It’s so close, you can almost taste it.
We’re two days away from Opening Night. The preseason is over. Let’s get to the real stuff, shall we?
Last week we began the process of a position-by-position outlook of the Warriors’ roster to get a better idea of what to expect from the much-anticipated season ahead. We’ve covered the guards. We’ve projected the swingmen. Now it’s time to take a look at what to expect from the Warriors’ group of bigs.
Let’s start with the guy who last season became the Warriors’ first All-Star in 17 years: the double-double machine otherwise known as David Lee. Routinely going off for 20 and 10 each night, Lee shot out of the gate at a ferocious pace, and carried that momentum through the winter, culminating in the second All-Star selection of his career. At regular season’s end, he led the league with 56 double-doubles, and was the only player in the Association to average at least 18 points and 11 rebounds, becoming the first Warrior to average 18 points/11 rebounds/three assists since Nate Thurmond and Jerry Lucas both did so in 1970-71. His reward? The Warriors first All-NBA Third Team selection since ’93-’94, and more importantly, the first playoff berth of his professional career. The latter, however, was short-lived, as Lee tore his hip flexor in the first game of the first round, and although made a courageous comeback for the San Antonio series, was not nearly as effective when he did. Which brings us to this question: What lingering effects, if any, will the injury have on his performance this season? While you never know how a player is going to respond, the assumption here is that Lee will not be hindered by it at all.
He’s come back this offseason in tremendous shape and appears to have no limitations in his movement, which should only improve as his body works into regular season form. The rebounds and passing ability will always be there – he’s done that his entire career, so the question becomes, where can he improve? The logical answer is on defense, although he made noticeable progress in his off-ball and help defense in the second half of last year. With a full season of a healthy Andrew Bogut protecting the rim, one would expect that trend to continue. But I’d argue, his pick-and-pop game with the Dubs’ sharpshooters, particularly Curry, is the team’s bread and butter, and if he can continue to knock down the 18-foot elbow jumper with consistency, they’ll be able to hang with anyone. Also, it will be interesting to see how often Lee is featured as the center in a small ball lineup. In such a scenario, Lee’s agility could become quite useful against less mobile centers, which might be best exploited when the team is in dire need of a bucket.
Speaking of Bogut, let’s just get this out of the way at the beginning. Yes, he’s had some freak injuries. Yes, he missed a lot of time last year. And YES, he took the team to another level in the playoffs. Just watch that clip again of him dunking over Javale McGee, and it’s easy to see the kind of impact the Aussie can have when he’s feeling right, and even then, he’d be the first to tell you he still wasn’t operating at 100 percent. But whereas he spent the majority of last season just simply trying to maintain and rehab, Bogut has now had an entire offseason to work on his game, and he recently said this is the best he’s felt in years. He’s one of the best interior defenders in the business, but due to the time he’s missed, people forget that he once averaged almost 16 points a game for the Bucks back in ’09-’10. While the Warriors won’t need him to score at that rate, the assumption is that his improved mobility will at least force opposing defenses to account for his interior presence, which should grant the perimeter shooters more space for open looks. Combine that with Bogut’s passing proficiency, and it’s easy to see how this could become a very successful recipe for the Dubs. Here’s hoping luck breaks his way this time around, no pun intended.
Let’s move on to the newcomers, shall we? Losing Carl Landry in free agency dealt a temporary blow to the Warriors aspirations for the year ahead, but Bob Myers and Co. responded by signing Marreese Speights and Jermaine O’Neal, who are expected to combine to fill that void. Speights, at least in terms of his offensive arsenal, is quite similar to Landry. His mid-range game often catches opponents by surprise, and he’s more than willing to capitalize when given the opportunity. When his shot is falling, interior defenders are compelled to move further out to the perimeter, opening up driving lanes for off-ball cutters, which should fit in nicely with the team’s pick-and-roll sets. However, the game isn’t just offense. If the Warriors are going to replicate and/or exceed the success of last year, Speights will need to pick up the rebounding slack when the starting unit takes a breather. Additionally, he doesn’t need to be a shutdown defender, but if he can remain active and at least match his opponent in the box score, it should do wonders for the second unit, which could often find itself in the position of maintaining a lead, rather than having to create one.
With 17 years of NBA experience, many Warriors fans haven’t been alive as long as Jermaine O’Neal has been patrolling the paint in the league. If you can last that long in the Association, you know you’re doing something right. O’Neal isn’t the dominant player he once was, but he’s more than capable of providing what the Warriors will need from him. He underwent a late career renaissance last year in Phoenix (seriously, what’s in the water down there?) with averages of 8.3 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 1.4 blocks per game, and if he can come close to replicating that production, it will afford Mark Jackson a number of possibilities. Although Bogut is fully healthy, it’s not like the Warriors want him playing 40-plus minutes a night all season long. That’s where O’Neal comes in. As an effective rim protector, Mark Jackson can feel confident that the team’s interior defense will be maintained with the second unit on the floor. Furthermore, O’Neal’s offensive acumen, accumulated over more than a decade and a half of experience, is sure to prove useful when the team is in need of a couple points. We’ve already seen Mark Jackson utilize O’Neal alongside the Dubs’ other centers in the preseason, and it’s not hard to imagine Jackson relying on that kind of lineup against some of the more post-reliant teams in the league, such as Memphis and Houston.
If there’s one thing in common with the remaining two big men, it’s….well, we really don’t know what to expect. Festus Ezeli and Ognjen Kuzmic both provide reasons for optimism, but at the same time, let’s not get carried away with our expectations. Ezeli was thoroughly impressive in his rookie campaign, starting from Day 1, while nicely filling a reserve role once Bogut returned to action. He’ll never be a dominant offensive player, but his activity on defense more than makes up for that. Unfortunately, he’s about halfway through his recovery from offseason knee surgery, and isn’t expected to be back in action until midway through the season. With the depth the team has added this offseason, the Warriors can afford for Ezeli to take his time. If he’s able to come back and perform at a similar level as last year, he could provide a significant boost to the team down the stretch. Kuzmic, Golden State’s second round pick from a year ago, is finally stateside after spending last year playing in Spain. The 23-year old Bosnian is extremely raw, but has shown glimpses of a soft touch around the basket, as well as good instincts for defensive and rebounding positioning, which many teams would kill for as their third-string center. Ideally, Mark Jackson will have the opportunity to get Kuzmic some garbage time minutes to allow him to work on his game in low-pressure situations, but it’s also possible that with the injury to Ezeli, Kuzmic could be forced into more meaningful minutes early on. While you never want to throw a rookie into the fire too early, Kuzmic has shown enough in the preseason that Jackson can be confident throwing him out there. At the very least, he gives the team another six fouls to dole out, which is nothing to scoff at. Don’t expect the world, but don’t be shocked if he surprises you either.
Collectively, the Dubs’ big men offer significant intrigue. Health permitted, there’s no reason why this unit can’t be one of the better front lines in the league, and they should be able to effectively perform the responsibilities asked of them in the Warriors’ offensive and defensive systems. They’re big, they’re deep, and offer a nice variance of age, skill, and potential. The Warriors are going to need their contributions, and if they can do so adequately, there’s no reason this team can’t surpass the accomplishments of a year ago.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Golden State Warriors.