The Bay Area is an asymmetrical place. The local sports teams, however, have an eerie symmetry about them.
The San Francisco 49ers, the San Francisco Giants, and the Golden State Warriors have had to face various crossroads between their presence and their future. At each of these crossroads, they all miscalculated.
In 2020, the 49ers felt like they needed to upgrade over Jimmy G and the Warriors didn’t think their aging stars had much left in the tank. Working off limited info, neither team was extremely wrong... just wrong enough.
The 2021 49ers and the 2022 Warriors roared deep into the playoffs. Those teams’ successes shone a light on a massive gap that existed between the leadership’s perspective on the rosters and the reality of their rosters. This gap was papered over with the smoke and mirrors of two timelines, but the results on the field blew that smoke away to expose this dramatic fissure.
The young, talented rookies fell into this gap and this gap swallowed them whole. There’s varying levels of raw potential and playability across Trey Lance, James Wiseman, Jordan Poole, and Jonathan Kuminga. Altogether, factors completely outside their control have shaped their careers in the Bay Area. Starting tonight, the rest of this preseason will show us which of those trajectories Trey Lance will continue on.
At first blush, it seems like Wiseman is the cleanest comparison to Lance.
The selection of Wiseman was borne out of the sparks emanating from the butting heads of the Warriors GM, coach, and owner, much like how there’s speculation on who Kyle and John actually wanted when they made their trade up from 12 to 3. Much later, it has become clear that the fog of COVID clouded the information that the respective brain trusts were working with: Wiseman’s limited college career against inferior competition masked his lack of feel for the game, while Lance’s one spectacular season running all over FCS players made him seem much faster than he really is.
Wiseman and Lance both arrived to the Bay Area as they are: very likable, intelligent, hardworking young men that were easy to root for. Before Wiseman ever set foot on the court, he endeared himself to the Bay Area fanbase by showing off his grasp of Mandarin, sharing his musings on meditation and mindfulness, wearing funny South Park shirts off the court, and showing up to spend quality time in San Francisco’s Portrero Hill Projects.
Fans emotionally connected with him, which ratcheted up every time he flashed. Anthony Slater, the lead beat writer for the team, would quip that if you put together a 30-second sizzle reel of his very best highlights, you’d walk away thinking this guy is the best player in the world.
This coast-to-coast slam that he had against the Pistons reminds me so much of the 50-yard layered throw that Lance had to Deebo against the Texans. Very few humans on the planet can make those kinds of plays. These clips could brighten up the darkest days of these guys' careers - you could tell yourself that if you just waited long enough, maybe those flashes became the standard.
Various ailments, minor leading to major injures, stood in the way of that ever happening. In Wiseman’s first year, he sprained his wrist and caught COVID, seemingly minor but magnified in the context of how much he couldn’t afford to miss time so early in his career.
Much like how Lance chipped his finger his first preseason, these “small” injuries had a major downstream effect impeding his development. The torn meniscus and the fractured ankle get most of the attention as the nastiest bites of the injury bug, but it’s many little stings that chipped away the most of the foundation of their careers in the Bay Area.
Ultimately, James Wiseman never became playable nor did he hit on his potential. His chapter with the Warriors ended unceremoniously: a mid-season trade for basically nothing to a last-place team that didn’t even have a guaranteed role for him. If Lance plays exactly as he did against the Raiders, we might get that Twitter notification from Adam Schefter saying that our three first round picks became a conditional 2024 4th rounder.
If he plays better, he’ll end up more on the Jordan Poole trajectory.
Jordan Poole hit on both his potential and his playability in a way that Lance has yet to, which ironically contributed to his being traded. Poole did three things that Lance can only dream about right now: had a major role on a championship-winning team, signed a massive contract extension, and ate a punch from one of the team leaders (I didn’t say it was a good dream).
On top of all of that, beloved veteran Klay Thompson came back, which sliced Poole’s guaranteed minutes on the court in half. By the time the next season started, the coach oscillated his minutes as if he were a rookie again, and he was not in the headspace to thrive amidst that level of instability. It’s the Aiyuk-in-the-doghouse version on steroids… if Aiyuk won a Super Bowl only to be thrown back in the doghouse with Michael Vick who later dropped him back off at the kennel.
When Steve Young went on KNBR earlier this week, he argued that it’s not that Lance can’t actually process on the field — it’s that with the instability of his role, he’s putting so much pressure on himself with every rep, to the point that it’s short-circuiting his flow.
Poole was going through the same thing last year — the same guy that was getting hot every game in 2022 (51% overall shooting and 39% from three in the 2022 title run) seemed to be suffering from toxic algae blooms in his Poole party in 2023 (34% overall and 25% from 3 in the 2023 playoffs).
Less than two months after the season ended, Poole was traded to the Washington Wizards. A lesser team with a bigger role to offer, the Wizards’ mediocrity breeds opportunity for someone like Poole.
In his 49ers career so far, Lance started off like Wiseman and now has a chance to finish it like Poole. Maybe Lance takes a huge step forward during the next two preseason games and remaining practices. At this point in time, it feels less like that would matter for Lance’s future on this team and moreso for his future on another team. Will he be fighting for scraps, or will he go somewhere that can give him what he needs?
Outside of the Poole-Wiseman spectrum exists an altogether different path for Trey Lance, and that depends on a factor completely outside of Lance’s control. Depending on what happens with Brock Purdy, Trey Lance could end up like Jonathan Kuminga.
Kuminga is neither as raw as Wiseman nor is he as playable as Poole. As of today, he can do things that very few NBA players can do that his team absolutely needs: shut down elite wing scorers with his on-ball defense while pressuring the rim with his top-percentile athleticism.
As much as the team needs that, the prerequisite for those things to even matter to winning is that Kuminga has to master the “little things” of his sport. Those “little things” - rebounding, off-ball defense, setting good screens - are so important that players with way less athleticism, way less ability to attack the rim, and way less ability to guard Luka Dončić or Kevin Durant 1 on 1 were playing ahead of Kuminga in the rotation.
Lance is in a similar position with the “little things” of playing quarterback - the accuracy and touch on short throws, the timing and anticipation in the middle of the field, and throwing the ball away when he’s getting sacked. His ability to open up the field with his deep and sideline throws is not only needed but also rare in the NFL... but it barely matters if he’s fizzling on the three-stop drops.
Kuminga was losing minutes to Anthony Lamb, a four-year college player who understood exactly what Steve Kerr’s system was trying to accomplish. Lance is currently contending for QB2 with Lamb Darnold, whose 55 NFL games take away Trey’s margin for error in terms of his “little things”.
This offseason, Kuminga has been publicly tasked with mastering those “little things”. So far, Lance has seemed to made a lot of progress on his mechanics, throwing short passes with much better touch and having the highest completion percentage in practice.
Matt Maoicco has already said that the “train has left the station” in terms of Lance ever getting game reps for the 49ers, with Darnold making waves on the QB2 role. There’s still some football left to be played, including tonight against Denver. Trey still has the opportunity to shore up the QB2 spot, which doesn’t guarantee that he won’t be traded.
But there’s also no guarantee that Brock makes it the whole season. It’s grim, but there’s only been two years in Kyle Shanahan’s tenure with the same QB1 starting and ending the season. Last season for the Warriors, it took the starting forward Andrew Wiggins to miss half the season for Jonathan Kuminga to get any consistent playing time. He was sent back to the bench once Wiggins got back, but that stretch saved Kuminga’s Warriors tenure.
Both JK and TL project as guys that are a year or two away from their playability coming close to their potential. On rosters like these, that’s a problem that the teams can talk themselves into being looked at as “good problems”. The Yorks’ and the Lacobs’ are paying for loaded roasters with expensive veterans, and those veterans’ brilliance today are forcing the teams to be extremely present.
Glancing toward the future means taking their eye off the road. Joe and Jed and John and Kyle are all driving the highest end supercars in the Steph Currys’ and the Trent Williams and the Nick Bosa’s, on such a tight course that just a tiny swerve can careen these dynasties off a cliff.
Up until now, nobody’s fallen out of their seat yet. The 49ers stumbled upon a starting QB on pick 256, and the Warriors’ superstar core is so good that their margin of error is vast. But yet again, our local teams might be approaching a crossroads soon enough. Decisions end up compounding, no matter how much winning glosses over everything. Let’s see which direction Trey Lance will take tonight.