There’s a reason we don’t play video games on Rookie mode: Winning a rigged game can get boring. This is a problem for the Golden State Warriors, winners of three of the past four NBA championships. Perhaps the greatest assemblage of talent in NBA history, the Warriors need ways to spice up victory to keep it entertaining, and sometimes that involves heightening the difficulty of their task. Draymond Green has taken this to heart, adding hurdles to the track with fun diversions like calling his teammate who won two Finals MVP trophies a “bitch” or waiting until three-quarters of the season was already over to get in playing shape.
Perhaps this explains why head coach Steve Kerr, almost 100 games into the season with a preposterously talented roster that makes lineup decisions simple, has begun tinkering with the starting lineup. In 16 playoff games, the Warriors have started 11 different players, including six lineup combinations that never started a game together during the regular season.
The shake-up has occurred in part by necessity: Injuries to Kevin Durant (five games missed), DeMarcus Cousins (14), and Andre Iguodala (one) have forced Golden State to dip into its reserves. With Durant and Cousins out, Kevon Looney ranks fourth in regular-season minutes per game among healthy Warriors. Kevon Looney! For the past three years, he’d been the Warriors’ Yung Jud Buechler. Now he’s good.
But Kerr hasn’t filled his starting lineup just by slotting in his next-best players. No, this postseason, he’s started the players who ranked ninth, 10th, 11th, 12th, 13th, and 16th this season in total minutes for the Warriors. Part of the explanation for starting randos seems to be that Kerr wants to keep his units consistent. Looney, for example, hasn’t started a game yet because Kerr likes the energy he brings off the bench. In Game 6 of the first-round series against the Clippers, Kerr chose to start Shaun Livingston, who didn’t start a game all year, to ensure Iguodala would come in fresh to guard two-time Sixth Man of the Year Lou Williams.
I like to think Kerr is also fidgeting around to make things more interesting. He’s playing a game, trying to seek out the least relevant player he can start and still win a critical playoff game. The injuries necessitate digging into the bench; they don’t necessitate starting Jordan Bell and Alfonzo McKinnie alongside each other in a closeout game in the Western Conference finals. (He did this. They won.) Let’s look at some players the Warriors have started this postseason, and what it means about how seriously Golden State is taking games:
6.3 Fucks Given: Alfonzo McKinnie
McKinnie has actually been a surprisingly good role player for the Warriors this season, appearing in 72 games while proving to be a capable defender and aggressive rebounder. So from a basketball perspective, it isn’t too ridiculous that he started Game 4 against the Trail Blazers—or that it paid off, as McKinnie had 12 points and snagged two critical offensive rebounds in overtime.
But we should note McKinnie’s road to becoming a part of the Warriors rotation. After he graduated from Wisconsin–Green Bay in 2015, no NBA teams were interested in McKinnie, and so he accepted an offer to play for a semi-pro team in Luxembourg’s second division. To clarify: not the best league in Luxembourg, a country of 600,000 that has produced only one NBA player and whose national basketball team is 1-53 in qualification games for EuroBasket since 2005. And it wasn’t even a good team in the second league in Luxembourg—the East Side Pirates (which sounds like a generic team from a video game that didn’t secure NBPA rights) finished 2-26, good for last place. You can watch video of him dominating in gyms with handball lines on the court and, for some reason, green floors.
McKinnie’s rise to the NBA is truly incredible. He went from Luxembourg to the second division in Mexico, to the G League, to a two-way contract with the Raptors last season. (This isn’t just any NBA Finals, it’s an Alfonzo McKinnie–Patrick McCaw Revenge Series.) It’s perhaps the best story of the Warriors’ season. And while I get the basketball explanation, I like to believe the Warriors are playing McKinnie just to prove they can be the best team in the world while playing a guy from the worst team in the second division in Luxembourg.
2.8 F’s Given: Andrew Bogut
It feels weird to include Bogut here—while McKinnie was playing in the Luxembourgian minor leagues, Bogut was starting for the Warriors in a different NBA Finals. He’s a former no. 1 overall pick who was once named to the All-NBA third team. He’s formerly famous!
But after the Warriors traded Bogut to open up cap space in 2016, his career fizzled. He averaged 3.0 points per game for the Mavericks, who traded him to the Sixers, who cut him; he then signed with the Cavs (primarily to provide Warriors intel) but broke his leg in his first minute on the court with Cleveland. He played sparingly with the tanking Lakers last season, and then signed with the Sydney Kings of Australia’s NBL.
The NBL isn’t the second division in Luxembourg—Torrey Craig, who has turned into a legitimate rotation player for the Nuggets, had played most of his pro career in the NBL before making the jump to the NBA in 2017; five-star recruit R.J. Hampton just announced that he will skip college to play in the NBL next season. But if it was possible for NBA teams to improve their rosters midseason by signing players from the Australian leagues, I’m sure we’d see it happen sometimes. As is, there is no precedent for a player who was in the NBL in March appearing in playoff games in April, but that’s what the Warriors did with Bogut.
Kerr has put Bogut in the starting lineup at least once in every playoff series thus far, and it’s not really clear why. After some decent contributions against the Clippers, Bogut scored a total of two points in his three starts against the Rockets and Trail Blazers, playing a total of 23 minutes before Kerr bumped him for players who were actually in the NBA all season. I suspect Bogut won’t see any more starts, especially with the pending return of DeMarcus Cousins from injury. If we do see Bogut, it will be an attempt by Golden State to prove it can win the championship when one of its starters literally doesn’t belong in the NBA anymore.
0.3 F’s Given: Damian Jones
For all the random players given opportunities in the playoffs, nothing approaches Golden State’s decision to start Jones in Game 3 against Portland. To be fair, Jones was a regular starter for the Warriors in October and November, opening 22 of the team’s first 24 games. The 2016 first-round draft pick didn’t play a huge role, but he was a gifted finisher, shooting 71.6 percent from the field. If he’d kept it up all season, that would’ve led the league.
But Jones tore his pectoral muscle in December, requiring surgery that kept him out until May. Jones was medically cleared ahead of the Western Conference finals, and Kerr patiently reinserted him into low-leverage situations. He got a minute and 42 seconds of playing time in garbage time Game 1, scoring three points. He got a minute and 30 seconds in the third quarter of Game 2, grabbing a rebound before returning to the bench.
And then, BAM! With almost three minutes under his belt, Jones was in the starting lineup for Game 3. Some players demand immediate reinsertion into the lineup when they come back from injury; Damian Jones probably isn’t one of them. Jones immediately picked up three personal fouls (including one on a 3-pointer) in just three minutes, heading to the bench with Golden State down 9-5. He didn’t play the rest of the game or in the series-ending Game 4.
Kerr made the decision to spot his opponents a small lead in one of the most important games of the year by starting a guy who hadn’t played long enough to work up a sweat since December. The Warriors still won by 11. Hopefully, the NBA Finals deliver, as the Raptors seem to be a great team and the Warriors aren’t at full strength. If not, Kerr will need to break up the boredom of a fourth NBA championship by starting Jones and randos like him.