Kevon Looney Has Won the pre-DeMarcus Cousins Spot at Center

After a three-way battle with Jordan Bell and Damian Jones, Kevon Looney won the battle for the fill-in spot at center. Some of this is due to injuries, but it's also because of Looney's consistent play.

Ever since Andrew Bogut disappeared from the Bay Area in the summer of 2016, the Golden State Warriors have been trying to fill the hole in the middle of their lineup. The center position has been a clear fifth in the starting lineup hierarchy since Kevin Durant replaced Harrison Barnes at small forward, and the Warriors have papered over that hole ever since. JaVale McGee did an admirable job in the role over the last couple of seasons, and having a lack of talent up front doesn't matter all that much when your other four starters are All-NBA players.

By acquiring DeMarcus Cousins for a bargain-bin price in the offseason, the Warriors completed their All-NBA starting lineup. Cousins, however, is still recovering from the torn Achilles that prevented him from playing his first-ever playoff minutes last season in New Orleans. While he will probably return to the lineup shortly after the new year (he's already been training with his brother Jaleel and the rest of the Santa Cruz Warriors), the Warriors have to fill the center position in the meantime.

In the first few weeks of the season, the center battle boiled down to three recent Warriors draft picks: Jordan Bell (the 38th pick in 2017), Damian Jones (the 30th pick in 2016), and Kevon Looney (the 30th pick in 2015). With Bell falling way short of expectations this season, and with Jones being inconsistent even before his season-ending pectoral muscle tear, the job has fallen onto Looney's shoulders. After a couple of starts in mid-November, Looney entered the starting lineup full-time on December 3rd.

While somewhat undersized for the job at 6'9", Looney's solid defensive instincts and 7'4" wingspan certainly make up for that lack of size. The Warriors will have to hope that Kevon Looney is not their starting center in May and June, but his efforts to fill that role in the meantime will hopefully allow him to stick around in the rotation once Boogie is back.

Defensive Diligence

If you're going to be the fifth starter surrounding Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, and Draymond Green, the qualifications are pretty simple. Either you're enough of a superstar that the team works out a way to fit you in (see Cousins, DeMarcus), or you try to find your niche in the tiny number of gaps not filled by the four main starters. JaVale McGee revived his career by finding his niche and filling it perfectly: he rebounded, he blocked shots, and he skied for crazy alley-oops for five to seven energy-filled minutes at the start of each half.

For Looney, the niche is not as visually impressive but is still quite compelling. Despite being the smallest of the three quasi-centers that the Warriors have played this season, Looney has been the best rebounder by far. Looney is averaging 2.5 offensive rebounds and 5.3 total rebounds per game in just over 20 minutes per contest. According to NBA.com, he grabs 12.5% of total available rebounds while on the floor (just behind Draymond's team-leading 12.8% mark), and is tenth in the league among qualified players with a 12.2% Offensive Rebounding rate. The Warriors don't need Looney to score since they are flush with talent in that regard, but Looney's ability to generate extra possessions on the glass is something that the Warriors have desperately missed since Bogut left town.

On the defensive end, Looney is not exactly a show-stopper but he has at least held his own. Looney has the best Defensive Plus-Minus of the trio by a significant margin with a 1.32 DRPM per ESPN. For some reason that will probably never be explained, ESPN ludicrously lists Looney as a small forward despite him having played a whopping 2% of his minutes at that position since entering the league (per basketball-reference), with zero of those minutes coming in the 2018-19 season.

Looney's defensive success is due to his fit with the Warriors' scheme and his overall defensive IQ. Unlike Jones and Bell, he does not get lost easily in pick-and-roll coverage. He's not an explosive leaper and shot blocking menace like McGee last year or Jones this year, but he's still an above-average NBA athlete who has good defensive timing and doesn't jump at every pump-fake. While the Warriors might want to have a better shot-blocking threat manning the middle, Looney is relatively mistake-free and does his job admirably on the inside.

Future Outlook

The Golden State Warriors have been playing a waiting game with their starting center since the moment DeMarcus Cousins inked his one-year, $5.3 million contract. Whether or not the Warriors were the highest bidders for Boogie's services, they were certainly the team that could most afford to punt their starting center role for half of the season in preparation for yet another Finals run. Steve Kerr will probably opt to mix Cousins into the rotation slowly, beginning with a smaller role off the bench, to try to ramp him up for a bigger role in the postseason. Alternatively, Kerr might decide to give Cousins the JaVale-esque small minutes starter role right away to build chemistry with the other stars.

Either way, Kevon Looney's role will clearly shrink once Boogie is back in the fold. However, Looney has proven to be an effective big man as both a starter and a bench player this season. He is not under contract for next year, but he will be easier to retain than Boogie (who is a virtual guarantee to sign a bigger contract elsewhere this offseason since the Warriors don't have his Bird rights). Kevon Looney might be about to lose the starting job that he just earned, but he should at least retain the front office's faith as they approach yet another offseason with a question mark starting at center.

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