Steve Kerr's decision to bench Kevon Looney for the second leg of his team's home-and-away with the Los Angeles Clippers on Saturday wasn't exactly hard to see coming. Looney got the so-called “Keith Bogans” in the second half of the Golden State Warriors' impressive win over LA on Thursday, playing a three-minute stint to open the third quarter before quickly being yanked and watching the rest of the game from the bench.
Making that development especially damning is that the Dubs needed all the reliable two-way contributions they could get to hold off the Clippers at Chase Center. Andrew Wiggins, Chris Paul and Gary Payton II missed that game just like they're out in Los Angeles for the rematch, leaving golden opportunities for teammates to pick up their slack and make a good impression on Kerr and the coaching staff with the Warriors' rotation still in flux.
Jonathan Kuminga, Brandin Podziemski and Dario Saric—opening in Looney's place on Saturday—certainly made the most of them, spearheading a dominant bench effort that Kerr called the “story” of what might be Golden State's best win of the season so far. Impactful as Saric was offensively Thursday night, though, his far superior utility on that end compared to Looney's was just further confirmation of what's been known since he signed with the Dubs in July. Golden State has admitted as much multiple times already this season, too.
Saturday's isn't the first game Looney has come off the bench in 2023-24. Saric opened back-to-back games in place of Looney against the Minnesota Timberwolves and Oklahoma City Thunder in mid-November, the coaching staff's acknowledgement of just how tough it is to play Looney next to another nonshooter or questionable one up front, especially with Stephen Curry sidelined.
While Looney's utter lack of offensive dynamism is hardly new, it's reached a nadir over the first several weeks of the regular season. But the bigger problem is that rippling ineffectiveness has been accompanied by a decline on the other side of the ball, where Looney's positioning, rebounding and air-tight switching once compensated plenty for his offensive deficiencies.
Kevon Looney's early-season play is underrated problem for Warriors
Widespread and sometimes irrational hand-wringing over the struggles of Klay Thompson and Wiggins has made it much easier to overlook Looney's own personal labors early in 2023-24. A quick glance at his per-game numbers don't suggest much of a dropoff, but digging just below that surface reveals what the film has laid bare since the season tipped off.
Looney is shooting 57 percent from the floor, down from 63.2 percent a year ago. His turnover rate has exploded to a career-high 16.4, an untenable figure for a center with notably low usage.
His raw rebounding rate has dipped a bit, a decline on the glass supported by Looney grabbing fewer contested boards than he did last season, per NBA.com/stats. Though opponents take fewer shots at the rim with him on the floor, they convert 3.8 percent more of those attempts than the Warriors' average, according to Cleaning the Glass.
More basic lineup data, long an indication of Looney's positive impact, isn't kind to him, either. Golden State's net rating is 7.0 points lower with him manning the middle, second-worst on the team behind Wiggins, per Cleaning the Glass.
Looney's never been anywhere near an elite finisher, but took positive strides in that department last season. He's regressed around the rim to a debilitating extent in 2023-24, not just missing bunnies but erasing advantages his teammates create by refusing to shoot.
Looney doesn't even pretend to be interested in finishing on this first-quarter play from Thursday night, catching Moses Moody's dump-off with his back literally turned to the basket.
On the other hand, you can't really blame him when so many of Looney's even semi-contested shots near the restricted area end up in misses or worse.
The Warriors could be far more tolerant of Looney's downturn offensively if he was the same game-changing defender he's been for the past two or three seasons. It's not only his loss of lateral quickness and lift that have contributed to Looney's lagging influence on defense, though. Sometimes he just hasn't been attuned to the gameplan.
Looney acts as Shai Gilgeous-Alexander's primary defender here specifically to switch a small-small ball screen featuring Isaiah Joe, a set that had already fooled the Dubs multiple times in the first quarter. Look at Corey Joseph's immediate reaction as Joe pops to the arc and Looney sticks with Shai, not to mention his frustration after Oklahoma City's sharpshooter splashes a triple.
Golden State won the title in 2022 in large part because Looney thrived as an isolation defender against star forwards and even some dynamic ball-handlers after switches. There was a case to be made as recently as early last season that he was one of the best switch defenders in basketball.
That's just nowhere near arguable anymore, Looney regularly getting roasted off the bounce by even power-based scorers like Kawhi Leonard—exactly the type of matchup you'd hope he'd be able to handle.
Want a perfect distillation of Looney's two-way struggles? Look no further than this damning sequence from Thursday's win.
Looney will forever be a Warriors icon. He won't get a statue outside Chase Center alongside Curry, Thompson and Draymond Green, but has been just as central to Golden State's lasting success as every dynasty role player not named Andre Iguodala. The Dubs don't win a fourth championship without him.
Barring a stunning reversion to his past norms as a finisher and switch defender, though, it's time for them to reduce Looney's minutes against most opponents and search for a long-term upgrade at center.
Another problem with Looney is that his offensive weaknesses are even more pronounced when not playing next to Curry and Thompson, who constantly draw two to the ball. If he's moved to the bench full time without his minutes at least tied to Curry's, the damaging effect Looney's presence has on the offense will only be compounded further.
Looney is beloved in the locker room, by the coaching staff and among Dub Nation. His attitude won't change no matter what happens to his on-court role. Looney's salary is small enough that Golden State could keep him around if they upgrade via trade and don't have to include him for financial purposes. His contract is only partially guaranteed for next season, too.
The Warriors need to make some tough decisions this season to keep their fading hopes of winning another title alive. Relying less on Looney isn't the only one but should probably be Golden State's first.