Unlike his first foray into free agency in 2019, when 29 NBA teams shrugged and kept shopping, to the delight of the Warriors, Kevon Looney this summer will have options this time around.
Golden State is a heavy favorite, but it has to recruit as if he’s a star.
That’s how important Looney, as a practically perfect fit within their systems on offense and defense, has become.
“The thing that Loon provides, which is pretty unique, is that he allows us to stay big when other teams are playing small,” coach Steve Kerr told NBC Sports Bay Area this week. “You’ve got to be able to switch defensively with your ‘5’ man. If you can do that and still have a great presence in the paint from a defensive and rebounding standpoint, now you’re cooking.
“Every team is looking at a big man who can switch in the playoffs, and there just aren’t many of them. When you see that, combined with the elite rebounding and the health, man, did he take a leap this year.”
Only a few “centers” are at least occasionally effective switching on pick-and-roll situations, and the Warriors have two: Draymond Green (really a forward) and Looney. Among others in this club are Bam Adebayo of the Miami Heat, Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks, Deandre Ayton of the Phoenix Suns and Myles Turner of the Indiana Pacers.
Looney, 26, is the only one that can’t command a contract in excess of $20 million per season (Turner’s expiring contract is at $17.5 million). He’s discounted because of his relatively tight shooting range and an injury/surgery history that has stripped his body of the ability to play big minutes on a consistent basis.
What happened last season, particularly during the playoffs, is that Loon set fire to the commonly held belief that the Warriors’ offense would come to a halt if both he and Draymond were on the floor. Winning the NBA Finals proved their presence had no ill effect on shooters Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Jordan Poole and Andrew Wiggins.
With Looney averaging 24.6 minutes in the Western Conference finals against the Dallas Mavericks and the Finals against the Boston Celtics, Golden State’s offense still rang up a 114.7 offensive rating over those 11 games.
“Because of the brilliance of Steph and Klay and Jordan, with their shooting range, and the screening of Loon and Draymond, we can play them together and not have the spacing that most teams are searching for these days,” Kerr said. “We can still be good offensively and really thrive defensively. That’s where Loon’s impact is most visible.”
Looney’s impact was on display in the regular season but ticked up in the postseason, where he reached cult status within Dub Nation and solidified his standing as a 16-game beast.
In the closeout game of the conference semifinals against Memphis, Loon reentered the starting lineup and played a career-high 35 minutes, pulling a career-high 22 rebounds -- six on the offensive end in the fourth quarter, when the Warriors scored 13 of their 32 points on second-chance opportunities to send the Grizzlies into the offseason.
“They made it clear they were going to beat us up, and they were doing a great job of it,” Green said. “Inserting Loon back into the lineup changed that.”
Looney averaged 28 minutes per game in the conference finals and, once again, was massive as the Warriors finished the Mavericks in Game 5, pulling 18 rebounds -- including seven in eight fourth-quarter minutes.
“To see him become an elite rebounder was special," Kerr said. “He’s always been solid, and that’s how our organization looked at him. Solid. But he’s way beyond solid at this point. The more teams go small, the more opportunities there are for Loon to grab rebounds.
“He gave us so many extra possessions in the regular season and the postseason. He’s a crucial part of everything we do.”
It’s understood that James Wiseman, at 21, is the team’s center of the future. He has played in only 42 games since his high school graduation. He missed last season with multiple procedures to repair a torn meniscus in his right knee. The organization's faith remains strong, but an element of unknown persists.
Then, too, Wiseman has a much different set of skills. As an athletic rim protector with shooting range, he’d be used as more of a complement to Looney.
There is no mystery to what Loon brings. He’s trusted by his teammates. He has earned three championship rings and a sizable salary increase. The Warriors, as they try to lure him back, would be wise to show him an abundance of love because he values that, too.