SAN FRANCISCO – When the Warriors we’ve come to know splintered in July, coach Steve Kerr decided to get risky. Partly out of principle, partly out of circumstance.
Kerr likes to play small. Loves to play small. Flood the floor with versatile players capable of defending multiple positions on one end, for easy switching, while also being a scoring threat on the other. This approach served the Warriors well, five consecutive trips to the NBA Finals, with three championships.
That success came largely on the efforts of Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala, Klay Thompson, Shaun Livingston and, the last three years, Kevin Durant. They had experience, length, intellect and anticipation. Steph Curry did his part, too, but as an ultra-dangerous scorer at the point, he was spared some of the broad defensive responsibilities.
Kerr and the Warriors were trendsetters, to a degree. Other coaches, Don Nelson and Mike D’Antoni to name two, have relied on similar strategy, but none has succeeded as Kerr has.
With Iguodala, Livingston and Durant gone, all replaced by younger but unaccomplished players, it’s risky to stay small. Without a legitimate rim protector behind the new crew, it’s downright hazardous.
The Warriors opened the preseason against the Lakers on Saturday with 6-foot-9, 275-pound Omari Spellman, scrapped after one season by the lowly Hawks, starting at center. His backup was 6-10, 240-pound Marquese Chriss, a 2016 lottery pick discarded by three teams in three years. Both are listed as forwards but were forced to move over with injuries sidelining 7-foot newcomer Willie Cauley-Stein and 6-9 staple Kevon Looney.
The Lakers, with 6-10 forward Anthony Davis and 7-foot center JaVale McGee, wasted no time punishing the rim. McGee was 3-of-3 from the field, all dunks, in the first five minutes. Davis was 7-of-7 in the paint, with five dunks.
Undersized and overmatched, the Warriors couldn’t prevent the parade of dunks and layups and were outscored 22-8 in the paint. The Lakers rolled to a wire-to-wire 123-101 victory.
“I’m not too concerned by the result,” Kerr said. “But we do have to play better defense, for sure. We will work hard on that next week.”
This was the first time these Warriors had played together, so it’s not fair to conclude there won’t be incremental improvement. There is a lot of youth, but there is enough talent, and enough wisdom on the bench and in uniform.
“Repetition and communication are important,” said Draymond Green, perhaps the wisest defensive player in the league. “The effort has been there. We have a lot of stuff to figure out. With just three days of practice with eight or nine new guys, it’s a lot of stuff to figure out. And we will, when we start communicating and figuring out the rotations.”
They also need to figure out how to get bigger. This roster was constructed, on the fly, to play small; Cauley-Stein is the only true vertical threat. Over four seasons in Sacramento, he was a decent lob threat but a poor protector. Looney better fits the profile of a switching defender.
Kerr says the front office is addressing ways to add a big man, a need made more acute by the ankle injury sustained by 6-10 rookie Alen Smailagic, who is out indefinitely.
“We are in a tough spot at that center position,” Kerr said. “Not just in terms of the season being two-and-a-half weeks from now but just training camp. Positionally, you need multiple guys at each spot to be able to practice and run your drills. We’re in a little bit of strange spot that we weren’t anticipating.”
The problem is as much about the Warriors being small as it is about them not having enough versatility and expertise to elsewhere to offset that.
Seeking size and knowledge last March, the Warriors summoned Andrew Bogut out of retirement. Realizing they need size now, they worked out 7-3 Hasheem Thabeet, who is 32 years old and has been out the NBA since 2014. Doing anything will require some wizardry from general manager Bob Myers and cap specialist David Kelly.
Playing small can work wonders with the right roster. The Warriors don’t have that roster.
“That’s where Looney and Willie Cauley-Stein come into play,” Kerr said. “We need their length and athleticism and ability to play that center spot. Badly. Hopefully, their absences won’t last too long and maybe we’ll be fortified at that center spot and more able to match up with big teams like the Lakers.”
Not only the Lakers. The Jazz, with 7-2 Rudy Gobert. The Trail Blazers, with 7-foot Hassan Whiteside. Rockets big man Clint Capela is only 6-10 but plays above the rim. Clippers big man Ivaca Zubac, at 7-1, could pose a problem.
Teams not expected to make the playoffs will be seeking payback for recent years of Warriors abuse. The Suns, with 7-foot-1 Deandre Ayton. The Pelicans, with flying Zion Williamson. The Dallas freaking Mavericks have four players standing at least 6-11, including 7-3 Kristaps Porzingis, and Oklahoma City has 7-foot Steven Adams and 6-11 Nerlens Noel.
Maybe Spellman will provide. Maybe Chriss has matured, as Green implied, and Myers/Kelly can sneak him in the back door. The weakness is neon to all, and the Warriors know it.