Golden State Warriors, NBA Playoffs

Playoff Kevon Looney is helping the Warriors take control against the Clippers

“Playoff Kevon” might be a thing. The designation is made available only to role players with a proclivity to take their game to another level in the postseason. See: “Playoff Rondo.”

In the shadow of superstar DeMarcus Cousins and the happy reunion of Andrew Bogut, Kevon Looney has quietly been the Golden State Warriors’ best center through the first three playoff games against the L.A. Clippers. Looney’s performance on this stage could put him in position for a payday this summer — and the check might not be filled by the Warriors.

In a 132-105 Game 3 win Thursday, Looney came off the bench and held Montrezl Harrell, who had scored 51 points in the first two meetings, off the scoreboard and off the glass through the first quarter. Harrell only got his first points when Bogut entered for Looney at the start of the second quarter. Harrell thirstily attacked Bogut, scoring the Clippers’ first two buckets of the period.

Kevin Durant’s 38-point statement game helped the Warriors cruise to a victory, and Looney posted 10 points on 5-of-7 shooting in 17 minutes. Looney made his first five shots, including a sweet 15-foot jumper that his teammates have been urging him to take more often. If Game 3 was a chance for Durant to reinforce just who he is, these playoffs have been a chance for Looney to show that last season’s postseason wasn’t a fluke.

“I hope he gets paid, so I hope he doesn’t come back because I hope he gets all the money,” said Andre Iguodala after the game.

Looney has been here before. After a strong playoff showing during last year’s championship run, specifically against the Houston Rockets in the Western Conference Finals, it seemed Looney was well on his way to a raise. However, free agent centers encountered a bear market, and Looney ended up returning to the Warriors on a minimum contract of $1.57 million.

Last postseason, Looney averaged a modest four points and four rebounds in 18 minutes per game. His contributions, not necessarily conspicuous, were on the defensive end. The Warriors had a 97.0 defensive rating in the 387 playoff minutes Looney was on the floor, per The Death Lineup, feared for its tendency to smother opposing offenses with a barricade of switches and blitzes, had a comparable defensive rating of 95.9 in 129 minutes.

Not only did Looney play more than any other Warriors center, but they also relied on him more often than even the Death Lineup for steady defense. And, yet, when the heats of summer rolled through the Bay, Looney’s market was dry.

Looney’s stats improved across the board this season and he seems to be right at home in the Warriors’ series against the Clippers. His playoff stats are much more impressive this time around: 11.7 points and 3.7 rebounds while shooting 82 percent from the floor. He’s Golden State’s best option against the Clippers’ vaunted pick-and-roll duo of Lou Williams and Harrell — a pair of Sixth Man of the Year candidates who have come off the bench to slice and dice almost every defense they’ve faced this season. He has a unique ability among Golden State’s other center to guard on the perimeter.

He is not tethered to the paint on either end and, while he may not be as skilled as Cousins, he’s more mobile and requires less maintenance. Game 3 was an example of how Looney can fit seamlessly and effectively into a championship team.

Looney returned to the Warriors this season on a minimum contract, unintentionally kicking the can of a potential raise down the road, but a crowded position battle was going to make opportunities harder to come by.

In addition to the splashy signing of Cousins, the Warriors also returned second-year center Jordan Bell and third-year center Damian Jones. Jones, a rim-rolling center with explosive finishing ability, started the first 16 games of the season but in early December suffered a torn pectoral muscle. Bell, meanwhile, found a sophomore slump. Cousins didn’t return from rehabbing a torn Achilles until late January. Despite signing Bogut as insurance, Looney is the last of the original crop standing.

Last postseason’s trends with Looney on the floor have carried over to the first round. In 12 minutes through three games, the Warriors have a defensive rating of 110 and are being outscored by 3.1 points per 100 possessions when the Death Lineup is on the floor. With Looney at center, the Warriors have a defensive rating of 94.4 (by far the best mark of any Warriors player) and are outscoring opponents by 31.1 points per 100 possessions.

At 23, Looney will again enter the uncertainty of free agency, but as a more improved player than last year. His market should not be as dry. The Warriors could elect to bring him back next season, but they’ll first have to deal with the free agencies of Klay Thompson and Durant (and the extension-eligible Draymond Green). Golden State will retain Looney’s Bird Rights, but will likely face a steep luxury tax bill to re-sign him. With every dollar above the luxury tax threshold multiplied by $3.75, bringing back Looney could be too expensive depending on what other offers are available to him.

The market is still recovering from the cap spike of 2016, when several free agent centers signed contracts north of $15 million per season. Those contracts would later handcuff cap sheets around the league. Centers are a buyer beware commodity.

Next: Hubie Brown has been the best part of the NBA playoffs

If a team is going to invest in a center beyond the dominating forces of Joel Embiid or Nikola Jokic, Looney is the sort of center worth paying for. Versatile enough to play multiple defenses, a burgeoning offensive game, young enough to still push his ceiling, and a proven ability to perform when the stakes are high.

Until then, the Warriors will lean on Looney for however long this run lasts. After the Clippers, Golden State could be looking at a rematch with the Rockets in the second round. The stage is set for Looney to capitalize on another impressive playoff showing.

“Definitely excited for him throughout this series,” Durant said. “Because his confidence is growing.”

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