SAN FRANCISCO — For a head coach, picking a favorite player has to be like picking a favorite child.
There might be an answer, but it will never be publicly spoken.
But push Warriors coach Steve Kerr — I mean, really push him — on his favorite, current Warriors player and I’d bet he’d tell you it isn’t Steph Curry or Draymond Green, as brilliant and important as both are.
No, I’d bet it’d be Kevon Looney.
The Warriors’ undersized and understated big man has become an entry point for basketball hipsterdom.
For the same reasons Kerr loves coaching him, the unelected gatekeepers of the game use him as a test. Know his value his and you know ball, because you could n’t possibly glean his importance his to Golden State by just reading the box score or watching Youtube highlights. You have to watch the whole game and read up on some theory, too, to understand Looney’s impact. But those who do put in that work, understand that Looney is the grease in the cogs of Warriors’ winning machine. He helps the Warriors operate at their best by bringing a steady, professional effort to the floor every night.
And I mean every night.
Looney has battled injures since before he came into the NBA. The Warriors were only able to select the UCLA product and consensus five-star recruit No. 30 overall because of those injuries. Within the first year of his NBA career, he had surgery on both of his hips. In his first six years as a professional, he had averaged fewer than 60 games per season.
But this season, against all odds, he was one of five players in the NBA to play in all 82 games.
He’s played in all 12 of the Warriors’ postseason games, too. And while there have been some excellent performances across those 94 total contests, particularly as of late, Wednesday’s Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals was his finest performance of the season.
The Dallas Mavericks want to play even smaller than the Warriors. They are a true five-out team. Still, Dallas has three 6-foot-10 players in the rotation — all three taller than the 6-foot-9 Looney. But not one of them plays a true center’s game. They’re shooters, hanging out on the perimeter, hoping for a pass from Luka Dončić.
And on the defensive side, I’m not quite sure what the Mavericks’ supposed big men are. They certainly don’t do much protecting of the rim.
I do know that in Game 1, they were manhandled by Looney.
The Warriors’ big proved himself to be this series’ one true center.
Yes, it’s trendy to note that the sport is shifting towards smaller players and more spaced-out play, but Looney’s impact in Game 1 showed how valuable competent play at the five still is to winning in the modern NBA.
Perhaps it even proved how valuable the center position remains in this league altogether.
When you compare Looney’s shift to that of Dallas’ “bigs,” it’s hard to argue that the Mavericks don’t find themselves at a serious disadvantage in this series.
Dwight Powell, Maxi Kleber, and Dāvis Bertāns — the Mavericks’ three regulars who are all taller than Looney — played a combined 47 minutes Wednesday. They had six points and seven rebounds combined.
Dallas, as a team, only had six shots at the rim all game. Looney had four on his own.
Yes, Looney was the Colossus of Rhodes in Game 1. A wonder of the ancient world of basketball, Looney both defended the paint with class and proved near-impossible to circumvent on the perimeter — a callback to the big man’s incredible turns on James Harden during the Warriors’ playoff showdowns with the Rockets during Golden State’s dynastic run.
“Yeah, he’s a great team defender,” Mavs coach Jason Kidd said. “He does n’t get enough credit for his defense. He understands the schemes. They have a great free safety or linebacker, however you want to look at Draymond. He’s the talker. He positions everybody. He talks the defense out, and they all trust him.
[But Looney] It doesn’t get enough credit for his defense, but he’s good at what he does.”
Looney shined on the offensive end as in Game 1, going 5-for-5 from the floor with four assists. Sometimes Looney is the offenses’ last resort. Sometimes, he’s the forgotten man by the opposing defense. Either way, he was incisive with the ball in his hands his Wednesday. He didn’t have a single trademark pump-fake against Dallas.
His shooting: impeccable (though short distance on four-of-five attempts). His passing his : sharp. His movements his : deft.
For basketball hipsters, Looney’s Game 1 was the equivalent of a 10.0 rating from Pitchfork Magazine.
It was also as flashy as Looney gets, which is to say that it still there was a barely discernible amount of flash.
But what he provided the Warriors was altogether necessary.
The Mavericks had absolutely no answer for Looney in Game 1. That should tell you exactly how lopsided the first contest was, and how valuable the Warriors’ big man’s contributions will be in the contests to come.
Looney is the ultimate glue guy — a near-perfect team player. He’s not along for the ride, either. That’s such an inerudite take. The Warriors don’t have a title in 2017-18 if it wasn’t for him. They don’t reach the Finals in 2019 without him, either.
And right now, at this moment, he’s playing his absolute best basketball at a moment that is calling for him.
Where will it take the Warriors next?