Kevin Durant’s debut with the Warriors didn’t go according to plan. The team that was supposed to be unbeatable looked surprisingly mortal in its season opener Tuesday, losing 129–100 to the Spurs in a game that wasn’t as close as the final score indicated. The Spurs were the aggressors from the jump, getting out to an 11-point lead in the first quarter and never looking back. They took the ball to the front of the rim the entire game and dominated the Warriors in the paint. San Antonio won the rebound battle, 55–35, including 21 on the offensive glass, and broke the Warriors’ spirit in a way few teams have been able to over the past few seasons. You never want to take away too much from one game in October, but Golden State made LaMarcus Aldridge look like prime Tim Duncan on Tuesday night. The Warriors got nothing from their centers, and they appear to have a glaring hole in the middle of their lineup.
The Warriors weren’t just replacing Harrison Barnes with Durant; they were also replacing Andrew Bogut with Zaza Pachulia. Bogut never got enough credit for all he did for the Warriors. He was instrumental to what they did on both sides of the ball, and they clearly missed him against the Spurs. Bogut is one of the best rim protectors in the NBA, and he’s also mobile enough to slide his feet and guard in the pick-and-roll. On the offensive end, he’s great at setting screens, passing the ball, and rolling to the rim. The Warriors’ best lineups feature Draymond Green at center, but he can’t play that position for 30 minutes a game over the course of the regular season. They need someone who can hold the fort and eat some minutes there.
The Spurs went at Zaza right away. They put him in pick-and-roll after pick-and-roll, and there was nothing he could do about it. He doesn’t have the foot speed to switch screens and guard smaller players on the perimeter, and he can’t recover to the paint fast enough to bump the ball handler when he’s coming off the screen. Even backing up in order to cut off penetration and wall off the paint isn’t much of an option because he’s not a deterrent at the rim. There are two statistics from last season that should really concern the Warriors: Pachulia’s 0.9 block percentage is nowhere close to Bogut’s 5.8 percent, while Bogut was in the 72nd percentile of all qualifying NBA players in pick-and-roll defense, compared to 48th for Zaza.
Zaza was a decent starter for Dallas last season, but the spotlight in Golden State is much brighter and harsher. His poor pick-and-roll defense wasn’t as big of a deal for the Mavs because opposing offenses had so many different places they could attack. Now that he is playing with Green, Durant, and Klay Thompson, there aren’t as many weak links around him. The Warriors’ length and speed throughout their roster should help him somewhat on defense, especially as they get more comfortable with one another, but there’s no hiding defensive liabilities in today’s game, especially at center. Opponents are going to spread the floor, use Zaza’s man as a screener, and put Pachulia on an island all season long. Maybe the most interesting quote from the preseason came from Zaza after a game against the Lakers: “A lot of people think it’s easy to play with stars. It’s not.”
The problem at the 5 spot is just as big when the Warriors go to David West off the bench. At 36, West is a relic from a different era of the NBA, when power forwards were supposed to be snarling bruisers who could bang in the post and give out hard fouls. He wasn’t particularly fast in his prime; now, he’s just really slow. His athletic deficiencies mean he has to play as a center at this stage in his career, but he doesn’t have the length or explosiveness to protect the rim. Since second units’ objective is to bring energy to the game, they traditionally play faster than the starters. But it’s also a way to simplify the game — reserve players don’t have to worry about executing in the half court if they’re racing up and down the floor. The Warriors can’t do that with West as the backup 5. It’s like asking a 15-year-old truck with 200,000 miles on the odometer to roll with a fleet of brand-new sports cars. It’s not going to take long for it to break down on the side of the road.
The only time the Warriors were competitive on Tuesday came when they went to the Super Lineup of Death at the end of the first half, with Draymond at the 5 and Durant at the 4. All of a sudden, they were forcing turnovers, the ball was flying around the floor, and they were running into dunks and open 3s. They went on a 10–4 run in three minutes, and they would have cut the lead to five if Thompson had made a wide-open 3. The Spurs responded, closing the half with baskets from Kawhi Leonard, Patty Mills, and Jonathon Simmons, the trio who killed the Warriors all night. It’s hard to believe the game wouldn’t have been more competitive if Steve Kerr had gone small earlier. Golden State just dug itself too big of a hole with its traditional lineups.
There were more than a few similarities between the way the game played out and the unpromising regular-season debut of LeBron James in Miami. The Heat superfriends lost 88–80 to the Celtics in a game where the three-headed monster of Joel Anthony, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, and Udonis Haslem shared the center position. No matter how great your superstars are, it’s hard to win with a bunch of old, immobile players up front. Kerr, like most coaches on contending teams, prefers playing veterans who make physical mistakes over younger players who make mental ones. When he brought Anderson Varejão off the bench as their fourth center, the eyes of basketball fans in the Bay Area had to be rolling through the back of their heads.
The Warriors have other options. They drafted Damian Jones, a mobile young center from Vanderbilt, but he’s recovering from a torn pectoral muscle and probably won’t play much this season. James Michael McAdoo is another possibility, although he’s not much of a rim protector, either. The player fans want to see is Kevon Looney, the team’s first-round pick in 2015, a big man with the length (7-foot-3 wingspan) and foot speed to conceivably block shots and guard on the perimeter. The most intriguing possibility is JaVale McGee, a wondrously athletic 7-footer who can play above the rim on both sides of the ball. If they want to think outside the box, former Bucks center Larry Sanders, who was one of the best defensive centers in the NBA before he walked away from the sport, is reportedly interested in making a comeback.
It’s easy to overstate things. The Warriors’ team defense will get better as the season progresses, and their centers won’t be exposed as often as they were against the Spurs. Once they get to the playoffs, Draymond will play a lot more at center, and the presence of Durant will make it easier for them to play small-ball lineups. KD led the team in blocks (two) and was second in rebounds (10) on Tuesday, and he’s much better than Barnes in both categories. The Warriors are talented enough to beat most teams no matter who is at center, but they are going to need someone who can give Draymond help at the position for 15–20 minutes a game in May and June. They have an Achilles’ heel. An NBA season that was supposed to be a coronation from the very beginning just got a lot more interesting.