Stephen Curry is playing at a ridiculous high level right now. His .594 effective field goal percentage ranks seventh in the league, but three of the players ahead of him are centers who do most of their shooting at the rim. At the helm of a more dynamic attack than he was a part of last season, Curry is also complementing his prolific shooting by ranking fifth in assist rate. He is an offense all to himself, a destroyer of defensive schemes, and the difference-making star his Golden State Warriors team had not had for almost 20 years.
But as great of a player as Curry is, Golden State’s championship odds reside just as much in Andrew Bogut’s ankles as Steph’s.
Unless you have LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Mario Chalmers shutting down passing lanes and flying all over the perimeter, it is essentially impossible to win a title without rim protection. The Warriors have several plus-defenders on the wing (Andre Iguodala, Klay Thompson, Shaun Livingston and Harrison Barnes) but Bogut remains the key component of the unit drilled into excellence by Mike Malone and taken over by Ron Adams, which currently leads the league in scoring allowed per possession.
With Adams on board, Golden State is running a version of Tom Thibodeau’s strong-side zone guarding of the pick-and-roll, which asks perimeter players to go over the screen and keep the opponent from getting to the middle of the floor, funneling them into the big man who must position himself to cut the path to the basket or challenge a drive from a position of leverage. Bogut has been excellent as the linchpin of such scheme. While his stance is not quite textbook (probably because he cannot bend much at this point of his career), Bogut moves exceptionally well laterally and plays great position defense.
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Bogut has a well documented long history of injuries, but it is one composed of freaky occurrences. The most impactful issues of his career were the broken ankle suffered in 2012, that time Amar’e Stoudemire broke his arm and the rib fracture that kept him sidelined through the 2014 postseason. Without ever having had major problems to his feet and knees, Bogut seems to have preserved most of the athleticism that makes him a superior kind of seven-footer, which has translated in his short range quickness rotating off the weak-side and elevation to block shots. He has blocked 33 shots in 16 appearances (a top five mark) and held opponents to 39.7% shooting at the rim – third best among players who have logged a minimum of 20 minutes per game and defended five shots at the basket per game.
David Lee has logged only seven minutes played so far this season and his absence has affected the Warriors’ defensive rebounding, which has declined from fifth last year to 13th this. Bogut has kept them at least average in this department, however, collecting 27.1% of opponent misses when he is on the floor, which ranks 11th in the league. He is often in position to control the glass due to the nature of his size and general role within Golden State’s scheme, but what makes him above average is his diligence in boxing out and activity tracking the ball off the rim.
The size that makes it hard for opponents to rebound when he is around also makes it challenging for them to score on him in the post. Bogut manages to absorb contact without giving up his base due to the strength in his 245-pound frame. Brook Lopez, the league’s premier post scorer in the age of no post scoring, did not have much success backing him down and creating separation to get his shots off when the two met a couple of weeks ago. Andre Drummond is not a good post scorer against anyone, but he looked even more inept against Bogut on Sunday.
But as much of a difference maker as he is on defense, and as much as the Warriors rely on him because of his proficiency on that end, Bogut has also become a truly vital player on offense due to the addition of Steve Kerr. Golden State ran some good looking pet sets under Mark Jackson, but overall the offense was not as dynamic as it should have been given the personnel he had to work with. The Warriors went into the low post quite a lot under Jackson, and when they did not have a clear mismatch to take advantage with their wings, they ran straight pick-and-rolls with Curry at the top. Curry is excellent, and the odds of him getting a good shot for himself or others are always good. But there was this constant feeling that the Warriors were not maximizing this great asset, the league’s leader in gravitational pull. And that was translated on the Warriors ranking a mere 12th in scoring per possession last season.
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The offense is still posting an average rating under Kerr, only ranking eighth in offensive efficiency so far this season, per NBA.com statistics. But it has been a much different looking kind of average, mostly only kept average because of a sky high turnover rate. Kerr has emphasized more ball movement and player movement, and as a result, Golden State is averaging roughly 69 more passes per game this season in comparison to last one, improving from last in the league to 11th.
And Bogut has been at the center of this improvement.
Bogut has excellent ball skills for someone his height, and Kerr has fully utilized them to feature him as a hub for shot creation from the high post. The shooters (Curry, Thompson) constantly dart towards him for catch-and-shoot or one-dribble pull-ups off his dribble hand-offs, and the athletes (Barnes, Iguodala, Leandrinho Barbosa, Draymond Green) cutting backdoor for catch-and-finish looks at the rim. Using Bogut in this way is a principle Kerr has transferred from San Antonio’s magnificent offense. Whenever it stalls midway through or late in the shot clock, Gregg Popovich has taught his best players to run at the ball-handler and run some variation of a two-man game. Imitating this has maximized the value of Bogut’s passing, and his 18.2% assist rate ranks second among centers, behind only Joakim Noah’s. The risk involved is reflected in his turnover rate, a sky high 22.9% in the context of his 14.5% usage rate – bad passes account for 14 of his 31 giveaways, according to basketball-reference. But that turnover risk comes with the territory in regards to playmaking.
Bogut could only be more perfect for this principle if he were Kevin Love and could also shoot jump shots off of fake hand-offs. That is not the case, however. Bogut’s scoring zone is limited to inside 10 feet, as he has only shot roughly 32.5% outside that range in his NBA career. That lack of shooting skill is also reflected at the foul line, as he has hit his free throws at a historically poor 56.1% clip. That problem does not manifest itself much in the flow of the game because Bogut rarely draws shooting fouls, at least – his free throw rate has consistently declined since that fall that broke his arm in 2010, to a point where he now averages less than one attempt per game.
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Some of this is explained by his role in the offense, where he is often working in an area where he is not a scoring threat and therefore is never fouled in the act of shooting there. But some of it is also a general lack of aggressiveness looking for the contact when he is in the post. Bogut does not get isolated in the low block much these days, and when he does, he is more often looking to hit a cutter darting towards the rim. But when he is looked to finish, Bogut has shown a strong preference for a turnaround left-handed hook falling away from the opponent. That move has been effective on its own (Bogut has shot 13-for-28 on hook shots this season, according to nbasavant.com) but it has not helped generate free throws.
Although a decent post scorer, the majority of Bogut’s points come at the rim via pick-and-rolls and putbacks. Those dribble hand-offs used to set up catch-and-shoots for Curry and Thompson have also often led to lobs for Bogut diving to the basket. As mentioned previously, he is moving very comfortably at this point and that has translated into sharp cutting on these plays. He remains capable of playing above the rim as a target for alley-oops, and although he is not the constant threat guys like Tyson Chandler and Dwight Howard are with their elite athleticism, Bogut’s effectiveness in this area comes from his soft hands to catch the ball on the move and his great touch to finish at rim level. 54.1% of his shots have been in the restricted area, and he has hit them at a 71.7% clip.
Due to the nature of his role in Golden State’s offense, Bogut is below the rim a little less often now when the shooters take those long range bombs, and his offensive rebounding rate has declined this season. Nevertheless, when he is positioned to chase misses, Bogut remains a difficult behemoth to box out due to the combination of his size and general activity. His seven-foot-three wingspan also helps him rebound outside of his area, and despite the small decline he is averaging three offensive rebounds per 36 minutes, which is still a decent number.
Injuries derailed the end of Bogut’s tenure in Milwaukee, to such a frustrating point where he ended up traded for Monta Ellis. Ellis did not move the needle for the Bucks, which continues cycling through mediocrity – in large part because Bogut’s replacement, Larry Sanders, had his development stagnated by injury as well. Golden State, meanwhile, won what has become a very lopsided trade. On first thought, it can be a bit stunning to see how many strong points Bogut has in his game when he is at full health. But then you remember he was drafted number one overall; he is supposed to be this good. So good, in fact, that Golden State’s shot at the title reside on his ankles just as much as Curry’s.
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