Warriors fans will grouse about what could have been against the Spurs last season in the Western Conference finals, but in reality, Golden State had no shot of winning that series. It wasn’t just because the Spurs were great, which they were and continue to be. It was because Andrew Bogut and Stephen Curry were spent.
After the series was finished, both gingerly limped to their exit interviews. They had been pushing through searing foot ailments, buying breaks from the pain with injections. The end brought more relief than regret because there was little else to give. The end also brought hope, because imagine what this team could be at full health. Curry and Bogut might have walked like old men sauntering off into the sunset, but their pain-stricken accomplishments promised new beginnings.
Now we’ll never really know what this team could have been, as Bogut will be sidelined indefinitely. His ribs suffered the effects of what may as well have been the chestburster scene from "Alien." We might have an idea based on what transpired this season, but with Bogut out, we won’t see a fully realized Warriors squad in the playoff crucible. That’s a shame.
This isn’t like the time David Lee got injured in last year's playoffs. Carl Landry was a capable Lee understudy, and the Nuggets couldn’t punish Golden State for going small. The outlook is a lot bleaker this time around, especially if the Warriors face the Clippers.
DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin already had the ability to crush Golden State on the boards before Bogut went down. Now Golden State will be relying on Jermaine O’Neal, a solid backup but also someone who jumps once in the time it takes Blake Griffin to jump twice.
Matchups aside, it’s difficult to replace someone with a fair claim to “best defensive player in the conference.” O’Neal can replace some of that rim protection, but it won’t really be the same. Bogut is a bit of a contradiction because his fragility belies an intimidating presence on the court. He’s a confrontational shot-blocker, often latching an offhand paw on his opponent while spiking the shot back from where it came. His offense might be even scarier, as he sets the kinds of screens that would get him fined by Roger Goodell.
Bogut will do anything to win, personifying team play with his defense, passing and willingness to take on physical contact. But he doesn’t exactly fit the bill of “team guy” in sense of office politics. The Aussie is a bit of a loner in this setting, and he’s blunt with assessments of teammates.
In February, Bogut had a bizarre clash with coach Mark Jackson over whether the center had injured himself sleeping. While Bogut never openly criticized Jackson after the oustings of assistant coaches, his “He’s the coach. He makes the decisions. We’re not silly enough to believe anything else” comments didn’t exactly mirror teammates’ glowing praise of their embattled leader.
Now that embattled leader, someone who evangelizes on the benefits of off-court harmony, is tasked with proving that togetherness can compensate for the loss of a 7-foot mercenary. Jackson has an exceedingly tough job, but there are ways in which Golden State could pull off the improbable.
In yet another playoffs, the Warriors must shrink themselves in pursuit of an upset. Small ball worked against the Mavs in 2007 and against the Nuggets in 2013. The future looks grim in 2014, but at least there’s a general precedent for success. Here’s the blueprint for an upset.
Lee in his old Knicks role
Lee, the occasional fall guy for GSW shortcomings, gets an increased role doing what he does best: slipping screens and diving to the rim as a small-ball center. This ultimately isn’t a sustainable way to go long term, but such lineups can put up points in the right situations. If Lee is healed coming off this latest back injury, expect him to perform well offensively in the playoffs.
More Draymond Green
Draymond Green should see more time, especially at the 4 spot. Jackson has already said that he likes the Lee at center, Green at power forward lineup and that he will use it in the playoffs. This look makes for an intriguing playoff experiment, especially if Andre Iguodala plays within it. Green and Iguodala have comprised a vicious defensive one-two punch this season. Can they do it with almost no rim protection in the background? The Lee-Green-Iguodala-Klay Thompson-Curry lineup held opponents to a stingy 89.2 points per 100 possessions over the 105 minutes they shared.
Jermaine O’Neal as Bogut facsimile
It’s the backup’s time to shine. O’Neal is Bogut’s opposite in terms of locker-room demeanor -- hand him a mike and he could be mistaken for Jackson’s agent. Now he has the chance to step up for his coach in a huge way.
The Warriors need O’Neal to be a hero, but to pull it off, he must cool it with the hero ball. O’Neal’s 2001 isolation post-ups are fine when he’s sharing the floor with Marreese Speights and Jordan Crawford. When he’s getting minutes with Curry, he needs to be more of a screener, less of a scorer. O’Neal doesn’t screen as severely as Bogut, preferring to evade contact and dive toward the rim. For the Warriors to score at a series-winning pace, they have to adjust O’Neal’s role.
Defensively, O’Neal is just fine. He’s not quite Bogut with the rim protection, but he’s not far off.
One big to rule them all
I’ve long been a proponent of “Bogut, plus shooters,” but the truth is that Golden State’s one-big lineups seem to thrive no matter who the big guy is -- as long as it isn’t Speights, I should say. It might be tempting for Jackson to use two traditional bigs against lineups of size, but Golden State cannot pull off an upset as a conventional, weaker version of itself. To win, the Warriors need to stretch and prod the opposition’s traditional approach.
Stephen Curry needs to do cool dribbling stuff and hit ridiculous shots
It’s unfortunate we’ll never get to see that battered 2013 playoff team realize its potential in the 2014 playoffs. That hope is dead. In its place, the possibility remains that Golden State can once again shock the world. It’s unlikely, but it’s probably no more unlikely than Bogut finishing a season wire to wire.