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The West Still Doesn’t Have an Answer for the Warriors at Center

For years, Golden State’s Lineup of Death has been an unsolvable riddle for teams in the West. Despite career seasons for players like Clint Capela and Steven Adams, the best teams in the conference are still looking at unfavorable matchups come playoff time.

AP Images/Ringer illustration

The Warriors make life miserable for opposing centers. Their ability to put five perimeter players on the floor at the same time has been one of the keys to their success over the past four seasons. There’s no one for bigger players to match up with when Golden State goes to its Lineup of Death. Draymond Green, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, can defend centers in the paint, but they can’t defend pick-and-rolls involving him and Steph Curry on the perimeter. No big man in the NBA has found an answer to their brand of small ball.

Green may not even be their best small-ball 5 anymore. Kevin Durant has all of Green’s strengths on defense without his weaknesses on offense. Defensive strategies that traditional centers use against Green would be suicidal against Durant. They can’t give him an open lane to the basket after he sets a screen, or leave him alone on the 3-point line. Playing Durant at the 5 put a different twist on the Lineup of Death, because the Warriors can spread the floor even farther by taking Green out and putting a better 3-point shooter in his place, either Nick Young or Omri Casspi.

Durant has played only 14 percent of his total minutes at center so far this season, according to Basketball-Reference. He may be Golden State’s best option at the position, but the Warriors don’t need to put any additional strain on his body, or give opponents more game tape to prepare for it. They have five traditional big men who soak up minutes, and they can use Green or rookie Jordan Bell at center in small-ball lineups. Durant-at-the-5 is the ace in Steve Kerr’s back pocket. It’s an existential threat to every big man on a playoff contender: Either they find a way to stay on the floor against that lineup, or they risk irrelevance in a series against the team everyone is chasing.

The four teams behind the Warriors in the Western Conference standings each have a key big man whose role will have to change in a seven-game series against the defending champs. Here’s how they’ve fared against Golden State’s smaller lineups in the past, and how that might affect their future.

Clint Capela, Houston Rockets

Capela has emerged as a star this season, and he’ll get another shot at proving his worth against the Warriors on Thursday. He is the perfect center in Mike D’Antoni’s system. Unlike Dwight Howard, Capela never demands the ball in the post, and he’s happy to do the thankless job of setting screens and drawing defensive attention by rolling hard to the rim. Capela is one of the most dangerous roll men in the league, and he also anchors the defense, protects the rim, and cleans the glass. At 6-foot-10 and 240 pounds, he has a slender frame and not the bulk of a player like Howard, but adding speed at the cost of size is a trade-off that D’Antoni has always been happy to make at center.

However, Capela’s strengths work against him when Golden State goes small. His incredible efficiency (he’s averaging 14 points a game on 68.2 percent shooting) comes from playing within himself, but a guy who can’t create his own shot can’t attack a mismatch either. If the Warriors switch a screen and put a smaller player on him, the Rockets are not going to stop their offense to throw him the ball inside. And while being smaller than a traditional center helps Capela defend on the perimeter, it also means that he can’t push Golden State’s players around. Durant is actually bigger than him. Watch how he swallows up Capela on this block:

Capela is a man without a country against the Warriors. He’s not getting the defensive assignment on Durant over guys like Luc Mbah a Moute and P.J. Tucker. When Durant is at the 5, Capela will likely have to guard a smaller player off the ball at the 3-point line. Even if he could stay with a guy like Andre Iguodala on defense, he won’t have much of an advantage on the other side of the ball. At that point, Houston might as well downsize. Capela played only 18 minutes in the Rockets’ 122-121 win over Golden State on opening night.

Rudy Gobert had a similar problem matching up with the Warriors in their second-round sweep of the Jazz last season. Gobert can step out on the perimeter and defend smaller players in the pick-and-roll, but the strength of his game is his ability to seal off the paint, which isn’t as useful against a team that can play five 3-point shooters at once. It’s hard for a big man who’s not a high-usage offensive player, no matter how efficient he is, to move the needle against the Warriors. Gobert averaged 15.5 points a game on 65.8 percent shooting in the series, but he didn’t score enough to force the Warriors to play bigger lineups.

LaMarcus Aldridge, San Antonio Spurs

Aldridge is having his best season in San Antonio. Kawhi Leonard’s slow recovery from a quad injury has allowed Aldridge to return to a more familiar role as a no. 1 option. After averaging 17.6 points on 14.3 field goal attempts in his first two seasons with the Spurs, his numbers (22.2 points a game on 17.5 field goal attempts) are closer to the numbers he posted in his final season in Portland. Aldridge is a rhythm player who likes to hold the ball, kick it back out, and repost, which is not the way the Spurs have traditionally played under Gregg Popovich. It is working well enough for now, as running the offense through Aldridge has allowed San Antonio to hold firm as the no. 3 seed despite all the team’s injuries.

The problem with that strategy becomes clearer in the playoffs. When Kawhi was injured in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals, Aldridge became the go-to guy by default, and he could not handle the pressure of the swarming Golden State defense, which keyed in on him. He averaged 15.5 points a game on 41.3 percent shooting in the series, and he was particularly frustrated by the physical play of Green, who bumped and grabbed him as soon as he stepped inside the 3-point line, never letting him get comfortable. This is how a lot of his possessions in the post ended up looking:

With Kawhi and Tony Parker out, the limitations in Aldridge’s game were on full display. It’s hard to beat elite defenses just by scoring out of the post. The key is using the post-up to create open 3-pointers by drawing double-teams and finding the open man. Aldridge has never been a particularly gifted or willing passer: He has career averages of 1.9 assists on 1.6 turnovers a game. He can be a step slow when it comes to reading the defense, which allows a long and athletic team like Golden State to force him into bad decisions:

Aldridge could benefit from playing in smaller lineups against the Warriors, which would give him easier reads when they send help. He typically starts next to Pau Gasol, but Popovich couldn’t keep both big men in for very long when Kerr went to a frontcourt of Durant, Green, and Bell in Golden State’s 112-92 victory over San Antonio in early November. The Spurs’ best chance against the Warriors may be playing Aldridge at the 5 with Kawhi at the 4 and running quick-hitting plays that allow Aldridge to score before the defense is set.

Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves

Towns is still an unfinished product in his third season, particularly on defense, but he’s as skilled as any big man in the league. At 7 feet and 248 pounds with a 7-foot-3 wingspan, he’s an elite athlete who can overpower smaller defenders and score from all over the floor. Towns is in the 82nd percentile of players league-wide as a post scorer, and he’s shooting a career-high 40.6 percent from 3 on 3.8 attempts a game. His raw scoring numbers are down this season because of all the talent around him in Minnesota, but the Timberwolves could restructure their offense to feed him the ball in a favorable matchup.

Towns is one of the only centers in the NBA who might be able to score consistently on Durant and Green. Most guys his size don’t have his touch, quickness, or footwork. He has been able to bulldoze Green in the past. Look how easily he powers through him in this play from a game between the two teams last season:

The Warriors often keep Zaza Pachulia on the floor longer when they face Towns. Zaza played 25 minutes in a 115-102 victory over the Wolves last November, and 26 minutes in a 103-102 loss in March, much higher than his average of 18.1 minutes per game last season. A Golden State team that plays Pachulia or David West big minutes in a seven-game series is more vulnerable than one that can play Durant and Green at the 5. Towns has the potential to dictate matchups and force Golden State to play his style of game.

The issue for Minnesota is that Golden State destroys the Wolves defense no matter what lineups they use. The Wolves are 1-4 against the Warriors over the past two seasons, with a defensive rating of 116.4. Towns is a huge part of the problem. He is only 22, and he has no idea what he’s doing defensively. He has the physical tools to guard all five positions, but he’s still years away from reaching his potential. Facing Golden State in a playoff series would be a great learning experience for him because it would expose all of his weaknesses.

Steven Adams, Oklahoma City Thunder

Adams is the one player in Oklahoma City who has thrived amid the chaos this season. He’s averaging career highs in minutes (32.2), points (13.4), rebounds (8.8), and field goal percentage (63.5). He’s playing with more 3-point shooting around him than ever before, and that extra space has allowed him to rampage through the lane. Adams is the rare supersized player with a high motor, and his activity level and physical presence gets under the skin of opposing players. He has been a thorn in the side of Golden State before, getting in Green’s head in the 2016 Western Conference finals.

However, for as well as Adams played at times in that series, he has the same problem as Capela and Gobert when Golden State goes small: He doesn’t get the ball enough to attack a mismatch. Adams has a usage rate of 15.8 this season, and almost all of his points come from cutting to the rim, getting out in transition, and hitting the offensive glass. The one edge he has over Capela is that his sheer mass makes it harder for smaller players to box him out and keep him away from the basket. He can draw fouls on Durant and Green when they guard him, and wear on their bodies over the course of a series.

But there is a trade-off on defense that comes with that extra size. Adams is bigger than Capela, but he’s not as quick laterally, and the Warriors can expose him in the pick-and-roll by using his man to set high screens above the 3-point line. Even when Adams is responsible only for cutting off Curry on one side of the floor, he’s still not able to corral him. Watch how Curry is able to sneak around him on the sideline and finish over him in this play from Oklahoma City’s 108-91 victory over Golden State on November 22:

The Thunder did most of their damage in that game when Adams was off the floor and they went smaller with Jerami Grant at the 5. Grant gives them more floor spacing and perimeter defense than Adams, and Adams can’t do enough with his size to tip the balance the other way. No center has been able to yet.