Though the decision by Warriors coach Steve Kerr this week to change the starting lineup, replacing 7-foot-1 rookie James Wiseman with 6-foot-9 veteran Kevon Looney, yielded two wins, that switch is destined to be reversed. Maybe as soon as Thursday night.
If Kerr opts to flip Looney for Wiseman against the Phoenix Suns, it’s conceivable and even logical.
The condition of their opponent made the last two games, Monday and Wednesday nights, ideal for experimentation. Lowly Minnesota, without 7-foot star Karl-Anthony Towns, started 6-foot-9 Naz Reid, who has spent nearly as much time in the G League as the NBA. Perfect games to give Looney, who watched the first 16 tipoffs from the bench, a chance to make an impact.
The Warriors go back to NBA reality on Thursday. In a span of about 22 hours, their tag-team centers go from Reid to vastly superior Suns big man Deandre Ayton, who is a fraction away from being a legitimate 7-footer.
Kerr historically considers matchups when composing a lineup, particularly with centers. In the three years after Andrew Bogut’s first stint ended in 2016, Kerr started 10 different centers, from Jordan Bell to Anderson Varejao. Lineups literally were, at times, game by game.
It’s why the Wiseman-to-Looney switch should be easy to digest and no more stunning than the possible Looney-to-Wiseman reverse switch against the Suns.
“Honestly, I haven't even thought about (Thursday) night,” Kerr said. “So, anything is possible.”
It’s safe to assume otherwise. He has thought about it. When preparing for games on back-to-back nights, NBA coaches always consider matchups and consequences of both.
That’s absolutely true in this instance. After two wins at home against the pitifully short-handed Timberwolves, the Warriors on Thursday night get their first look at the significantly more formidable Suns, and their more imposing big man.
One of only two centers drafted No. 1 overall since Greg Oden in 2007 -- Towns is the other -- Ayton might be especially motivated after scoring five points Wednesday night in a loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder. He entered Wednesday averaging 15.0 points and 12.2 rebounds per game this season, bumping to 17.5/12.7 this month and 22.0/14.7 over his previous four.
“Man, Deandre Ayton is a great player,” Wiseman said after ringing up a season-high 25 points in 24 minutes against the Timberwolves on Wednesday. “I can't wait to play up against him. I can’t wait to get the victory. We’ve got to go in there and play hard, just play together, and we’ll be good.”
From a purely physical perspective, Wiseman is the better matchup against Ayton. They’re roughly nearly eye- to-eye, though Ayton is a few pounds heavier.
From a tactical standpoint, there is a case for Looney. Ayton lives in the paint, which is one reason for his consistently impressive rebounding. He averaged 10.3 as a rookie and 11.5 last season. On a fundamental level, Looney could fight him off the glass.
“I've said it before and the same thing holds true: James is going to be our starter, long term,” Kerr said. “And we'll see. It could be soon.
“On the other hand, these last couple games have gone very well for him and for us, in terms of Looney’s play. Loon had ten boards and four assists tonight and did some great things. The main thing is winning and developing James, and I think the last two games have been a good sign that we can do both.”
The next game will be a better measure of Wiseman’s progress because Ayton is capable of a 20-20 game.
The big men on the schedule beyond Thursday that are, um, less likely to punish either Wiseman or Looney.
“If he's playing like he was playing (Wednesday), he's going to be out there,” Kerr said of Wiseman. “But every game is going to be different. We'll just play it by year. But the plan is to continue to develop him every day, whether he's in the starting lineup or not.”
The last two games were enough to realize Kerr has the flexibility he wants. He can shuffle the lineup for weeks to come, indefinitely, and likely will. It’s conceivable that Looney could get another 10 to 15 starts this season.
That leaves plenty of games for Wiseman in the starting lineup, regardless who starts Thursday night in the desert.