OAKLAND – Steve Kerr knew where on the bench to turn last season when the Warriors needed a scoring punch. The coach would call Mo, and Marreese Speights routinely delivered.
Interim coach Luke Walton has made the same call many times this season but has not gotten the same results. Mo Buckets has not lived up to his old nickname.
Largely because of that, the Warriors’ reserves rarely have displayed firepower at the levels achieved last season. No bench player has gotten into the kind of scoring groove Speights often found last season.
Speights in 2014-15 was the first big man off the bench, averaging a career-high 10.4 points per game. He had six games with 20 or more points and scored in double figures 42 times. He was third on the team, behind All-Stars Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, in player-efficiency rating, at 19.6. Speights was an offensive weapon.
“He probably won seven or eight games for us last year,” adviser and executive board member Jerry West said over the weekend.
Speights this season has not been the same player, and there may be as much blame falling upon the 28-year-old Floridian as there is credit due the Warriors.
One of the by-products of building a deep roster is that the competition among teammates, even at its friendliest, never ends. It’s a delicate dance for a coach, and Walton every night has to cope with one question in particular: How to rotate the big men? Which this season has become a euphemism for “Speights: To play or not to play.”
Why? Festus Ezeli has surpassed Speights in production and on the depth chart.
The Warriors generally classify both power forwards and centers as “bigs,” singular. Clearly defined roles belong to Andrew Bogut, the classic paint-patrolling center, and Draymond Green, the uniquely versatile power forward. Green, playing at All-Star level, will get 35 or so minutes per night. Bogut, for the foreseeable future, will start and play 20-28 minutes. This is much the same as it was last season.
Playing time behind them, however, has changed, with Ezeli's ascendance. He has established himself as the first “big” off the bench. His metrics are strong, on offense and defense. He will be a restricted free agent next season, and his price is rising by the week.
“We need a bucket,” Green said last week, “sometimes we go to Fes.”
Ezeli’s skills, though, are much different than those of Speights. Ezeli is a rim protector on defense who on offense lives almost exclusively on the block, scoring within a few feet of the basket. Speights’ best defensive attribute is his ability to draw charges – he ranked second in the NBA last season – and he shoots face-up jumpers on offense.
As a scorer who isn’t scoring, he has not been the asset he was previously. After shooting 47.2 percent last season, Speights is shooting a team-low 34.7 percent. His PER, 19.6 last season, has dropped to a team-low 8.7. He will be a free agent next summer, and his stock is plummeting.
After doing his best work as a “stretch five” last season, Speights through the first eight weeks of this season has struggled in that role and struggled even more as a “stretch four” alongside Ezeli.
“He hasn’t been getting as many minutes, so it’s harder to get into a rhythm,” Walton, searching for an explanation, said of Speights.
“Mo’s a great scorer,” he added. “I feel bad because we try to give him opportunities. But Festus has played so great that a lot of those minutes have gotten eaten up. So the minutes are a little more scattered so far this year.”
The Warriors hope Speights finds his shot, because they’re lacking that bench scorer who can light up defenses. Ezeli can score but does not typically wreck a defense. Speights at his best scores in bunches, and his range makes him the harder matchup.
Warriors general manager Bob Myers, like most executives, doesn’t talk trade-possibility specifics. But he surely realizes that when Curry, Thompson and Green are off the floor, scoring comes with considerable toil and strife.
The front office is studying the trade market, because if Speights can’t find his form, and soon, the Warriors will seek out another stretch four, somebody Walton or Kerr can call when they need a scoring punch.