- The Warriors' cast of centers has morphed from major question mark to critical NBA Finals contributors.
Hedging their bets has only made the Warriors more elastic. It seemed strange that the league’s premier small-ball outfit would enter into the regular season with seven centers on its roster, committing half its spots to a position it regularly attempts to play off the floor. It was clear from Day One that Draymond Green would be Golden State’s best option in the middle in most matchups. For every other, the Warriors wanted to be ready—prepared with just the sort of big body that could fit the needs of the moment.
Their diversification was less an intended virtue than a financial reality. Signing Kevin Durant in free agency meant trading Andrew Bogut away to clear room and finally parting ways with oft-injured reserve center Festus Ezeli. The center rotation, save for Green, had been gutted. Golden State used the one significant—though at $2.9 million, even “significant” is relative—salary cap exception they had at their disposal to sign Zaza Pachulia as a default starter. David West came in for the veteran minimum. James Michael McAdoo, Kevon Looney, and rookie Damian Jones were relatively unproven, but each situationally interesting in their own way. JaVale McGee came in as a training camp invite and showed just enough to stick around. The much-maligned Anderson Varejao, who has since been waived, lingered in the background.
If the Warriors had even one center they were positive would work alongside their four All-NBA starters, they wouldn’t likely have invested the bulk of their bench and developmental opportunity in bigs. It’s easy to forget the uncertainty of Golden State’s footing then. Obviously Durant had the capacity to be an amazing Warrior. But one spot in every non-Death lineup seemed to be an open question: Which of these seven bigs comes with the least liability? Any player who works alongside Durant, Green, Stephen Curry, and Klay Thompson will be forced to make plays as a matter of practical realities. A defense will bend away from that fifth Warrior; they will make open catches every game at the elbow, at the rim, and in that murky space in the high paint. They must know how to make the most of it. Seven variables would be plugged into the same formula to see what made sense.
In the end, three did. Between Pachulia, West, and—still somewhat shockingly—McGee, the Warriors cobbled together enough quality center minutes to win 67 games in the regular season and 13 straight in these playoffs. As if it weren’t enough to add Durant to the winningest team in NBA history, Golden State scraped together a competent center rotation for a combined $4.9 million. McGee, in particular, has proven to be a tremendous bet; while Pachulia and West were two of the best bigs realistically available to the Warriors, McGee very nearly didn’t make it out of camp. When he did, his style of play and personality endeared him to his teammates. Their lobs to him were a show of support—recognition that this nine-year cast-off could deliver the kind of vertical spacing that none of Golden State’s other centers could.
That year-long investment paid off with six good minutes in Game 1—all that the Warriors really needed. Trust in Pachulia, who began the Finals with the same bungled layups and shooting reluctance that marked the beginning of his season, yielded a tidy eight points and six rebounds in 14 minutes. The initial sight of Pachulia smoking open looks at the rim with four of the best players in the league around him was jarring. Golden State kept working (both over the course of Game 1 and over the course of the season) until it became clear where Pachulia would need the ball to be effective. Space was made in the offense for Pachulia to work as a passer. Teammates gradually figured out how to make the most of Pachulia’s clobbering, if questionable, screens. West, meanwhile, has relished the opportunity to make reads from the top of the floor as the offense whirls around him. There has long been a smirking satisfaction in West’s game whenever he had the chance to batter some defender in the post. The opportunity to actually run offense seems to delight him even more, as evidenced by his eagerness to survey every possible cutter in situations where he previously would have just taken a shot. West’s 6.4 assists per 36 minutes this year represent the sort of genuine surprise that makes the Warriors’ center corps work.
Even McAdoo got the call in the Warriors’ most important game to date. He was deployed to see if his quick feet might be of use in a series that even the Cavs seem intent to push smaller. (They were not so quick, however, as to do any good against LeBron James.) The lack of any real hierarchy at the position allows for this kind of strategic probe. McGee was a short-burst difference-maker in Game 1, but he might not be every night. Some adjustment, too, could exploit Pachulia or West in a way that curbs their viability. McAdoo doesn’t seem to be any kind of answer, but there is value in dealing with a platoon of conditional players to poke around what might work.
A team can afford to do this when it has Durant, Curry, Thompson, and—not least of all—Green in its back pocket. At worst, the Warriors could always play Green at center as much as they have to. The best defensive player in the league works as an overqualified fall-back option. Green's minutes at center ran up to 16 in Game 1 and could be pushed further if the Cavs continue to bench either one of Tristan Thompson or Kevin Love at a time going forward. That balance will change if Cleveland continues to have LeBron check players like Pachulia and West (as he did at times on Thursday) to broaden the range of his help. It speaks to the futility of the moment, however, that the Cavs' first response to a runaway game was to feed into that which can destroy them.
The smaller and faster this series goes, the more it plays directly into the Warriors' hands. Even if their skill and speed were somehow matchable, Golden State's defensive intelligence and size-defying rim protection isn't. Having Green and Durant on the back line (while Thompson and Andre Iguodala handle much of the initial coverage) functions in a way that barely qualifies as small ball. Successfully leverage the Warriors' usual centers and this is your reward. What makes Golden State a special sort of nightmare is just how shiftable their interlocking talent can be, all the way down to the position supposed to be their most profound weakness.