the Bay Area seeing signs of progress. They nearly won in overtime in Minnesota and, after losing by 28 points to the Thunder in the second game of the season, battled back from a 23-point deficit Saturday to claim a fourth-quarter lead.

Since Russell took the reins, Golden State is scoring one point more per 100 possessions, from an offensive rating of 106.8 to 107.8. That’s a staggering improvement considering the players they’ve lost.

“We’ve found a decent rhythm offensively with what we’re doing. We’ve kind of scaled back on some of the things we’ve run and tried to simplify the game,” Kerr said. “We can still execute better, but we’re just trying to adapt to what our roster looks like.”

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