Why Kevon Looney could start over Willie Cauley-Stein at Warriors center

Grant Liffmann

Editor's note: Grant Liffmann (@grantliffmann) is the co-host of Warriors Outsiders, which airs on NBC Sports Bay Area 90 minutes before each home game and 60 minutes after every game. Each week, Grant will drop his Outsider Observation on the state of the Dubs.

With so much roster turnover this summer and largely a new cast of characters, the Warriors will have plenty of question marks and unknowns heading into the season. One of the major decisions that head coach Steve Kerr and his staff will have to figure out, is who should start on Opening Night at Chase Center, if the current roster (sans Klay Thompson) is healthy.

The holdovers in the starting lineup from last season Steph Curry and Draymond Green will be obvious locks yet again, and unless there is a dramatic twist, newly acquired D'Angelo Russell will slide into the starting shooting guard spot. That leaves the wing position vacated by Kevin Durant and the center position vacated by DeMarcus Cousins up for grabs. 

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When it comes to the starting center spot, there has been a somewhat constant shuffle in the Kerr era. The Warriors have seen Andrew Bogut, Zaza Pachulia, JaVale McGee, Damian Jones and Cousins all get a shot to cement themselves as the starting center for a period of time.

However a majority of the time, all of those players were not on the court when it came down to closing out a game. The Warriors had almost always turned to a small ball lineup at that point, whether it was the original "Death Lineup" or the more recent "Hamptons Five." But this season, that might change. The team no longer employs some key components of the Warriors vaunted small ball lineups, including Durant, Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston, to go along with the injury absence of Thompson. So whomever may start at center for the Warriors, might close at center as well.

So who will it be?

It almost certainly will be a decision between Willie Cauley-Stein and Kevon Looney, and there are compelling arguments for both of them.

Cauley-Stein is used to being a starting center after starting in 81 games last season for the Sacramento Kings, and 57 the season before that. His body type and athleticism will probably remind Warriors fans of McGee, as he is a slim but muscular seven feet tall. He can get up and down the floor with speed that most big men do not posses making him a great weapon in a fast break. While he has not perfected a mid-range shot, he is capable of making them, opening the floor just a bit on the offensive end.

Most importantly though, he will be used as a vertical lob threat so playing alongside Curry, Green and Russell would be a perfect match in that regard. On the defensive end, it would not be a bad idea for Cauley-Stein to spend as much time on the court with Draymond, so that he has proper leadership and guidance. 

On the other hand, a case can be made that Cauley-Stein might be best suited to come off the bench and play a majority of his minutes in lineups that are dominated by Russell, like the beginning of the second and fourth quarters.

By playing alongside Russell, the two players would be able to do what they do best, run constant high-ball screens and pick-and-roll actions. In this scenario, Cauley-Stein might come in at the end of the first quarter for a couple minutes to play with Curry and Green, and then start the second quarter to team up with Russell for a long run. The same strategy would then happen in the third and fourth quarters. 

Looney is no stranger to the starting lineup having been on the court for the opening tip in 24 games last season. Kerr even trusted a hobbled Looney enough to start an elimination Game 6 of the NBA Finals a couple months ago. Yet for majority of the season, Looney was one of Kerr's most reliable and consistent bench pieces and he preferred to see Kevon in that position.

Looney averaged a career-high 18.5 minutes per game last season, but Kerr has recently said that he hopes to expand Looney's playing time next season. For defensive purposes, Looney is the team's best option in that position. His basketball IQ, length and versatility make him a stout defender. Coupled with Draymond Green, the Warriors should feel confident defending the interior. 

[RELATED: Curry relishing new underdog role]

On offense, Looney is very patient with the ball under the hoop, as he waits for defenders to get in the air or fly by before dunking. He has an under-the-radar tight handle with the basketball, and can finish at the rim with either hand. The Warriors hope that he can expand his jump shooting game, even to corner-three range. If he can extend his range, then teaming him with Curry and Russell would be a great way to move the opposing big man away from the rim and provide some spacing in the key. Also, Looney's elite offensive rebounding skill could come in handy for when Curry and Russell are along the perimeter and ready for a kick-out pass. 

In my estimation, if Kerr is serious about utilizing Looney more, it would make sense to start him and play him with the stars. In doing so, Cauley-Stein could provide some needed energy and athleticism off the bench in the second unit. 

On Thursday, we will examine the starting wing position.

Why Kevon Looney could start over Willie Cauley-Stein at Warriors center originally appeared on NBC Sports Bay Area

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