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Kevon Looney coming up big in the playoffs, embodies the forgotten middle class of the NBA

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Kerr wants him to stay, Looney says “I’d love to stay here“ but will the math work out?

Los Angeles Clippers v Golden State Warriors - Game One
a looming Looney

Impending free agency may undervalue him, but Kevon Looney’s phenomenal play deserves some attention.

“I hope he doesn’t come back...” Taken out of context, this Andre Iguodala quote about impending free agent Kevon Looney would be real bad. But like perniciously clipping bits out of a 300 page report, the snippet of a quote paints paints a misleading picture. “I hope he gets paid, so I hope he doesn’t come back because I hope he gets all the money,” is what Iguodala said.

Iguodala obviously doesn’t really want him gone, but the sentiment highlights a reality: Looney is one of the poster children of the NBA’s disappearing middle class. With Damian Jones and DeMarcus Cousins both sidelined for most of the year with injuries, the 4th year player out of UCLA has emerged as one of our best options off the bench. He fell through the contracting cracks last year, something that shouldn’t happen again - but may anyways.

It’s been coming for a while - Looney has a history of being sneakily good

It goes further back than this, but let’s start the narrative in last year’s playoffs. Looney had already established himself as an efficient offensive player with a great nose on the defensive end, but the 2017-18 post season was his first significant role as a featured reserve. First, against LaMarcus Aldridge and the San Antonio Spurs, then against Anthony Davis and the Pelicans, and finally his emergence as one of the best Harden deterrents, the young big man cemented his value. Initially targeted by Houston, they quickly learned about his efficacy:

Harden scored 21 points on 34 possessions against Looney in that series, per Second Spectrum, shooting only 3-of-11 from beyond the arc.

Over the past few years, his share of minutes has grown, from 447 to 910, and then all the way up to 1,481 minutes this season. Looney has logged the 6th most minutes on the team this year, an astonishing nod to his place on coach Steve Kerr’s depth chart right behind Iguodala. Looney has averaged 6.3 points and 5.2 rebounds in 18.5 minutes per game this season and was a plus 10.6 points per 100 possessions according to basketballreference.com - which puts him behind only Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant in on-court impact.

Over the course of the current series against the Clippers, Looney has accumulated 35 points on 14 of 17 shooting (a ridiculous true shooting percentage of .851) in 53 minutes of action - including a career-high 19 points in game two. His on court value is beyond reproach.

Whatever it’s going to cost, the Warriors should retain Looney

“I was terrified all of last year after we denied the option that we were going to lose him,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said Friday. Teams may be hesitant to throw money at our bench players. In recent history, our fringe players haven’t exactly shone when picked up by a new team. Festus Ezeli is the first player that comes to mind, though his injuries are to blame rather than inability to make an impact. Justin Holliday and Ian Clark are two more recent bench players who moved on chasing more minutes and money but ended up underwhelming, as did Patrick McCaw.

On Friday, coach Steve Kerr held court on an off day and took the unusual step of discussing a player’s contract specifics openly.

A day later, Looney gave the love right back, but the question remains: can the two sides make the math work.

Friend of the blog, Patrick Murray ran the numbers over at Forbes, and concluded that Looney was “the Warriors best-kept secret when it comes to value of impending free agents.” Through a miracle of the NBA’s Byzantine system of salary rules, the Warriors somehow managed to emerge from last offseason’s uncertainty carting Looney back for a veteran’s minimum of about $1.5 million. And (here’s the important part), they also got his Bird Rights - which would allow the team to sign Looney for whatever value they’d like.

Now, whether they would or not is another question.

The same forces that brought us DeMarcus Cousins could conspire to keep Kevon Looney in Golden State. Namely, teams are becoming more hesitant to offer significant deals to mid level players.

As a result of top-end players running the players union, there’s been a systemic push to maximize money and freedom for the best players in the NBA. An unintended consequence of this is that teams are hyper aware of cutting into the available cap space. Even a couple million extra per year could prevent a team from opening up the coveted “two max contract roster spots” that allow trash franchises like the New York Knicks to dream about rescuing their franchise in one fell swoop of the free agency pen.

Looney, at just 22 years old would be a wise investment. Something of an advanced stats darling, it’s not hard to imagine his trajectory continuing to climb. My resident voice of reason, Sleepy Freud, had this to add in our Slack chat:

Taking sentiment and the durability question out of it, I’d definitely consider Loon at 5/$140 for his age 23-27 years (with potential for a Siakam-like jump) ...especially in terms of his ability to guard small, quick guards

There’s no question if Kevon Looney is worth it; the question is really going to be about who will pay the man.