Aussies in NBA: Bogut's playmaking, lifeline for Curry-less Warriors?

Monday, 25 April 2016. The sight of the league’s reigning MVP, Steph Curry writhing and clutching at his knee, left the Warriors’ faithful with their collective hearts in their mouths.

He also seemingly left the fate of the Golden State Warriors’ historic season in the balance.

“It’s tough,” Andrew Bogut said after the game. “Steph’s our leader and MVP. But at the same time, without sounding insensitive to Steph, we’ve got a game we’re trying to win.”

Curry’s injured knee has rightly saturated the sports news cycle for the past 72 hours. Any injury to a transcendent star reshapes the title narrative, let alone a once-in-a-generation talent such as Chef Curry. His absence leaves a sizeable hole that cannot be replaced by any one Warrior, but will instead take a collective effort.

Curry’s excellence extends beyond the aesthetics of his otherworldly shooting and dazzling ball skills. His gravitational pull on the court warps entire defensive principles like no other; teams scrap their defensive game plans when dealing with him.

In the pick-and-roll dance of recent years, teams have typically adopted one of two general defensive principles: have your big man drop back to wall off the paint, whilst your guard scampers over/under the opposing pick, or have your primary pick-and-roll defenders hedge/trap hard and hope to recover in time.

Steph Curry has obliterated those conventional schemes. When teams attach another defender to the hip of the Warriors' other elite shooter in Klay Thompson, acres of space are afforded for the other Warriors, who essentially play 3-on-3 basketball most of the time.

A lot of attention has been focused on the increased responsibilities of the Warriors’ other All-Stars, in Klay Thompson and Draymond Green.

But don’t sleep on Andrew Bogut.

Bogut the playmaker

Bogut has become somewhat of a forgotten man this season, but he remains a critical piece for the Warriors - doubly so, now that Curry will be sidelined. The seeming marginalisation of Bogut’s contributions, at least from a scoring standpoint, has largely stemmed from his disappearance in last season’s NBA Finals, when Steve Kerr unleashed his small ball of death upon the Cleveland Cavaliers, subsequently shunting Bogut to the bench.

The rationalisation of Bogut’s benching was loosely based upon the following premise: why play a slow-footed 7-footer, when we can play faster, and not lose out much defensively?

That’s carried over to this season. When the Warriors need to dial up more pace in their game to drive the chaos-ball that they thrive in, they’ll inevitably bench their big man and roll out the small ball of death lineup. But there’s a dissonance between rhetoric and reality.

The suggestion that this formation unleashes all sorts of spaciness on the court for the Warriors, jibes with what it unlocks in reality: an abundance of playmaking.

Shaun Livingstone can’t shoot beyond the post, and nobody guards Andre Iguodala (the typical defensive hiding spot for opposing teams). Draymond Green has upped his 3-point threat levels but he doesn’t inspire the fear of a Ryan Anderson-type stretchy-power forward. Still, when the Warriors unleash their devastating small ball play, they score at outrageous levels.

A lineup of Curry, Thompson, Green, Barnes and Iguodala outscored opponents by 158 points in 172 minutes during the regular season, per research from NBAwowy, a staggering mark. Plug in Livingston for Iguodala, a lineup that has only logged 87 minutes of court time, and the Warriors are still hammering opponents to the tune of 39 points in that span.

It’s a perfect storm of passing, screening and cutting action, which threatens to wash away opponents. But with Curry now sidelined, his gravitational pull no longer stymies defenses, and the Warriors lose a dose of playmaking.

Cue, Andrew Bogut.

One of the more underappreciated aspects of Bogut’s game has always been his playmaking. Fellow columnist, Winston Zhang previously wrote of the effective passing game of Bogut. It comes as no surprise that the Warriors’ assist ratio also spikes when Bogut is on the court.

The Aussie big man embodies the three principles of passing, screening and cutting within the one package. The Warriors need that extra dosage of playmaking, and Bogut remains one of the best facilitators at his position. Amongst centers, he annually ranks amongst the top in assist percentage.

Before his benching in the Finals last year, Bogut often operated as the fulcrum of the Warriors’ offense, stationed out at the top of the arc as shooters whirred around him.

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He’s constantly searching for an enemy body to bump, freeing a teammate for an extra beat or two, before firing off the pass.

The rise of Draymond Green has somewhat replaced and shackled Bogut’s playmaking this year. Green is using up a ton of possessions this season, and almost doubled his assist ratio from a year ago, per Basketball-Reference. Green also represents much more of a threat from the top of the arc, as both a shooter and a driver, a threat level that makes defenders actually pay attention to him, and unlocks wider passing lanes. That also allows the larger Bogut to hunt for enemy bodies to collide with, freeing up the likes of Klay Thompson and Harrison Barnes for perimeter looks and backdoor cuts.

Steve Kerr could think about unleashing Bogut again as a point center of sorts, particularly when he sits Green for rest. Bench units that have Marreese Speights at the five may offer more spacing, but at times they appear rudderless, often looking like they’re chucking up muck against a brick wall, in a vain effort to make it stick.

Per, the Warriors were about break even with teams over the course of the season when Speights was on the court, and 13.1 points-per-possession better than their opponents when he sat. It gets even worse when the Warriors have no genuine playmakers on the court to pair with him. The Warriors are a net minus-85 overall when Curry, Green and Bogut don’t share the floor with him, per NBAwowy.

Staggering minutes for Bogut with the second unit could provide some much needed direction.

The numbers

By now, all the talking heads have endlessly serenaded about how the Warriors’ offense stinks when Curry sits. And that’s true.

Still, in the 168 minutes that Bogut, Green and Thompson shared the floor without Curry, they outscored opponents by 5 points, and scored at a rate of 1.072 points-per-possession, still a top 5 mark.

And here’s where it gets super interesting.

What about when the Warriors have no Curry and no Bogut on the floor?

Across a larger sample size of 1159 minutes, the Warriors have been outscored by 149 points. Their league-leading offense drops to 1.038 points-per-possession, a level akin to the offensively-challenged Boston Celtics.

In the playoff cauldron, the Bogut effect becomes even more pronounced. The Warriors outscore opponents by 27.9 points per-100-possessions when Bogut is on the court, compared to 7.8 when he is off.

It’s an interesting snapshot of Bogut’s value on the court. He may not be the flashiest, or the most versatile Warrior, but he’s an elite facilitator and expert screener. That skills package makes him a unique and valuable commodity, particularly for a team that relies on constant motion.

The screen assists

Good defenses are linked together like a chain.

Playoff defenses are dialled up even further, consciously snuffing out your first, second and even third actions. They’re like hunters, waiting to pounce on your expected tendencies. But what if the team you’re playing defense against turns the tables? What if the hunters become the hunted?

The Warriors are ruthless on offense, searching for weak links in the proverbial chain.

With Bogut not being a shooting threat, big men defenders will often hang back, looking to wall off the paint now that Curry is not available.

But when Bogut senses that his man isn’t marking him, he will simply pivot to set an off-ball screen to a shooter curling up from the baseline. One nudge is all it takes to spring a clean look for Klay Thompson here.

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The NBA defines screen assists as instances when a teammate “sets a screen for a teammate that directly leads to a made field goal by that teammate.” That’s a mouthful.

Essentially, it measures and recognises the dirty work of a screener springing his teammate open. Bogut currently leads the Warriors in screen assists during the postseason.

His screens are especially effective because his first instinct isn’t to score, but rather to stop his opponent in their tracks.

“It’s all about spacing,” Bogut recently said. “I just try to make sure that when I hit my guy, I don’t give up that screen until he actually has to run all the way around me. A lot of guys will screen and then slip out of it and roll; I’ll actually hit the guy and then just make sure he has to take the alternate route.”

In many ways, Bogut’s screening constitutes another dimension of his playmaking. It’s just instead of creating space for teammates with some nifty dribble moves, he’s creating space by thumping into other humans. And it’s effective.

Looking ahead

It’s unclear if Steve Kerr will give Bogut a longer leash now that Steph Curry is not available in the short term. Bogut hasn’t done himself any favours with a sky-high foul rate in this first round series against the Rockets.

But let’s project ahead and pretend that the Warriors get past the Rockets; their next opponent will emerge from the Clippers/Blazers bloodbath.

The Clippers are a mess now without CP3 and Blake Griffin, and if they survive the Blazers, Bogut will have the task of keeping DeAndre Jordan away from feasting on offensive boards.

On the other hand, the Blazers should be favoured to advance to the next round now that the Clippers have lost their two most important players. In Mason Plumlee, they possess a rough facsimile of Bogut – a bouncier center who’s not quite the rim protector on par with the Aussie, but has expanded his passing repertoire under Terry Stotts.

Both the Blazers and the Clippers have experimented with trapping styles, before settling upon more traditional pick-and-roll coverage, meaning their big men tend to drop back to wall off the paint. Bogut will probably be able to keep out of foul trouble in any hypothetical series with either team, with not having to beast with a low post behemoth such as Dwight Howard.

The Warriors will probably be favoured in either series. That’s the sort of cachet you bestow upon a team that’s less than two weeks removed from the greatest regular season in NBA history. But that historic season was driven by an historic player. With Stephen Curry out in the short term, it will take an entire team effort to replicate his production.

For Andrew Bogut, it might mean he needs to reconfigure himself into a more prominent playmaker once again - and that might actually be a pretty decent idea.