As recently as 2014, many pundits and fans openly questions whether a playoff team led by it's guard tandem could hope to compete in the loaded Western Conference. Just months later, we certainly have our answer.
Parades and praise aside, no team can hope to remain a title contender, let alone a favorite, without the ability to play multiple styles of basketball depending on the matchup, and a constant influx of new cost-controlled talent. And despite a big money deal for Draymond Green, the Warriors appear to have done just that. Right now, their bigs are as young and as talented as they've ever been, and they figure to play prominently in Golden State's plans for years to come.
Today, we look past Andrew Bogut, Marreese Speights and the recently-departed David Lee to assess the future of Golden State's center and power forward positions.
Draymond Green (2015 Opening Day Age: 25)
Of course we'll start right at the top. Draymond Green, the Warriors' surprise defensive player of the year candidate, contributes more to Golden State's ability to play multiple styles than any other player on the team -- and maybe in the league. The undersized defensive forward sports a passable three point shot, point-guard-like court vision and passing, and a mean-streak that can't be topped.
Draymond Green's value was more than just the sum of his varied abilities, though. With many Warriors opponents, including the Cleveland Cavaliers, opting to trap Curry nearer and nearer to half court, Green served as the de facto point-forward for the squad, catching the outlet pass and running a mini-transition offense from the top of the arc. In doing so, Draymond repeatedly burned playoff teams for easy assists, including cuts to the basket, corner spot up attempts, and even more hockey assists.
Because Draymond is guarded by opposing forwards and centers, he simply can't be checked when moving at full speed and in open space up top. He gave defenses a lose-lose proposition that they had no choice but to take, as long as they committed to forcing the ball out of Curry's hands. As long as the chess board was laid out as such for Steve Kerr and the Golden State Warriors, the question wasn't if they would win, but when.
Now, Draymond Green is set to join USA training camp with an eye towards qualifying for the 2016 Olympics roster. Additionally, Green will enter the 2015-2016 season as a strong contender to make an all-star team, win the defensive player of the year award, and finish first team All-NBA defense. Not bad for a pudgy 'tweener.'
Festus Ezeli (2015 Opening Day Age: 26)
Even as a rookie, Ezeli's (very) broad shoulders, sculpted physique and powerful body could evoke memories of Dwight Howard. Unfortunately, the Vanderbilt product lacked soft hands, had no offensive value, and he still hadn't figured out the nuances of NBA defense. Things went from bad-to-worse as the center would go on to miss his entire sophomore season with a knee injury.
But Nigerian center proved to be a quick study, as he made enormous improvements across the board in 2014-2015, earning him critical minutes as Andrew Bogut's understudy, and at times, as his replacement. Despite appearing in only 46 games (he started 41 two years prior as a rookie), Ezeli's per-36 minute stats exploded. His points per-36 more than doubled from 6.1 to 14.4, he grabbed an extra board per 36, and his field goal percentage went from bad (.438) to pretty darn awesome (.547). Basketball-Reference.com posts a stat, offensive rating (or a measure of how many points the team scored per 100-possessions with said player on the court). By this measure, Ezeli improved from a miserable 97 to a surprising 111 score (with 100 being roughly average).
Not every number was kind to the Festivus Pole, however. ESPN's Real Plus-Minus ranked the center very poorly on offense, and as a minor positive on defense. Still, scouting shows that there was improvement in various aspects of Ezeli's game, and that improvement will likely show up in the advanced numbers sooner or later as the team learns to play around Ezeli's deficiencies. For example, Ezeli's shooting in the restricted area improved from .582 to .653 in his 2015 campaign. Even more shocking, his touch from 3-10 feet jumped from .327 to .491 (and these shots represented 38% of his total attempts from the field!) -- an outstanding improvement. Things kept going well for Ezeli in the postseason, where he shot .540 from the field while cutting his turnover rate from 35% in the 2013 playoffs (/gasp) to a more manageable 16.1%.
Ezeli isn't as young as McAdoo or Looney, so we can't assume that he'll just keep getting better and better. But even if he plateaus right where he's at, he's still a worthy rotational center who was, quite obviously, good enough to play significant minutes for a 67-win Champion. Those guys don't grow on trees.
James Michael McAdoo (2015 Opening Day Age: 22)
Sometimes a guy just seems way too talented for his draft slot (or lack thereof), and we as bloggers take turns under-exaggerating his ability and performance, hoping not to look stupid for over-hyping the next Jeremy Lin. That may be why James Michael McAdoo, a University of North Carolina standout who was once slated for the 2013 NBA lottery, wound up un-drafted following a ho-hum three year stint with Roy Williams. For all the players who get drafted on physical potential following a lackluster college career, JMM was not invited to the party.
Once he stepped on the court for Warriors affiliate Santa Cruz, however, the talents that made him a coveted high school recruit were once again on full display. For the season, McAdoo posted a bonkers slash line of 19.5 points / 8.6 rebounds / 2.3 assists / 2 steals / 2 blocks while shooting .575 from the floor. For whatever reason, McAdoo outperformed expectations as soon as he landed in Santa Cruz, and he hasn't really looked back since.
Now, the 22 year old returns to the Warriors for his first full season, presumably filling David Lee's vacated role of backup-backup power forward. But with his long arms (a full seven foot wingspan), muscular build and surprising on-court quickness and agility, it's not hard to picture McAdoo as a kind of poor-man's Draymond Green, capable of switching onto perimeter players as well as defending bigs in the post. His strong rebounding numbers and his ability to run the floor in a small-ball lineup make him a potential mainstay as a cheap, cost-controlled role player for the Warriors, at the very least.
Kevon Looney (2015 Opening Day Age: 19)
As before, the Warriors 2015 draft pick probably shouldn't have happened at all. Not only did Looney fall in the draft due to concerns about his hip and lack of production at UCLA, but the Warriors were long thought to trade the 30th selection in order to dump David Lee's contract. Sometimes you just get lucky.
As DCBruins of UCLA sports blog Bruins Nation explains, Looney was a top player in Westwood and has one of the highest ceilings of any player in the most recent NBA Draft. But for whatever reason, Bruins coach Steve Alford opted not to make Looney a bigger part of the offense, and featured no set plays for the star forward. For Alford, Looney was a better player when he could "play off of everybody," and so making him a focal point was never in the playbook.
Whether or not the coach is right about Looney, it doesn't seem to matter. He certainly won't need to be the focal point on an offense featuring Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala. However, Steve Kerr isn't shy about running offense through a big man either, as we saw with Andrew Bogut, David Lee and Draymond Green at times throughout the 2014-2015 season.
Additionally, Looney's hip injury never forced him to miss a practice, let alone a game. While his hip will remain a subject of intense focus throughout the season, the fact is that the Warriors are one of the few teams in the NBA that can offer a prized draft pick the luxury of red-shirting as a rookie. Golden State can take it slow with Looney, knowing that he's just 19 years old, and not needed to compete for a Championship in 2016. Even better, the Warriors have demonstrated that they have the foresight to do just that, having waited out injuries to key contributors like Curry, Bogut and Ezeli. Few teams have shown such restraint in recent memory.
As far as Looney's future, he projects as the best three-point shooting big on the roster by far -- a sweet-shooting 6'9" big man with an orangutan's reach and strong rebounding skills. Potentially, he will give the most diverse roster in the NBA yet another unique chess piece to maneuver with. And did I mention that he's only 19 years old?
No one is doubting that the long term future of this Warriors squad rests on Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson. But no team can stay on top in the salary cap era without a consistent infusion of talent, and the Warriors appear to understand that as well. Far from being "a big man away from the title," the Warriors secretly feature one of the league's more well-rounded rotations of big men. And despite possible problems on the horizon: Bogut's ineffective play in the Finals, David Lee leaving via trade, and the need to play Draymond Green heavy minutes...the Warriors may already be one step ahead.
The future is bright in Golden State. Even in the front court. Let's give it a year or two and see how bright it really is.