HOUSTON — Kevon Looney is already carrying a heavy load this season. A string of injuries to the frontcourt could add extra weight on his shoulders and force the Warriors to use more small-ball rotations on their back-to-back Texas trip against the Rockets and Spurs.
With a hip injury sidelining Andre Iguodala for the Warriors’ next three games, Nemanja Bjelica listed as day-to-day with back spasms and Draymond Green out indefinitely with a back injury, Looney will play a crucial role in stifling Houston big Christian Wood and San Antonio big Jakob Poeltl.
Mucking up the paint for opposing teams’ imposing bigs has been a Looney specialty with the Warriors’ frontcout depth thinner than ever this season.
“Loon’s been unbelievable, all year really,” Warriors guard Steph Curry said recently. “Especially with Draymond out, anchoring our defense and giving us a paint presence. He’s been blocking shots and rebounding and putting a body on big guys.”
Green is the Warriors’ composer, unique in his ability to orchestrate the offense and defensive switches all while guarding opposing teams’ best and biggest players. Looney, 26, has softened the blow of Green’s absence. With Bjelica missing Saturday’s win over the Nets, Looney became the lone Warrior to play every game this season.
And he’s done it all while putting up career numbers, solidifying himself as an iron man with Golden State.
His 21 minutes per game are a career high and carry no empty calories; he’s filled every minute with a career-high 7.4 rebounds per game, 6.1 points per game and nearly a block per game. Since Green’s back injury flared up the same day as Klay Thompson’s grand return to the court on Jan. 9, Looney has averaged 10.7 rebounds per game with double-digit rebounds in seven of the last 12 games.
Although they’ve regressed in defending at the rim without Green, the Warriors have the third-most impactful defense in the NBA since he went out. Only the Bucks and Celtics have held opponents further below their average shooting percentage.
With James Wiseman yet to participate in contact practices and Green out, Looney has been the Warriors’ only true center on the roster. They may be outsized by opposing teams’ true centers when Looney is not on the court — seven-footer Poeltl and 6-foot-10 center Wood have a size advantage going into the next two games. But the Warriors’ strong perimeter defense anchored by Andrew Wiggins, Payton II and Thompson helps mitigate the lack of size defensively by keeping opposing teams out of the paint.
Looney’s impact goes beyond the paint, too. He’s taking a leadership role, of sorts. When asked what Looney meant to the team, Warriors guard Jordan Poole said, “everything.”
Looney, 26, is one of the longest-tenured Warriors on this squad next to Curry, Green and Thompson. He’s well-versed in head coach Steve Kerr’s system.
“He understands rebounding angles, he understands personnel,” Kerr said last week. “Great one-on-one individual defender against all five positions. He’s our best screener. He’s just a really important player.”
Should Bjelica’s back spasms persist through the road trip, Kerr may need to deploy rookie wing Jonathan Kuminga and guard Gary Payton II in more small-ball rotations over the road trip.
Looney and those small-ball lineups will be key factors in keeping the positive energy rolling to Texas after a 6-1 homestand.