The best of Dwight Howard disappeared in 2012, and what remains of the three-time Defensive Player of the Year is a serviceable big man in the rotation of a Los Angeles Lakers team with championship aspirations.
That was enough Monday night to remind the Warriors during their 104-98 loss of an issue they must address if they expect to compete at the highest levels of the Western Conference.
They’ve got to get bigger and more bullish, particularly in the paint.
Which, at this point, makes it imperative that they find a roster spot for 6-foot-10, 240-pound Marquese Chriss.
With Howard bullying his way to 13 rebounds in 22 minutes and 7-foot teammate JaVale McGee snatching five boards in 17 minutes, Los Angeles rode a 48-38 advantage in paint points to send the Warriors out of Staples Center in defeat.
“It’s just really, really frustrating,” coach Steve Kerr told reporters in LA. “If we don’t get that cleaned up, we’re in huge trouble this year. We know that.”
Though the Warriors snagged only two fewer rebounds (48-46), it was evident for the second time in two games they had problems with the bumping and banging of the LA big men.
Through three preseason games, a pattern is developing. The Warriors have lost the rebounding battle in all three games, including by 11 in the preseason opener against LA and by one against the Minnesota Timberwolves, a notoriously poor rebounding team.
Some of this can be blamed on the absences of Willie Cauley-Stein (mid-foot sprain, out until November) and Kevon Looney (hamstring strain, out indefinitely). The season opener is nine days away, and they were projected to share the bulk of the team’s minutes at center.
For now, the load is being shared by 6-9, 270-pound Omari Spellman and Chriss, with 6-10, 245-pound Kavion Pippen playing scant minutes the last two games. Spellman, who started the preseason opener, has 17 rebounds in 51 minutes. Chriss, who started the last two games, has 28 rebounds in 65 minutes.
Rookie forward Eric Paschall, whose listed height of 6-foot-9 is an exaggeration, closed at center Monday night. He has only nine rebounds in 70 preseason minutes.
“You’ve got to defend without fouling, and you’ve got to rebound,” Kerr said. “If we do those things then you’re got a chance. Without it, we’re in big trouble.”
In addition to the rebounding deficit, the Warriors also are committing the kind of pushing-and-grabbing frustration fouls typical of teams operating at a size disadvantage. Paschall and Chriss each were whistled for five fouls while both played 26 minutes.
The result was the Lakers having a 39-23 advantage in free-throw attempts.
“Between the rebounding and the fouling, those were the areas we talked about the most,” Kerr said. “Especially over the last four or five days. Once we got a couple games under our belt, where you could really see it, that’s all we’ve talked about.
“That’s why this was a really disappointing game, especially in the first half.”
The Warriors are well aware that their lack of size presents their biggest physical challenge. But playing the Lakers four times this preseason is perfect for providing a constant reminder.
The lack of size is a real problem, and the length of the Lakers shines a harsh light on it. Anthony Davis, McGee and Howard totaled 32 rebounds in 53 minutes in the Oct. 5 opener, when Chriss had been on the roster for four days.
He now looks like the most skilled offensive big man on the roster.
Chris has made smart passes, averaging 4.0 assists this preseason. He has shot 11-of-19 from the field, 8-of-8 from the line. He provides the vertical spacing expected of Cauley-Stein and some of the savvy play we’ve seen from Looney.
Most of all, Chriss is big, strong and springy, and he engages in the paint. He is easily the team’s most impressive big man and certainly is outplaying his non-guaranteed contract.
The Warriors know the problem, and the sight of Howard exposing it means it’s visible to all. It’s not going to go away unless they address it.