OAKLAND — Steve Kerr has a tendency to tinker. With a two-time defending champion that’s seemingly gotten bored for long stretches during each of the last two seasons — waiting for the playoffs to begin — it’s a necessity.
Only two other teams in the playoff picture for the Western Conference have played more different lineups than Golden State’s 489 — the Jazz and the Rockets. In the Eastern Conference, the top three teams have played over 600 lineups each. Of course, none of those teams have five players who have been named All-Stars at least once in the last two years.
Kerr tends to shorten the rotation to eight in the playoffs, and with the looming addition of a big piece — literally and figuratively — in Andrew Bogut, Golden State has a problem. It’s one of those ‘good problems to have,’ but a problem nevertheless, especially with such little time left to find the right gear.
“We play different guys based on different matchups, so there hasn’t been a set rotation after the first seven, eight guys,” Kerr said on Sunday. “Whoever’s called upon, we’re just asking them to be ready and come out aggressive and keep playing, despite the fact that they may not be in the regular rotation. They’ve got to always be ready.”
With those five All-Stars on the floor, the Warriors are statistically at their least productive (with the lowest plus-minus out of the five lineups that have played at least 100 minutes together).
Over the final 17 games — including Sunday evening’s tilt against the bottom-feeding Phoenix Suns — the Warriors have to find a balance between sparking their offense and maintaining some semblance of defensive identity, while trying to solidify their rotation, and beyond that, the balance of the roster headed into the playoffs. Those roster decisions may come down to who represents the best defensive options.
As much as both Kerr and his predecessor Mark Jackson instilled a defensive identity into the franchise, Golden State’s defense has taken a decided step back this season, with the Warriors ranking 14th in the league in defensive rating (109.3).
The league is, of course, a much higher-scoring one than it was even five years ago. When Golden State was 26th in 2011-12, they had a 107.2 defensive rating, and the Charlotte Bobcats ranked 30th with 109.4.
For comparison’s sake, the last time the Warriors even approached those depths was in 2012-13, when they ranked 13th (104.2).
As much as DeMarcus Cousins brings to the court on the offensive end, his only real stand-out defensive game came against a fairly immobile Nikola Jokić. Because of Cousins’ own immobility coming off of an Achilles surgery, he’s forced to reach and to foul, which only exacerbates his already delicate relationship with officials.
Once Bogut does come in — no news on exactly when he will, Kerr said on Sunday — he’s going to sop up minutes when Cousins is in foul trouble, or needs a blow. He’ll likely not play much initially, but could be a major factor in the playoff rotation, which isn’t great news for either Jordan Bell or Kevon Looney.
Even 14 months removed from his last NBA action, Bogut is arguably better equipped than Looney or Bell, defensively, to deal with the heftier centers like Steven Adams and Rudy Gobert, or in the Finals, Al Horford and Karl-Anthony Towns.
He’ll almost certainly take at least some minutes from Bell, who has finally exited the midseason doghouse he found himself in when he got in a mid-game tiff with Kerr in Los Angeles. During that game with the Lakers, Bell got just seven minutes on the floor, following four minutes the night before. After that sideline argument, Bell saw no action in eight of the next 13 games.
Since the start of March, though, he’s played in every game and has averaged 15.7 minutes, chipping in with 4.6 rebounds, 5.2 points and 1.4 assists. At 6-foot-9, 224 pounds, though, Bell — like Looney — just doesn’t have the size to bang defensively with those heftier centers.
Bogut’s addition also complicates the future of Damion Lee, who, as a backup to Klay Thompson at shooting guard, was Golden State’s only real option for that spot off the bench, and looked to be a good bet to take the 15th and final roster spot.
To keep Lee, the Warriors would have to cut Alfonzo McKinnie, Jonas Jerebko or Quinn Cook — all of whom aren’t under contract for next season — by the end of the regular season. Given the lack of any other true, lengthy shooting guard who can defend multiple positions, Lee may be more important in the postseason than McKinnie — whose early-season star has faded — or Jerebko — whose minutes have waned since Cousins’ return — or Cook.
All of these variables will factor into Kerr’s rotation tinkering over the final 17 games, which feature five Western Conference playoff teams and two games against Eastern Conference playoff contenders in Detroit and Indiana.
After losing three of their last five games — all against playoff teams — Kerr is looking to find some consistency, as well, in the midst of a shifting line
“I think the focus is the biggest thing tonight,” Kerr said before the game against the Suns. “The other night was about energy in the beginning. You could tell our guys were pumped up. I think Draymond [Green] said after the game that we can’t rely on energy every night. We’ve got to rely on execution and focus. That’s what tonight is about: Backing up our win the other night with another good effort.”