When Kevin Durant arrived in Golden State, the Warriors had minimal money to put together a competent bench. With their four All-Stars, they merely needed their bench players to hold down the fort long enough to give their starters just enough rest. In the past few seasons, the bench more than answered the bell.
This season, JaVale McGee took his talents to LA, David West retired, and the team chose not to re-sign Nick Young. While newcomers Jonas Jerebko and Alfonzo McKinnie have brought their own spark to the team, the bench may be one of the reasons for the Warriors’ “mediocre” record through the first half of the season. There are three key differences between this year’s and last year’s bench units.
3. Center Production
Since Kevin Durant arrived in 2016, the Warriors have gone with a three-pronged approach at center, with Zaza Pachulia, JaVale McGee, and David West rotating in and out. But with Zaza and JaVale departing and David West retiring, the Warriors are left to rely on their young guys to develop and grow.
This season, the Warriors saw a return to the three-headed center approach, but this time, with Damian Jones, Jordan Bell, and Kevon Looney. Jones showed potential to start to the season before being lost to a season-ending injury. And Jordan Bell has seemingly tried to do too much on the court at times, and he hasn’t replicated the same energy and spark he provided last year.
So the Warriors turned to Looney, the fifth-year player who has shown merely flashes of potential the past few seasons. He caught Kerr’s attention last season by being one of the Warriors’ few big men who could stay in front of guards in the playoffs. This season, at least before DeMarcus Cousins’ return, the reins were recently handed over to Looney, who is averaging a career-high 20 minutes per game.
And while he has made the most of it, shooting 63 percent from the field while averaging 6.5 points and 5.6 rebounds per game, the Warriors are still left looking for answers on the bench at the thin center position. Those answers, however, could be answered by Cousins, whose return pushes Looney to hold up the bench unit. But until Boogie fully assimilates into the offense, the Warriors may continue to be in trouble down low.
Last season, McGee provided energy in short spurts, as he posed a vertical threat that complemented their outside shooting nicely. While not a jumper, Zaza contributed with solid positional defense, screen-setting, and toughness on the inside. But who the Warriors miss most is West. Early in the season, with a rocky start, Stephen Curry admitted as much. They miss West’s passing from the post, experience, and leadership.
West’s 6.3 points and 3.3 rebounds per game in his 13 minutes per contest are modest, but his value doesn’t lie in his numbers. West gave the locker room a firm voice who spoke from 15 years of NBA experience. His sturdy presence on the second unit also prevented the Warriors from losing leads when they went to their bench. The wily smarts of veteran Iguodala, Livingston, and West allowed the Warriors to try to develop young guys like Patrick McCaw, Looney, and Bell.
This season, however, without the complementing talents of Pachulia, West, and McGee, the Warriors’ centers have struggled. According to NBA.com, the Warriors were 24th in the league last season in points from centers, getting 17.8 points per game from them. This season, however, the Warriors are scoring a league-worst 14.5 points per game from their centers.
The rocky bench play, especially at center, has forced Steve Kerr to stagger Curry and Kevin Durant in rotations at times. As a result, the Warriors haven’t played to their full potential throughout the season, but perhaps Cousins’ return fixes all of that.
2. Veteran Stability
Because of their age and unparalleled smarts on the basketball court, West, Iguodala, and Livingston were dubbed the “three wise men” of the Warriors’ bench. For the past two seasons, they brought calm and stability to a bench unit whenever they were in danger of losing a lead or letting a game get too far out of hand. They were the anchors of the bench.
This year, however, West has departed for the clearer, calmer seas of retirement. Livingston is another year older at 33, and Iguodala turns 35 in late January. And the production is starting to drop off with the age. Livingston is averaging 4.6 points per game this season, which would be the lowest of his career. Similarly, Iguodala is scoring 5.6 points per game, which would also qualify of the lowest of his respective career.
No longer does Livingston’s turnaround jumper seem unstoppable. No longer does he break it out when the Warriors are in a funk offensively and need a boost. Iguodala, similarly, has not looked like himself for portions of this season. But he, in particular, can never be judged by his regular-season performance.
Perhaps, knowing his legs are aging, Iguodala is saving up for the long slog of April, May, and June. Not surprisingly, in his five seasons with the Warriors, he has averaged 8.1, 7.2, 8.9, 10.4, and 13.1 points per game, respectively, in the playoffs (starting with last season and going backward). All five are higher than his regular-season points-per-game totals in each of those seasons.
At the end of the day, there may be no need to worry, as Playoff Iguodala will return at some point, and Livingston will have the motivation to be sharper come June. But for now, the Warriors’ bench is left without an anchor, without the “three wise men,” and are left with an assortment of varied talents, abilities, and experience–all trying to find their way in a the Warriors’ messiest regular season yet.
1. 3-Point Efficiency
While this season’s bench misses a lot from last season’s, this year’s bench unit does have something they’ve done significantly better than last year. Something they don’t miss from last season is the ’17-18 bench’s horrendous 3-point percentage.
One of the bright spots of this year’s new-look bench has been their efficiency from deep. While the bench doesn’t take a lot of triples, when they do, they’re hitting them at a high clip. The bench currently ranks second in the league with a blistering 39 percent 3-point percentage. It’s a sharp increase from being 28th in the league last season with a measly 33 percent 3-point percentage.
Jonas Jerebko, a newcomer from the Utah Jazz, has been a notable 3-point threat, hitting 3s at 36 percent this season. Jerebko is playing the role the Warriors envisioned from Omri Casspi and Nick Young last season before releasing Casspi and letting Young walk in the summer. That role is to space the floor and make the defense pay if they focus too much on the All-Stars.
Additionally, the Warriors have gotten an unexpected boost from Alfonzo McKinnie, who’s shooting 38 percent from deep. Quinn Cook has continued his solid shooting from last season, knocking down 43 percent of his triples. And while he doesn’t take them too often, Iguodala is shooting 35 percent on 3-pointers this year, which is a good sign for a career 33 percent shooter from deep.
Their efficiency doesn’t just come from deep, as the Warriors’ bench also leads the league in field goal percentage this season. That shouldn’t come as a surprise, since Golden State’s bench has been either first or second in the league in field goal percentage every year since Steve Kerr arrived.
Complementing the stars, the bench has the ability to knock down open looks to space the floor just enough for Curry, Thompson, and Durant. The bench doesn’t take a lot of 3s, as they rank 29th in the league in 3-pointers attempted, but they’re one of the most efficient in the league when they do.
While the Warriors’ bench misses center production from their three-headed monster last season, and their veterans have yet to pick up the pace, the Warriors’ bench is doing just enough to help the team win. However, the Warriors’ 32-14 record, while still good for first in the West, is relatively mediocre for this squad. Their stars have had some issues this season, but inconsistent bench play has also been a factor.