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Golden State’s (Other) Fresh Faces

Superteams are often plagued by a lack of depth, but are the Warriors as shallow as they seem?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

After a long summer of topless championship parades, free-agency meetings in the Hamptons, Snapchat mishaps, and gold medals, the NBA is finally, truly, really, almost back. The start of training camp marks the beginning of our NBA Preview.

We kick things off with Warriors Week, an in-depth look at one of the most interesting assemblages of basketball talent ever. We’ll have a different theme each week, as well as the usual league coverage. So check back often. Basketball never sleeps, and neither do we.

Steve Kerr says the Warriors will be “much more experimental” this season. Unlike Kerr’s job with last year’s squad, which more or less entered the season as a finished product, there’s a lot of work to be done learning about this iteration’s capabilities. With Kevin Durant, the Warriors now have a fourth star, but Kerr isn’t going to sit on his hands. Good coaches are wired to fiddle with their lineups and rotations until they find the optimal groups for success. Kerr said on media day that the Warriors will “absolutely” stagger minutes to keep “certain guys” on the floor at all times. “We’ve got a lot of combinations that can work and can also generate rest for other guys, and we’re going to be experimenting with all those,” he added.

This will be easy now that Durant is on the team. Over the past two seasons, the Warriors had an astounding plus-17.8 net rating with Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, and Klay Thompson on the floor at the same time. All combinations of lineups that featured just two of them registered a still-dominant plus-9.8. With just either Curry or Green, the Warriors were plus-7.5. They were a minus-9.1 with only Thompson, which was was their worst grouping. But, assuming full health, the Warriors will rarely find themselves in that situation this season. The addition of Durant means the Warriors will be playing with at least two of their stars for the majority of their possessions.

The Warriors are going to be dominant even when two of the stars are surrounded by bench players, but with so much turnover from last season, Kerr will have to unjumble the glut of new second-unit contributors. They lost Andrew Bogut, Festus Ezeli, Marreese Speights, Leandro Barbosa, and Brandon Rush in the offseason, and the replacements are mostly all unproven. Beyond Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston, who will once again hold down the fort off the bench, questions abound. Here’s a look at the Warriors’ depth and how the team can replace Bogut, Barbosa, and the others:

Replacing Barbosa: Patrick McCaw and Ian Clark

McCaw was Golden State’s best addition from the draft because of his ability to assume different roles as a playmaking guard. If Kerr needs McCaw to play off-ball, McCaw can drain 3s off the catch. He can also play point guard in a pinch. Kerr recently praised McCaw’s basketball IQ, asserting that he wouldn’t “hesitate to throw him out there in the heat of a game.” McCaw looked like one of the best players in Las Vegas summer league, so it’s not surprising to hear Kerr’s praise so early in training camp. From a big-picture perspective, McCaw could eventually replace Livingston or Iguodala, both of whom will hit free agency next summer. But in the meantime, McCaw can work as a perfect complement to Golden State’s superior talents.

He could battle for Barbosa’s bench role with Clark, who was solid filling in for Curry in the playoffs. Clark is at his best off-ball, shooting spot-up 3s at a 37.7 percent clip over the past three years, compared to 30.2 percent off the dribble, per SportVU. He’s good at changing speeds in the pick-and-roll, but commits too many careless turnovers. At just 6-foot-3, Clark gives up size against most shooting guards and lacks the foot speed to contain faster point guards. He allowed a subpar 0.90 points per possession as a pick-and-roll defender, per Synergy.

Defense is where McCaw gets the edge in this competition for playing time.

McCaw is a ball hawk, and he jumps passing lanes like a cornerback reading a quarterback’s eyes for an interception. The UNLV product is light, at just 185 pounds, so he could have issues against larger players when he’s on a switch, but against most backup guards he’ll feel right at home as a ball disruptor. Kerr’s preference could depend on what the situation calls for. Clark’s familiarity with the system gives him an edge on offense, but McCaw’s lockdown ability makes him the better defensive option.

Replacing Bogut: Zaza Pachulia and David West

Bogut blocked 114 shots last season, more than Pachulia has over the past five seasons. Bogut dunked 78 times last season, more than Pachulia has over the past five seasons. This isn’t meant to knock Pachulia completely. He is essentially the discount version of Bogut. He lacks all the frills, but still brings the pristine positional defense, passing, rebounding, and screening. Those overlooked but important skills made Pachulia an obvious target to replace Bogut, especially when one considers the $2.9 million value. Pachulia’s former Hawks teammate Devin Harris described him best: “He’s just got that fight. Every time he comes to the locker room, you see him bloodied up. He’s diving on the floor. It’s that grit that he brings to us that really fits our team well. He kind of talks like Rocky, kind of looks like Rocky, always getting in the mix of things.”

Pachulia’s greatest value for the Warriors will come on the boards. He ranked 12th in rebounding percentage last season because he uses his physicality to get his man out of position and is adept at tracking the ball. The second-chance opportunities he can create on the boards combined with his passing vision could lead to those coveted open 3s for the Dubs.

The Warriors will miss Bogut’s paint presence, and Kerr isn’t afraid to admit it. “The thing that’s different will be a lack of rim protection. We had great rim protection from Bogut and Ezeli, and both those guys are gone,” Kerr told CSN Bay Area. “Zaza’s a very good defender, but he’s more of a positional guy than a shot blocker. So there’s definitely adjustments we’ll have to make, even schematically. We’ll have some growing pains.” Pachulia can be relied on to be in the right position, but where Bogut would be altering a shot, Pachulia will merely be contesting it.

Pachulia should also benefit from playing fewer minutes. He ran out of gas after the break last season, when he averaged 25-plus minutes per game, but with both Green and Durant having the capacity to play both frontline positions, it’s reasonable to assume that Pachulia will play less than Bogut did (20.7 minutes per game).

Pachulia will also be splitting time with Golden State’s other veteran addition, West. West took a huge pay cut to join the Spurs for the veteran’s minimum last offseason, and joined Golden State on the minimum again this summer. The Warriors rarely feed the ball down low (eighth lowest in the league, per Synergy), but West was a supremely efficient post scorer last year, finishing in the 94th percentile. Livingston often occupies the same space on the high-mid post (87th percentile), so it’ll be interesting to see how they mesh off the bench. Neither player shoots 3s, so some bench configurations could lack spacing more than usual. Defensively, West doesn’t offer much shot blocking, but, like Pachulia, he’s a reliable positional defender. At 36 years old, West has lost mobility, but he is quick enough laterally to keep in front of bench players.

The Bouncy Bigs: Damian Jones and JaVale McGee

Jones is a 21-year-old 7-footer who slipped to the Warriors with the final pick in the first round. He doesn’t shoot well, struggles from the line, and fell into foul trouble as a college junior. Pre-draft surgery to repair a torn pectoral muscle has kept him out indefinitely to start the season. But once Jones gets back on the court he could be the Warriors’ secret weapon.

There are no tricks involved with this dunk. No hidden wires, invisible trampoline, or cheat codes. Jones is just that elastic. While other teams might’ve tried making him into something he’s not, the Warriors can simplify his game by highlighting his strengths and curbing his weaknesses. Jones’s responsibilities can be summed up in one-word commands. On offense: screen, roll, jump, dunk. On defense: switch, rebound, block.

Jones is excellent at sliding laterally, which allows him to cover a lot of ground on defense, as evidenced in his block of Kentucky guard Tyler Ulis above. The Vanderbilt product is slow to read pick-and-roll coverages, but that won’t matter as much if he’s primarily asked to switch. If Kerr is as willing to experiment as he appears, then it’ll be worth throwing Jones into the fire to help him figure it out once he’s healthy.

With Jones on the mend, the window is open for a reserve role to be seized by McGee, whom The Ringer’s Jonathan Tjarks made a strong case for Wednesday. I agree with a chunk of Tjarks’s analysis, but I’m here to play devil’s advocate. The Warriors can simplify the game for McGee like they can for Jones, but McGee has been a space cadet playing for eight different coaches on four different teams. He’s made soul-crushing blocks, but they often come at the price of overhelping, fouling, or failing to box out; he’ll throw down ferocious dunks, but he’s allergic to screening and passing (he has the ninth-worst assist rate of any player since 1972 over their first eight seasons). McGee gets caught playing perimeter defense on his heels, so he can’t switch screens like Jones can.

However, players that long and athletic are hard to come by, and there’s certainly potential that can be excavated. If McGee does flip the switch, he could certainly contribute as a shot-blocking/rim-running presence. But I’d still bet on a healthy Jones supplanting McGee at some point, just like Salah Mejri did last season in Dallas. It could be difficult for McGee to steal the 15th roster spot from Anderson Varejão, who re-signed for guaranteed money. Despite Varejão’s limitations, he’s a tremendous locker-room presence, which can’t be overlooked.

The Midsize Bigs: Kevon Looney and James Michael McAdoo

Looney was projected as a mid-first-round pick in 2015 before being red-flagged with issues in his back and hips. He’s since had surgeries to repair torn labra in each of his hips, and he played in only 21 minutes as a rookie for the Warriors. Even if he’s healthy, it’ll be hard for him to earn minutes. The term “tweener” has faded over the years, but Looney is a tweener even in the modern sense. He’s too frail to defend bigs, not springy enough to protect the rim, and not quick enough laterally to switch screens. Looney is, however, a 6-foot-9 forward who can stroke 3s and guzzle rebounds, so there’s a chance he’ll carve out a role at some point.

McAdoo barely played last season before appearing in three consecutive Finals games. While that might’ve been a preview of his role this season, I think it was more likely that Kerr was throwing darts while looking for someone to fill the gap left by Bogut’s injury. McAdoo is a serviceable frontcourt backup because of his ability to defend multiple positions, but it’d be surprising if he jumped up the depth chart without magically improving his rebounding (10.9 defensive rebounding percentage last year) or scoring (55.4 true shooting percentage). He’s entering his third season, which will be a pivotal one for his development.

The Warriors have enough star talent to win 60-plus games even if Kerr were coaching with a blindfold on. But depth is what brings teams to a special level; it’s what will allow the Warriors to give their stars nights off so they can sustain their stamina deep into the postseason. Equally important to Durant’s assimilation with the team are the crucial bench pieces who emerge. “I think our fans should really look forward to watching the growth of the team,” Kerr said on media day. “We’ve got a lot of growing ahead. The fans should not be focused on how many wins we get; they should be focused on how different we look from one month to the next.”