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Analysis: Who will win the battle for time at center?

Kerr & Co. continue to experiment with who will get time at the five this season. Let’s examine — and grade — the candidates!

NBA: Golden State Warriors at Los Angeles Lakers Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

When Andrew Bogut was traded to the Mavericks, the Warriors found themselves without a comfortable answer at starting center. Their go-to backup, Festus Ezeli, was gone too — too expensive to stay on long-term and too good to play for an under-market salary.

But anyone who has watched this team over the last few years has understood that this problem might be slightly overblown. Bogut was the center in theory — filling a position that was used roughly 20 minutes per game and had seen a decline as small-ball lineups increased. Draymond Green has become the de facto five in crunch time, as part of the Death Lineup.

The organization could replace Bogut and Ezeli with a suitable replacement or two, but it also could bridge production using their “best five” — a lineup that often didn’t even feature guys like Bogut or Ezeli when they were here anyway.

The front office got lucky with their first addition, netting Zaza Pachulia for way under market value at $2.9M for one year. They then filled the rest of the roster with pseudo-fives: guys who could play the five in a pinch, like David West, and journeymen who had the skill but not the consistent production to earn a larger contract, such as JaVale McGee.

Steve Kerr and crew have done a great job of mixing and matching these guys, and after 17 games of the season, we think there might be a large enough sample size to start seeing how they have done. Does the front office view any of the current solutions as suitable replacements? Or, will we see another player not currently on the roster in this spot before the season is over?

For the purposes of this examination, we are considering the following players or two positions — the starting five spot and the first-off-the-bench five spot. The finishing five spot will assumingly be covered by the Death Lineup with Green at the five.

The Incumbent: Zaza Pachulia

The Good: Despite a slow start, Pachulia has shown flashes of chemistry with this roster. He has a high basketball IQ, understands how to get fouled in the lane and plays the high post very well. Pachulia averages 2.4 assists per night while only playing 17.7 minutes per contest — better than Bogut. He has shown a willingness to run the floor and give effort, and doesn’t mind getting scrappy with loose balls. The eye test even shows that his teammates are starting to accept him on the hardwood. He is also the team’s best free-throw shooter at this moment.

The Bad: Pachulia will never be confused with a great defensive center. His defense box plus/minus has been half of what Bogut brought to the table — 5.3 for Bogut, 2.8 for Pachulia. He chips in less than a block per 36 minutes and less than two steals per 36 minutes. His other kryptonite: bad hands. He is averaging just about 3 turnovers per 36 minutes, mostly because of dropped passes in the paint.

Grade: B- This is an improved grade considering his last five games. While his minutes continue to increase with the starters, his hands and finishing must continue to improve to show his best value for the team.

The Candidates

The Vet: David West

The Good: West has brought his trademark mid-range jumper to the team, shooting .53% from the field on twos. He only averages 4 PPG, but in just 11 minutes of play per game he has filled the “instant offense” role that Marreese Speights played last year.

The Bad: Mr. West is not a center. He is slow to rotate, will not extend out on stretch-fives and gets killed on the pick-and-roll. He has also been a turnover machine, averaging close to 4.4 giveaways per 36 minutes.

Grade: C+ West will never be asked to do too much for this roster. The staff could be saving his body for the stretch run, but so far he has been a situational solution in limited minutes, getting most of his run at the beginnings of the 2nd and 4th quarters, usually with Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant on the floor.

The Rookie: Kevon Looney

The Good: After missing most of his rookie year due to injury and most of training camp with a similar injury, Looney has shown promise in his limited playing time. He got the start when Green was out against the Wolves, and did a stellar job against Karl-Anthony Towns and crew. He has shown a fantastic ability to finish at the rim, and his body of work shows he has outside touch that has yet to be tapped into. He has arguably the most game-ready potential on the roster at the five spot, as a long-term solution.

The Bad: Looney is still developing into game shape. He often looks winded keeping up with the Warriors’ pace. But this is simply a repetition thing. He only played one year at UCLA before going into the draft, so he has a smaller number of actual games played to get his body ready for the grind. He also fouls way too much, averaging close to 6 per 36 minutes played.

Grade: B+ I can picture Looney playing important minutes during the playoffs. Note: I did not say big minutes, as I believe Kerr will never turn to him for more than 10 minutes per contest. In his short stints, he can be that energy guy the team needs, changing the pace with an offensive rebound and put-backs. His performance against Minnesota should inspire comfort amongst the staff, should Green need to take a night off. While he won’t be the starter, he can challenge for first-off-the-bench minutes going forward. In fact I would put him as the favorite at this point.

The Wild Card: JaVale McGee

The Good: Say what you will about McGee — he changes the game when he plays. He changes the geometry of the floor with his finishing on lobs, he disrupts the rim with his blocking threat and the players love playing with him.

The Bad: He is too much of a wildcard to count on for big minutes. He fouls way too much and he ends up out of place on block attempts to get rebounds. He can be counted on for a good five-minute stretch to change the game. But, afterwards, his mistakes overshadow his contributions.

Grade: B As much as I want more of McGee, I must admit that using him for small stretches is his best value. I could picture McGee getting a start if Pachulia ever missed a game. But you would have to play him with a short leash and a solid backup plan.

The Rest: Anderson Varejao and James Michal McAdoo

So far, both players have been inactive multiple times or received DNP-CDs from Kerr. While both have gotten run as first five off the bench, neither has made enough of an impact to deserve more minutes. I would think both players are highly expendable and will serve as garbage-time guys as the year goes on.

Grades: Incomplete

The Future: Damian Jones

The potential is there. But the question is whether he can put his game together in time this year. The front office would ideally want to “red shirt” him for the season, allowing him to develop his game in the D-League. But if he has a large enough impact and can get over the early foul troubles he has experienced in Santa Cruz, he could burst through and see time. My guess? Don’t expect much from Jones this year — and that isn’t the end of the world.

Grade: Incomplete

Outside Choices?

Anything can happen as the year goes on in regards to adding to the roster. Like Varejao last year, the Warriors are an ideal situation for a buyout player looking for a ring. If the Suns decided to look long-term and buy out players, wouldn't Tyson Chandler be a fantastic fit with this roster? If the Mavericks decided to cut Andrew Bogut to go “young,” would he welcome a return to the Bay? Rumors also indicated that a veteran returning from injury, like Emeka Okafor, could be an option when he returns from rehab later in the season.

One confirmation: Golden State does not have many assets in draft picks or salary to play with at the deadline for a big trade. No, Sacramento will not trade DeMarcus Cousins for Patrick McCaw and Kevon Looney. So look for additions to come from non-traditional avenues, at best — like free agency.

Conclusion

The play of Zaza Pachulia has made this decision a much easier one. His minutes will likely continue to increase as the year goes on, and his fit will improve with the offense and defense. I picture Kevon Looney earning minutes backing up Draymond Green, while JaVale McGee and David West will split the backup five minutes previously taken by Festus Ezeli.

Although I have dreams of another player coming into this roster, I don’t picture that being an option unless an injury dictates a decision. While this might have been a huge fear to start the year, Steve Kerr is doing an amazing job of maximizing the values of his resources — getting the best out of his parts while not asking anyone to do too much. As of right now, I would expect the Warriors’ center situation to stay as-is for the immediate future, and likely throughout a championship run.