Davis’ line - 34 points, 12 rebounds, 4 assists, 4 blocks, and 2 steals - led the Pelicans to a much-needed victory, but for the Warriors, the story isn’t about what Davis did do, or can do. It’s about what Golden State’s options are for defending not only New Orleans’ big man, but every other big man in the West.
The Western Conference standings remain unresolved, but there are six teams that the Warriors could reasonably face in the first round of the playoffs. The vital big men for those teams? Davis, Karl-Anthony Towns, LaMarcus Aldridge, Rudy Gobert, Steven Adams, and Nikola Jokic.
Six teams, six All-Star caliber bigs.
If they survive a first-round matchup, the Warriors will face a second one of those bigs in the second round, or perhaps the beefy, albeit not great Jusuf Nurkic. Make it to the Western Conference Finals, and the emerging star that is Clint Capela likely awaits.
Saturday, then, offered a little information as to how the Warriors plan on distributing their center minutes, and what they’ll do to minimize the top big men in the league. But the most important information from the Warriors didn’t come during the game, but rather from before it, when coach Steve Kerr admitted that the team will rotate their starting center, depending on the matchup.
Kevon Looney starting tonight. Warriors don't have a firm starting center. "It'll change night to night," Steve Kerr says.— Anthony Slater (@anthonyVslater) April 7, 2018
Kerr said he "might" play all of his centers in the playoffs, including Damian Jones.— Connor Letourneau (@Con_Chron) April 7, 2018
Against the Pelicans, Kerr turned to Kevon Looney, a player who, earlier in the season, had virtually no role. Playing a potential first round foe, Looney started and received 28 minutes of playing time. David West received a fair chunk of minutes, while Jordan Bell and Damian Jones both saw the court as well.
Zaza Pachulia, and JaVale McGee, who have combined for 72 of the Warriors’ 80 starts at center? Neither saw the court.
And while Davis feasted his fair share on Looney and Co., it was apparent why Kerr shied away from certain matchups. Pachulia’s flatfooted slowness plays horribly against Davis’ hyper-athleticism, especially given the latter’s penchant for playing on the perimeter. There’s a reason elephants are herbivores; they ain’t catching any animals.
While McGee doesn’t have that problem, his lack of strength comes into play against Davis. Even more noticeably, his struggles defending the pick and roll are exploited against the Pelicans, who not only employ Davis’ elite rim-running abilities, but two strong passers from the perimeter.
So starting Looney made sense, and, even after Davis’ dramatic filling up of the box score, Looney at times showed the reasoning behind Kerr’s decision. And yet, the best defense against Davis came from a highly unlikely source: Kevin Durant.
No one on the Warriors proved strong enough to handle Davis, as he made all available options look like like they hadn’t hit the weight room all season. But Durant’s length was able to create issues, as he was frequently in the face of Davis, swatting at the ball, and keeping the big man uncomfortable.
Just as importantly, Durant proved willing and able to seamlessly transition between perimeter defense and interior defense, which kept Davis from finding comfortable spots on the floor.
The one player distinctly absent from this discussion so far is the team’s best defender, Draymond Green. Green did not have a good defensive game against New Orleans, and was constantly caught in the wrong place.
Against the Pelicans, that was likely a focus issue, and it’s fair to assume that Green will be locked in when the playoffs begin. But if they face New Orleans, how many minutes will Kerr give Green against the immovable force that is Davis?
In theory, starting Green on Davis, and putting Looney or Bell on power forward Nikola Mirotic may make some sense. Surely Kerr will play around with numerous options to combat whatever center the Dubs face.
The Warriors may not have shown much in the 126-120 loss, in terms of stopping Davis or winning the game. But they did show that they’re not stuck in their ways; the team, and the center position remain fluid, and will adapt for each matchup.
If the Oklahoma City Thunder await the Warriors in round one, you can expect to see a very healthy dose of Pachulia and West. If the Jazz are the first round foe, then McGee and Looney will likely get a lot of run.
And if it’s the Pelicans, we may not see McGee much, or Pachulia at all, and Durant - the closest thing Golden State has to matching Davis physically - may get the bulk of the center minutes.
The center position has been rotating for the last few months, but it turns out the Warriors weren’t looking for a starter. They were just looking to establish each player’s strengths and weaknesses, so they can find the right counter for any opponent.