SAN FRANCISCO – Seven months after a paucity of centers prompted the Warriors to sign semi-retired Andrew Bogut, the team opens training camp Tuesday without a healthy NBA center on its roster.
The only Warrior that fits the description of “center,” 7-foot Willie Cauley-Stein, will miss all of training camp and part of the early season with a left mid-foot strain. That leaves 6-foot-9, 225-pound Kevon Looney, drafted as a forward in 2015, as the team’s only experienced “big.”
Given the physical challenges Looney has overcome to save his NBA career, it’s not reasonable to expect he can play 25-30 minutes on a nightly basis.
These circumstances invite the possibility of physical mismatches and the bruises that follow.
The Western Conference is rife with legitimate big men, such as Denver’s Nikola Jokic, Utah’s Rudy Gobert, Minnesota’s Karl-Anthony Towns, Oklahoma City’s Steven Adams and Phoenix’s Deandre Ayton. With Jusuf Nurkic still rehabilitating from a severe injury, Portland added Hassan Whiteside.
The Eastern Conference? That’s where Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid, Detroit’s Andre Drummond, Orlando’s Nikola Vucevic reside, along with Marc Gasol of the defending champion Raptors.
The Warriors have gone from having a phalanx of bodies to throw at the league’s beasts to having no choice but to hope their small lineups can win with speed and finesse.
“The big difference,” said coach Steve Kerr, “is that, while we may not have had the stability of one guy at center over the last few years – we did with Bogut; the first couple years, he was our starting center – but what we’ve had over the past few years is a stable of veteran guys who could all fill very significant particular roles.”
In addition to Bogut, Kerr’s first five seasons with the Warriors have featured centers Festus Ezeli, Anderson Varejao, Zaza Pachulia, Damian Jones, JaVale McGee and DeMarcus Cousins – all legit centers standing at least 6-11. Power forwards Marreese Speights and David West, each 6-9 but weighing about 260 pounds, also were able to slide to center.
When the Warriors will open the season, Looney, with 38 career starts – including playoffs – will be the starter because there is no other viable option. Youngsters Omari Spellman and Alen Smailagic will open as backups.
Spellman, listed at 6-9, 245 pounds, is perceived as similar to Speights insofar as he has shooting range out to the 3-point line. Spellman, 22, conceded Monday that he lost 40 pounds over the summer, dropping from 315 in Summer League to 275 – with a goal of reaching 265.
Smailagic is only 19 and is listed at 6-10, 215. He has shown some offensive skill, but he’ll be at a decided physical disadvantage against the league’s prototype centers.
“We’ve had a lot of different possibilities,” Kerr said. This year is different because we’re relying on a couple rookies, at least in camp, with Alen and Omari, who are 4/5s. Looney is also a 4/5.
"But that’s the way the NBA has turned. It’s more of a league with wings and bigs. So, we just look at them as bigs.”
Though there is a focus on wings and versatile bigs, not all of the NBA has gone that route. Most teams still have at least one 7-footer, with some carrying three or four, as the Warriors once did.
It’s a very different season for the Warriors because it’s a very different roster. This is their youngest squad since the Joe Lacob/Peter Guber ownership group purchased the franchise nearly nine years ago.
Cauley-Stein, who spent four seasons with the Kings, was expected to start at center. He’s a good athlete, though not particularly big (listed at 240). Upon his return, likely sometime in November, he’ll be relied upon to provide vertical spacing and rebounding. His defense will be a work in progress.
As will the entire Warriors team.
“That’s part of the excitement of this season,” Kerr said. “It’s one of the things that our fans should look forward to is watching the team grow. Watching this team develop as the season goes. Rather than seeing a finished product, they’re going to see a team that really has to define itself over the course of a year.”
A team that, once it enters the physical fray, may realize that even in today’s NBA, size matters.