There’s little glamor in rebounding, and there’s certainly little left to spare for a center playing on the Golden State Warriors. There’s a long history of Andrew Boguts and Zaza Pachulias with few memorable glories of their own outside of the collective success, and of course the collective success is the ultimate, but when we reminisce on the dynastic years, we probably aren’t going to reminisce too much about JaVale McGee or Kevon Looney — except, right now, for some reason, my timeline is a drip-feed of Looney memes, of Looney with Dennis Rodman hair, or of Looney with Hakeem Olajuwon goggles. The personality cult of fat rebounding lines appears well and alive after all. If there’s ever going to be a center on these Warriors that finds glory in the dirty work, it’s going to be Kevon Looney right now.
Against the Sacramento Kings in the first round, Looney recorded three games with at least 20 rebounds, and another in Game 1 against the Los Angeles Lakers. (I believe that makes his career tally six games with 20-plus rebounds, and just one with 20-plus points.) In the third quarter of Game 7 alone, when the Warriors went ahead for good to win the series, Looney pulled down ten rebounds — seven offensive — while holding Domantas Sabonis to a zero. Sabonis, bless his heart and the fantastic season he gave us, was rubble by the end of the series, and I’m sure part of that has to do with taking a Draymond Green curbstomp to the chest, but extracurriculars aside, Looney’s physicality was as core as anyone to the Warriors’ game-plan of nullifying one of the best bigs in the game. Much of the second round is going to ride on to what degree he can stonewall a peak-performance Anthony Davis playing some of his best and healthiest basketball right now.
This is underappreciated and sometimes unsightly basketball, the sort easily taken for granted. You would think it’s easy to play clean-up for a handful of the all-time greats, but Looney is the only in-house starting center that the Warriors have successfully nurtured over the years. He’s really just one of two or three draft picks to pan out for the team since they started winning. Looney has paid specific focus in his development on the grimier skills that matter for a Warriors center: rebounding, screening, passing, being a bit of an asshole in the paint. He’s a 6’9 and mostly ground-bound center; every rebound he pulls in is one he has to work for, with his accrued knowledge of angles and positioning as well as plain brute force. Being a center for the Warriors demands both a fine attunement to basketball’s details and a monster work ethic over 48 minutes. James Wiseman wasn’t able to figure it out, nor were Jordan Bell, Damian Jones or Festus Ezeli. For the season, the Warriors weren’t the dominant and surefire contender that they were last year, but Looney held his end with career-highs across the board.
“I think Loon is one of the best centers in the league, I really do,” Steve Kerr told reporters after Game 1, “and people don't recognize it because he's not dunking and shooting 3s and all that stuff. This guy is a flat-out winner and he's a machine.”
There’s this notion that the Warriors are responsible for the death of the center in modern basketball, except I don’t think Kerr or the team has ever felt that way. Even when they had the NBA’s most infamous center-less in their back pocket, the center has always mattered for the Warriors. Here’s a team that could run a historically fearsome spread pick-and-roll with Draymond at the 5, but never chooses to mash it. Kerr, coming from Phil Jackson’s Chicago Bulls, has always favored some stylings from the triangle offense. He’s firm in his principles — perhaps too firm, were his team any other team, but this one has bought in and won the rings to show for it. Steph Curry and Klay Thompson play off-ball more than any other player of their cachet, giving an earnest and admirable effort towards deeply unsexy elements of offense such as relocation, screen curls and split-cuts. The ball runs through the Warriors’ bigs in handoffs and the high post — often Green, one of the game’s great playmakers, but also frequently their center. Here more than anywhere else, a simple rim-runner wouldn’t cut it.
Looney, like Green and Andre Iguodala before him, is the latest in a rich lineage of Warriors who really, really, don’t want to shoot the basketball, and his assists often outmeasure his scoring. The Lakers are going to test this and leave him unguarded, but by now, it’s become simple instinct for the Warriors to turn their non-shooters into screeners with a sea of open space around them. Looney wants to play the two-man game with Curry or Thompson, a dance perfected as institutional knowledge. He wants to rebound the miss and get it right back to the shooter. Green is obviously Kerr’s Dennis Rodman, but Looney is Kerr’s Dennis Rodman, too. Over eight years with the Warriors, Looney has become as much a part of the team marrow as his Hall of Fame co-stars.
There’s not a lot of money in this, nor recognition. Sometimes, like in Game 1 against the Lakers, Looney is going to ride the bench at the end of the game even with (checks notes) 23 rebounds in the box score because Kerr decides to go small. He almost left in free agency last summer, with the Charlotte Hornets and Sacramento Kings registering interest. Instead, he signed a sub-MLE contract (three years, $25.5 million) to return to the Warriors. I’m sure he could’ve made more and the Warriors honestly could’ve paid more, because the luxury tax is only as much of a penalty as your owners allow it to be, but Looney still made the decision to come back. To be honest, I’m not sure that I can imagine Looney anywhere else. His game was formed as a response to being in this hermetic and perfect Warriors environment since the start of his pro career. Playing anywhere else would mean playing a little more like someone else. Right now, I’m glad he’s getting some love on his terms.