For the first three months of this season, the Warriors carried six players capable of playing at center or, as they refer to it, “big.” It seemed excessive for a team that likes to use small lineups.
But with one of the six, Jordan Bell, spraining his left ankle Wednesday night in Chicago, that depth is now an asset.
Bell will be reevaluated in two weeks. But with the sprain severe enough to cause inflammation, it’s realistic to consider he may be out until after the Feb. 15-21 All-Star break.
“There’s no structural damage is the main thing,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr told reporters Friday after practice in Chicago. “He’s young guy who heals quickly so, hopefully, this is best-case scenario.”
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What does this mean for the Warriors?
It means, first and foremost, more floor time for Kevon Looney.
The Warriors are down to Looney and four other “bigs”: Draymond Green, Zaza Pachulia, David West and JaVale McGee. With McGee still likely trade bait -- the deadline is Feb. 8 -- it’s possible Damian Jones may return from G-League Santa Cruz.
With Pachulia the usual starter and West generally slotted to open the second and fourth quarters, Looney, Green and McGee, in that order, will be most impacted by Bell’s absence.
“It thrusts Kevon into that role full-time until JB gets back,” Kerr said. “They’ve sort of gone back and forth all year. I’m really happy with both of them. But they’ve been in and out of the lineup.
“This will mean that Kevon will see consistent minutes over the next couple weeks.”
Looney, who entered the game Wednesday when Bell was hurt 24 seconds after tipoff, played a career-high 30 minute. Though his individual numbers didn’t sparkle -- 2 points, four rebounds, one assist -- he was, as usual, subtly effective. He finished plus-33.
Because he’s fundamentally sound and rarely makes mistakes, Looney’s playing time has increased of late. Averaging less than 10 minutes a game for most of the season, he has averaged 21.5 over the last four games. His minutes, still based largely on matchups, should fall somewhere between 10 and 20 per game.
Looney has been particularly adept at executing the defensive switches that is the basis of the Warriors defense. Though not a superior athlete, certainly not at the level of Bell, Looney is smart and clever, with a knack for anticipation.
“We believe in him,” Kerr said. “He’s a really good fit for what we try to do defensively. He’s a good passer. He keeps things simple. He’s just got to keep playing.”
Green’s minutes at the 5 have been curtailed due to such factors as him missing seven games, Bell’s arrival and West’s effectiveness. Of the top eight lineups used by the Warriors, Green is the big in only one of them, the so-called Death Lineup: Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Andre Iguodala, Klay Thompson and Green.
That unit has, according to NBA.com stats, played a total of 61 minutes and is the team’s third-most effective. Though the coaching staff is mindful of the physical demands placed on Green at the 5, his minutes there could temporarily rise.
McGee’s situation is less certain. Though he filled an important role last season as a “vertical spacer,” he was essentially replaced this season by Bell. On 13 occasions, McGee has either been a DNP-CD or inactive. He played fewer minutes over the past month than Looney has in the past week.
Bell’s injury increases McGee’s value to the Warriors, but only slightly. He’s the only legitimate 7-foot “big” on the roster and can be useful against some of the more traditional centers.
When the Warriors internally ask themselves what can McGee do that Jones can’t, there isn’t much there.
Bell will be missed because he’s the most athletic “big” on the roster and the best option against athletic or non-traditional centers. He might have been in the starting lineup Saturday in Houston to counter frisky Rockets center Clint Capela.
Bell, however, played a total of six minutes against the Rockets on Jan. 4. Pachulia played 14. West played 12. Looney played 15 and his plus-13 was tops among the team’s primary big men.
It’s no lock Looney will start Saturday, but expect to see plenty of him then and beyond.