Editor's note: Grant Liffmann (@grantliffmann) is the co-host of Warriors Outsiders, which airs on NBC Sports Bay Area 60 minutes after every game. Each week, Grant will drop his Outsider Observation on the state of the Dubs.
The Warriors are about to have a surplus of big men for the first time this season. After playing most of the year with an incredibly thin and injury-depleted frontcourt, Golden State will be getting back Kevon Looney and Alen Smailagic soon. Those additions, along with Willie Cauley-Stein, Marquese Chriss and Omari Spellman, will finally give the Warriors the frontcourt depth they had hoped for before the season started.
Looney is the best defender and all-around player of the bunch. He is fundamentally sound and provides a calm effective presence in the paint. Smailagic is an unknown commodity at only 19 years of age, but the Warriors' front office has been high on him and is dying to see how he fares in actual games. But to find minutes for Looney, and perhaps Smailagic as well, the coaching staff will have to make some tough decisions when it comes to the playing time for the three currently healthy big men.
Let's break down how these returns will impact Cauley-Stein, Chriss and Spellman.
After missing all of training camp and the start of the season, it has been hard for Cauley-Stein to find consistency in his game. As the tallest and most experienced center on the team, there were high expectations for him to show his athleticism and pick-and-roll skills on the offensive end.
However, the ever-changing active roster has stunted Cauley-Stein's ability to form chemistry with whoever is playing point guard, and with the lack of team practices, it is clear that he is lost at times trying to fit into the flow of the game. He has shown flashes of his unique ability to speed down the floor in transition and play above the rim, even swatting more shots on defense than his career averages.
The Warriors are doing everything in their power to make Cauley-Stein comfortable and effective in his role, starting him the last 13 games. It is likely the team will continue to get him on the court for a solid dose of minutes even with Looney's return as they hope to increase his productivity and even his potential trade value. But if he maintains his inconsistent play, keeping him in the lineup will be hard when taking minutes away from Chriss and Spellman.
Playing on a non-guaranteed contract, Chriss is doing everything in his power to make sure he sticks around for the full season and maybe more. Despite being his fourth year in the NBA, Chriss is only 22 years old, and the Warriors are starting to see the young big man realize his immense potential.
The 6-foot-9 big man came into the league as a "stretch-four" who would play more on the perimeter and shoot 3s rather than play inside. With the Warriors, that has changed out of necessity as the team's frontcourt started the season devastated by injury. Playing mostly as a center, Chriss has improved greatly over the course of the first month of the season. Over the last five games, he is averaging 22 minutes of playing time, scoring 11 points per game on 49 percent shooting from the field.
While those are solid numbers, what has really caught the eye of the coaches are his 3.4 assists and two blocks per game over that span. Against the Thunder on Monday night, Chriss dished out a career-high seven assists, consistently staying in the paint and finding open outside shooters. Meanwhile, he has been the Warriors' best interior rim defender, something that the team is severely lacking.
Spellman has impressed as of late. In his last four games, Spellman is averaging about 26 minutes of action, scoring 11 points per game including an outstanding 53 percent shooting from deep. He has consistently shown great hustle and effort when he is on the court, and it is clear that as he plays himself into better shape, his game has improved.
The Warriors picked up Spellman's team option for next season, so the Dubs see potential in the 22-year-old. His size and ability to hit a 3-point shot should make him valuable on its own, but his growth on the defensive end has made him playable both as a power forward and as a center. Because of this, he has seen stints on the court playing alongside Chriss, which should help him retain more minutes in the rotation if he can be effective playing at the four-spot.
Once Looney returns, it is likely that the team will ease him back into game action, and keep him on a minutes restriction. This should allow Cauley-Stein to play a solid amount, and perhaps give Chriss and Spellman the opportunity to keep sharing the floor together in the second unit. Smailagic most likely will only find himself on the court during garbage time to begin with, barring any more injuries and/or foul trouble to the others.
But if and when Looney regains his health and conditioning to play a full allotment of minutes, coach Steve Kerr may have to make the tough call on who gets frontcourt action based on balancing future development while also trying to win now.