With a 100-91 victory over the San Antonio Spurs in Game 2, the Golden State Warriors remained undefeated (8-0) against the spread in the playoffs. They’ve been underrated by everyone -- fans, media and the oddsmakers -- because they aren’t the same team that went 47-35 in the regular season. Without David Lee, they’ve completely changed their identity, going from playing two traditional big men to spreading the floor with four perimeter players. Lee’s absence has also magnified the importance of Andrew Bogut, who has been an essential part of their postseason success after playing in only 32 regular season games.
Over the last two weeks, Bogut has been as healthy as he’s been in years. As a result, he’s started to show the form that made him the No. 1 overall pick in the 2005 draft, selected ahead of Chris Paul and Deron Williams. At 7’0, 260 with a 7’3 wingspan, Bogut is one of the biggest and most physical players in the NBA. Just as important, he has a great feel for the game for a player his size. Bogut is one of the rare centers who can be a difference maker on both sides of the ball. If he can stay healthy, he changes the outlook for the Warriors not only for this season, but far into the future.
Recognition has been a longtime coming for Bogut, remaining under the national radar for most of his career. A product of the Australian Institute of Sport, he broke through in the United States as a sophomore at Utah, carrying the Utes to the Sweet 16 while averaging 20 points, 12 rebounds and two assists per game on 62 percent shooting. There was no question he would go pro, just as there was no question the Bucks would draft him when they won the lottery. After playing in relative anonymity in the Mountain West, Bogut was right at home in Milwaukee, one of the smallest markets in the NBA.
Like most big men, he wasn’t close to a finished product at the age of 21. As a rookie, he averaged nine points and seven rebounds per game on a team that snuck into the playoffs as a No. 8 seed. Over the next four seasons, he steadily increased his production as his role with Milwaukee increased. At the age of 25, he was averaging 16 points, 10 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 2.5 blocks a game on 52 percent shooting. A do-everything big man who could command a double team, find the open man and anchor a defense, Bogut was named to the All-NBA Third Team.
That, unfortunately, is when his body began to betray him. He suffered a gruesome injury to his shooting hand and elbow at the end of the 2010 season, keeping him out of the playoffs. A cascade of injuries, most notably a fractured ankle, followed, as he played in only 77 games over the next two seasons. When he was on the court, he was a shadow of himself, with his mobility and shooting range extremely limited. Milwaukee moved on, dealing Bogut to Golden State at the 2012 trade deadline. The Warriors were taking a huge risk, one that looked doomed when Bogut didn’t suit up the rest of the season.
As this season began, Bogut's condition was the known unknown hovering over Golden State. After three years on the sidelines, he looked like the latest game-changing center unable to stay healthy in the modern NBA. He later admitted to considering retirement at various points in his seemingly never-ending rehab process. The Warriors, meanwhile, moved on without him, becoming one of the NBA’s surprise teams by emphasizing a free-flowing uptempo attack. When he was finally cleared medically, his more deliberate style of play was an awkward fit. He had the lowest PER (13.2) of his career.
Lee’s injury in Game 1 of their first round series against the Nuggets changed everything. Rather than trying to replace his team’s only All-Star, Mark Jackson rolled the dice on a four-out system that left the mammoth Australian as the only big man on the floor. All of a sudden, everything clicked. Bogut’s rebounding prowess and defensive savvy made up for Golden State’s lack of size while the increased amount of space on offense made the Warriors perimeter players nearly unguardable, especially coming off screens from a 7’0, 260 center who knew how to push the bounds of legality.
Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson have received the headlines, but Bogut has been just as vital to Golden State’s playoff success. He’s averaging 8 points, 11 rebounds, 2.0 blocks and 2.0 assists on 62.5 percent shooting in only 29 minutes a game. He destroyed Denver’s frontcourt, including a 14 point, 21 rebound performance in Game 6. It’s no coincidence that San Antonio’s most successful stretch in the second round, a 15-0 run at the end of regulation in Game 1, came when Gregg Popovich baited Jackson into going small and taking Bogut out of the game.
As impressive as Bogut’s stats have been, his impact goes far beyond the box score. On defense, he walls off the paint and cleans the glass almost single-handedly, allowing Golden State to get out in transition. No one can shut down Tim Duncan, but Bogut can make him work for his points without a double team, removing a huge portion of the Spurs' offense. On offense, his ability to facilitate from the top of the key gives the Warriors another dimension when their jump-shots aren’t falling. It’s hard to speed up a team that runs offense through a seven-footer from the top of the key, since he can slow the pace and see over any double teams.
When healthy, Bogut is one of the best centers in the NBA. Going small around him has been a best of both worlds scenario for Golden State: all the benefits of a small-ball offense without the downsides that come on the other end of the floor. The results speak for themselves. Despite playing only three of their first eight playoff games at home, Golden State has gone 5-3 against two 57+ win teams, with two of those losses coming on dramatic buzzer-beaters from Andre Miller and Manu Ginobili. That’s how much of an impact a center of Bogut's ability who knows how to play basketball can have on a team.
Going forward, Bogut’s emergence gives the Warriors a tremendous amount of flexibility. If they are committed to Lee, his defensive and playmaking ability would allow them to build a two-post half-court team similar to Memphis and Indiana. If they want to stay with a four-out offense, they can shop Lee and create salary cap room for the summer of 2014. Either way, Bogut, still only 28, is the perfect long-term complement to Curry and Thompson. Big men, if they can stay healthy, age like wine. It’s something every NBA team will at least have to think about when Andrew Bynum (25) and Greg Oden (25) hit the market this summer.