With Stephen Curry sidelined for the Golden State Warriors’ 125-108 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers on Friday, Steve Kerr did something he rarely does when Curry is out.
He made someone the de facto point guard.
Typically when Curry rests, Kerr spreads out the extra minutes between Andre Iguodala, Patrick McCaw, and Shaun Livingston. But last night, Cook got 30 minutes, only two fewer than Curry’s season average, and just six fewer than backcourt mate Klay Thompson.
Admittedly Iguodala and McCaw were out with an injury, but even Livingston, a trusted veteran, played right around his season average with just 18 minutes.
The message was simple for a team that struggles to score when Curry is not around: Inject the offense with some shooting, and a primary ball handler. Replace Curry with someone who at least is modeled in the same factory.
Cook has shot 43.7% from deep in the G-League this year, meaning he can space the floor in a way that Iguodala (25.0%), McCaw (25.0%), and Livingston (0.0%) cannot. And while he’s not the playmaker that Iguodala is, his comfort handling the ball, and the threat of his jumper when running the high pick and roll, make him a more dangerous point guard in the Warriors’ standard offensive sets.
That was on display last night, even though he went 0-3 from deep, and didn’t collect a single assist. The floor spacing was there. The threat of his jumper was there. And the ability to tease the jumper, penetrate the defense, and help set up the offense was there.
He’s not the second coming of Curry - no one is - but he certainly replicates Curry’s scoring and playmaking in ways that the other three do not.
Curry has rolled his ankle often enough this season to ring a few alarms. Tomorrow’s game against the Minnesota Timberwolves will represent the 18th game he’s missed this year, if you count Thursday’s affair against the San Antonio Spurs, when he only played two minutes.
In other words, the chance of Curry missing a game this year is higher than the chance of one of those Iguodala or McCaw threes going in. The Warriors need to prepare for the distinct possibility that Curry may miss some time when the games matter most. And while Cook is unlikely to be netting 30 minutes a night in the Western Conference Finals, he would be a highly important piece of the puzzle in the event of those Curry-less affairs.
But as it currently stands, Kerr won’t have that option. Cook is on a two-way contract, meaning he is ineligible for the postseason roster, even if he has some of his 45 service days available.
So if Bob Myers wants to get Cook on the roster before the playoffs begin, he’ll have to first find someone to waive.
There are eight players on the Warriors who are too integral to the team’s success this year, and/or owed too much money going forward, to cut. Curry, Thompson, Iguodala, Livingston, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green, Jordan Bell, and David West are all safe.
The other seven guaranteed contracts? Not so much. Here’s how they rank, from least likely to be cut, to most likely.
How quickly things change. It was only two months ago that that Myers all but confirmed that McGee was on the trading block. The Warriors weren’t even looking to extract value, so much as merely get rid of McGee’s contract without having to eat it.
Now he’s the starting center, and the team has gone 7-1 since his promotion. Kerr has made it abundantly clear that the team needs more athleticism in their frontcourt. The Warriors defense has schematically shifted their pick and roll coverage, and their offense has become more reliant on penetrating and finding a rolling big.
The Warriors haven’t consistently started an athletic center since . . . have they ever consistently started an athletic center? Does small ball Al Harrington count?
McGee’s place in the starting lineup isn’t safe. Bell does most of the same things, but better, and may secure the spot when he’s healthy. But he’s missed significant time with injury this year, and it seems highly unlikely that the Warriors would risk entering the playoffs without either player.
Swaggy P hasn’t played quite the role that some anticipated this year. He’s getting fewer than 15 minutes a night, and averaging just 6.6 points per game.
But what he does is important. He’s knocking down 39.5% of his threes, and is liable to get George Foreman Grill hot on any given night.
Not only is Young’s shooting important for a bench that is painfully lacking it, but how often have we seen a player in Swaggy’s ilk tilt a playoff game, or even a series? Every spring we see a handful of streaky bench players have a huge impact with a 20-point game or three.
When the playoffs roll around, if the Warriors offense is sputtering like an engine on its final drops of fuel, Young will be deployed. It’s hard to see Golden State giving up that variable.
Jones is, far and away, the least impactful player on the 15-man roster. He’s played only 10 minutes all year, and has yet to attempt a shot.
Earlier in the season, however, the Warriors selected Jones’ option for next season. Not only does the team owe him money for next year, but they made it clear that they value his ability to be an integral part of the franchise moving forward.
Jones and Bell are the only big men under contract after this season. It’s hard to imagine the team giving away young depth at the position, let alone depth that is owed money.
McCaw represents a bit of a conundrum for the Warriors. On the one hand, he hasn’t played very well at all, and is now rehabbing an injury. On the other hand, the team seems committed to the idea that he can by a dynamic piece moving forward, and can retain his rights this summer through restricted free agency.
McCaw gets more minutes than any bench player not named “Iguodala”. He’s shown a lot of promise as both a diverse defender, and a playmaker. It’s unclear how much he can help the team this year, but the Warriors clearly like him, and it would be unlike them to punt on one of their building blocks just to add Cook.
It’s nearly impossible to get a read on the franchise’s feelings about Looney. He’s been inactive with some regularity, but also found himself on the floor for big minutes and big moments.
Looney is already in his third season, but only turned 22 a month ago. He’ll be a free agent this summer, and the Collective Bargaining Agreement limits how much Golden State can pay him. If they anticipate him going elsewhere, they may let him go now.
But they’ve also been impressed with his play this year, and his athleticism has been much-needed. He is arguably the team’s best pick and roll defender at the center position, and has the spryness to keep up with smaller players when switched onto the perimeter.
Just as Young will likely see a few spurts of big minutes in the playoffs for his offense, Looney may see the same for his defense, especially against a player like Clint Capela. Looney is limited, to be sure, but he provides value in an area of need.
For the most part, Casspi has fallen out of the rotation; he simply doesn’t play much anymore. From the outside looking in, he’s a prime candidate to be waived.
But it’s not that simple, as Casspi has three distinct things working in his favor.
First, Casspi has openly stated that he loves the franchise, and wants to re-sign next year, even if for the minimum again. With a lot of contracts running up this summer, and a very heavy payroll, having a valuable bench piece who will take the league minimum is a huge asset. Cutting him now likely changes the equation.
Second, Casspi is one of the team’s best cutters. His ability to move without the ball is uncanny, and becomes more valuable in the playoffs, when defenses tighten up, and defensive schemes are more intense. It’s quite possible that his ability to cut is as, or more valuable than Young’s ability to shoot, once the team is playing a playoff version of the Spurs or Blazers.
Third, there are a lot of parallels between Casspi and late-career Kerr. We all know the story of Kerr coming off the deep depths of the Spurs’ bench in the playoffs, hitting a barrage of unexpected threes to help save San Antonio’s season.
For better and for worse, Kerr trusts his players endlessly. Casspi, despite his diminished role, is a smart, proven veteran with a diverse skillset. He’s just the type of player that Kerr loves to throw in a big game when things aren’t working.
Pachulia was the starting center for last year’s title team, and he was the starting center this year until the All-Star break. Since then, he’s started to fall out of favor.
In the last four games, Pachulia has played five, nine, ten, and six minutes. Last night, despite the team missing both Bell and West, Pachulia didn’t see any action in the second half, after a poor showing in the first.
At this point, it’s fair to ask what Zaza does that isn’t found elsewhere on the roster. He can’t defend the pick and roll as well as Bell, McGee, or Looney. He can’t defend when switched onto smaller players as well as Bell, Looney, or West. He can’t defend on the block as well as Bell or West, and provides essentially nothing on offense, outside of some good screens.
What he does offer is veteran leadership, as well as a presence that is enjoyed and respected by the team. What remains to be seen is whether or not he can offer quality play off the bench, or if his new role will frustrate him into poor decisions, as it appeared to last night.
Zaza has to pass this to Klay (I think Durant was really mad at Zaza...) pic.twitter.com/YR2Y5XDcAO— Drew Shiller (@DrewShiller) March 10, 2018
If bad habits persist, it’s hard to see what Pachulia brings to the table for a team with title aspirations.
Right now, Casspi is most likely to be cut, but the Warriors would wait until the last moment possible to promote Cook, both for vetting purposes, and financial ones. Pachulia is the player trending downward, and his spot on the team is no longer secure. By the time they actually have to make the move, Pachulia will likely by the most obvious piece to leave behind.
Of course, the Warriors may decide that Iguodala, Livingston, and McCaw are plenty good enough playmakers, and that Young and Casspi provide enough shooting. They may prefer to keep the 15 they have, over making room for Cook. It’s hard to say what the right move is.
But discussions are surely happening between Myers and Kerr. And if Cook has a strong game tomorrow, the Warriors may not have much of a choice.