Editor's note: Grant Liffmann is the co-host of Warriors Outsiders, which airs on NBC Sports Bay Area 90 minutes before each home game and 60 minutes after every game. Each week, Grant will drop his Outsider Observation on the state of the Dubs.
We have already talked about the first "half" of the season, and to quickly recap this break, three of the Warriors' stars had quite an eventful All-Star Weekend.
Steph Curry pretty much played host to the event in Charlotte, Klay Thompson provided his usual entertainment and Kevin Durant won himself his second All-Star Game MVP award. The rest of the team and coaches were either out vacationing or working hard on their game in the gym to stay ready for when the season resumes on Thursday. They couldn't ask for a better situation heading into the second "half".
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The Warriors (41-16) are sitting in first place in the West by two games over the Denver Nuggets. They are currently riding a streak in which they have won 16 of 18 games, and are as healthy as they have been all season (sans Damian Jones). And yet, even with all the good vibes and great results surrounding the team, there are still some questions to be answered over the final 25 regular season games before the playoffs begin:
1) Who will close out games for the team?
This was the question that was asked quite frequently once the Warriors signed DeMarcus Cousins.
The Warriors had found most of their best success over the last few years running the "Hamptons Five" lineup to close out games. By putting Draymond Green at center and adding Andre Iguodala onto the wing, the team was able to play suffocating switching defense, forcing turnovers and pushing the ball into transition and fast breaks.
With Boogie's return, the Warriors have been regulating his minutes to about 24 per game, staggering him in a manner that's prevented him from being available to finish the games. However, as he has improved his conditioning, Boogie is starting to voice his desire to be one of the players to close out the games. So how will Steve Kerr decide the lineup to close a game once Cousins is no longer limited?
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It is fair to assume that this issue is something that the coaching staff has already discussed with the players, probably since summer. Balancing egos can be tricky of course, but the Warriors should feel fortunate to have so much talent that they cannot fit all of them on the court at once.
The most likely scenario is that the Warriors will mostly employ DeMarcus Cousins in the final five when the opposing team uses a large center in their closing lineup (i.e. Steven Adams and Rudy Gobert) or if the Warriors are in a tight game and are having difficulties rebounding.
Otherwise, I think it is safe to assume that Kerr feels most comfortable running the Hamptons Five lineup out there when the team is trailing by a medium to large size deficit, or if the opposing team uses a wing-heavy or three-point specialized lineup. In fact, some may argue that it is even better to run the Hamptons Five lineup against teams with a bruising center, as it could create more transition and 3-point opportunities to capitalize on.
Either way, the Warriors will most likely tinker with the final unit to see what works best. Hopefully for the team's sake, they will find a good strategy and chemistry heading into the postseason.
2) Jerebko or McKinnie?
While the Warriors and Steve Kerr are passionate about their "Strength in Numbers" motto, when it comes to the playoffs, the team definitely plays a much tighter rotation.
During the postseason, it is assumed that Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, Kevin Durant and DeMarcus Cousins will start the games, Andre Iguodala will be the first man off the bench, Shaun Livingston will run with the second unit, Kevon Looney will relieve DeMarcus Cousins and one more spot will be available to provide about 10 minutes a game.
The most likely candidates for that spot: Jonas Jerebko and Alfonzo McKinnie.
Both Jerebko and McKinnie had noteworthy starts to the season, playing high level basketball off the bench and helping a Warriors team that was depleted due to injuries. McKinnie's play took a bit of a nosedive after an injury sidelined him, though he's worked to regain his 3-point stroke and overall confidence. Jerebko's play and playing time, on the other hand, were fairly consistent throughout the season, until Cousins returned.
From the start of the season through January 15th, Jerebko played in all 44 games and averaged almost 20 minutes per game. The stretch of eight games that followed, beginning just before Cousins returned, tells a different story. Over this period, Jerebko was inactive for four games, receiving a "DNP - Coach's Decision" in two of them, and missing the other two for the birth of his child. In the four games he did play, Jerebko averaged six minutes per contest, usually only coming in during fourth-quarter garbage time.
Steve Kerr let it be known to the media that he had a discussion with Jerebko during the offseason, explaining that his role would suffer with the return of Cousins. Meanwhile, McKinnie, during that same stretch, averaged 15 minutes per game and was one of the first substitutes off the bench -- which led many to assume that it was Zo's spot to run with the rest of the season.
But that was not so, as the two players have practically swapped roles. Over the last five games heading into the break, Jerebko not only saw action in the first quarter, but his playing time had increased to 15 minutes per game. Simultaneously, McKinnie's playing time dipped to under nine minutes per game, relegated to quick stints and garbage time.
Over the final 25 games, I'd expect to see some more flip-flopping of playing time for McKinnie and Jerebko, mostly due to matchups. If the opposing team plays more wing-heavy lineups, you can expect to see McKinnie. If the Warriors are in need of some floor spacing to move the opposing bigs away from the rim, then Jerebko will get that time.
If the Warriors need a jolt of energy and scrapping off the bench, well, then just maybe you'll see them both on the court doing what they do best.
3) Will the Warriors fill the 15th roster spot?
At this point, I would be surprised if they did not fill that spot. Yes, there are tax implications that come with adding another salary to the roster, but the Warriors would be foolish to neglect adding some injury insurance just to save a few dollars heading into the playoffs.
Most of the bigger name players that have been bought out of their contracts have already signed with new teams that guaranteed them more playing time. But there are a few names that are still floating around and the Warriors are monitoring the market closely.
The clock is ticking, however, because a player must be bought out or waived no later than March 1st in order to be playoff-eligible for their new team.
Some of the players the Warriors could have been interested in, but that have already signed with another team include: Jeremy Lin, Wesley Matthews, Wayne Ellington and Markieff Morris.
But at this point, I think it is fair to assume the front office is mostly focused on adding a big man to the mix. If Cousins were to re-injure himself or get into foul trouble in a game, the Warriors would be without a "true" center that can pound down low with the big bodies. That is why names like Robin Lopez or Marcin Gortat have been linked to the team.
Lopez is a strong presence down low with a fiery passion for the game. He may not be the best rebounder or rim defender, but he boxes out and is not afraid to get dirty. He is not an offensive-minded player, but he can hit a mid-range shot and is not afraid to try to finish at the rim. If Lopez were to be bought out, I think the Warriors would be the first in line to try to sign him.
Gortat, on the other hand, is already available and apparently has made it known he would like to join Golden State. But the Warriors are going to wait longer to find a center that fits their needs a little more than him. Gortat is a great pick and roll center on offense, but is a bit stiff on defense, especially when switched onto smaller guards. He is not a great rebounder or rim defender either, and also can be taken advantage of defensively in pick and roll situations.
Yes, the Warriors might be interested in him as a last resort, but until March 1st, I do not expect them to pass up other opportunities for him. It is unknown if other players will be waived or bought out, but the Warriors will be watching very closely.