Fresh off last night’s crucial 115-94 win over the red-hot Los Angeles Clippers at Oracle Arena, now seems the appropriate time to ask the always-telling question of the 22-10 Warriors: contender or pretender?
ESPN.com beat us to the punch this morning in a 5-on-5 segment that polled various TrueHoop bloggers, and a near-consensus was reached. Golden State, the pollsters essentially agreed, is too green to make major noise this postseason and lacks the singular superstar that pulls good teams over the hump to great.
Those are valid points and ones even the most optimistic Warriors fan would have a tough time refuting. Golden State, impressive as they’ve been the last two months, has almost nothing in the way of meaningful playoff experience and counts three rookies, a sophomore, and a still-developing fourth-year point guard among their top nine players. Not to mention, can Steph Curry and David Lee be counted on to produce big numbers on a nightly basis when the stakes are highest?
Nobody knows how the Dubs’ youth will respond to playoff basketball, and, similarly, Golden State’s two potential All-Stars have never needed to play like it with the season on the brink. So that four of the five polled analysts labels the Warriors “pretender” makes sense. No debate there.
But what does, too, is Warriors World’s (Hoopspeak’s, Bleacher Report’s, everywhere else’s) own Ethan Sherwood Strauss dubbing Golden State a contender and his rationale for doing so. Simply and to the point, Strauss writes, “If Andrew Bogut returns, this might be a title-contending basketball team… If a good team gets a massive upgrade at their weakest position… watch out.”
Lost in the national shuffle amid the Warriors’ surprising success has been the absence of Bogut and what it means Golden State could be capable of whenever he returns, and Strauss – a long-time Bay Area basketball sufferer – understands that. With apologies to Festus Ezeli, he’s hardly Bogut, let alone a viable starting NBA center. That Golden State has played winning basketball with him a fixture in the lineup obviously speaks to the versatile play of Ezeli’s teammates, but also – and maybe more importantly – what the Warriors could accomplish with a healthy Bogut manning the middle instead.
Bogut isn’t Dwight Howard or a healthy Andrew Bynum, the type of player that demands a double-team with every paint touch and can be counted on for 20-points on a nightly basis. That’s not his game, but it’s also not exactly what the Warriors need from him, either.
With Bogut and his potential value to Golden State, think of the impact Tyson Chandler has had on the New York Knicks on both ends of the floor. Not a dominant scorer or flashy shot-blocker, but a player with the size, quickness, anticipation, and understood nuance whose cause-and-effect is seen on the scoreboard as opposed to the stat-sheet. That’s Chandler in a nutshell, and though in a different, floor-bound package with more offensive skill, it’s Bogut, too.
Consider that, and Strauss’s “contender” contention doesn’t seem so outlandish. Understand, too, that the four other writers polled in 5-on-5 failed to mention Bogut at all in assessing the Warriors’ status with respect to the league’s elite. That’s telling, and indicative of the additional surprise Golden State may still have left to offer whenever the Aussie returns.
The Warriors: contender or pretender? It’s still too early to say for sure either way, but assuming Bogut’s return the lineup it’s safer to hedge bets on the former.
Follow Jack Winter on Twitter @armstrongwinter.