So about Andrew Bogut, his aching body and offseason departure, and how much the absence of his interior defense, passing and rim protection was supposed to diminish the Golden State Warriors’ prospects of reclaiming the NBA championship.
The glib Aussie was a blast. There is no dancing around that fact. But there is a new 7-footer in town – or in The City, as the Warriors like to say – and JaVale McGee is reintroducing himself to the viewing audience at the perfect time. If he remains consistent throughout the postseason, continues charming the Oracle Arena crowd with his crazy athleticism, otherworldly alley-oop dunks, blocked shots that serve as yellow caution lights inside the lane, here’s the scoop: All those familiar blooper reels, those “Shaqtin’ a Fool” replays, those YouTube episodes, get thrown under the bus.
The time he ran back on defense when his team had possession. The attempted dunk from the foul line that earned him an offensive foul. The airball free throws. The airball hook shots, fumbled passes, frequent miscommunications with teammates.
“The frustrating thing, as a coach, is that JaVale can be spectacular one moment and do something really dumb the next,” said George Karl, who coached McGee for two seasons in Denver. “He’s a good ballhandler, but he thinks he’s Magic Johnson. He would go behind his back, take the ball full court, throw the ball away. He’ll try to dunk it when he can’t get to the rim. But he is very capable of doing unbelievable. And he does unbelievable.”
If not quite a revelation, McGee, 29, has been a surprisingly significant contributor to the Warriors’ climb atop the Western Conference. He arrived at training camp with a ton of baggage and a recent history of debilitating leg injuries.
After serving as a productive backup to Kosta Koufos and Timofey Mosgov on the 2013 Nuggets squad that won 57 games but lost to the Warriors in the opening round, his career veered in the wrong direction. In the midst of a four-year, $44 million contract, he was traded to Philadelphia midway into the 2014-15 season and waived after six appearances, his leg hurting, his reputation staggering. After recovering from a mysterious stress fracture that was finally diagnosed, he signed with Dallas in 2015 but saw limited action in 34 games, displaying only fleeting glimpses of the athleticism and forceful defense he had shown in Denver.
Still, he had friends and influential former foes in high places. Warriors forward Draymond Green, noting the need for a rim protector after Bogut traded to Dallas, encouraged GM Bob Myers to consider the enigmatic journeyman. Andre Iguodala, a former Nuggets teammate of McGee’s, offered a more personal endorsement.
“I’ve always been a big fan of JaVale’s,” Iguodala said. “It’s always been about getting the right people around him. He understands he’s going to play in spurts. He wants to be impactful in those spurts, so he has really embraced that. The coaches are giving him a little more each and every time he goes out there.”
Though McGee averaged 9.6 minutes during the regular season, he took advantage of Durant’s absence in the Game 2 rout. In spurts that totaled 13 minutes, he didn’t miss a beat. He didn’t miss a shot (7 for 7), either.
Playing against a smaller Portland Trail Blazers squad without injured center Jusuf Nurkic, McGee scored on lobs from Green and Stephen Curry, swooped underneath to grab a woefully short jumper by Klay Thompson, then slammed it through the net; Thompson got the assist, McGee got the field goal. As the Warriors gained complete control, the nine-year veteran spun in the left block and banked in a shot with his right hand, one-handed another lob for a dunk, and equally significantly, patrolled the paint like a 7-foot sleuth, hanging back until his opponent neared the rim, and then forcefully blocking four shots.
In the wee hours in the Atlanta studios, Shaq and his pals on TNT offered nothing but praise, tabling the question that only McGee can answer: What took so long?
Everyone has a theory, of course. Iguodala cites the caliber of the supporting cast. Karl recalled McGee’s frequent asthma attacks and breathing difficulties.
“The speed of the game bothered him,” the one-time Kings coach added. “He was constantly using the inhaler, so we played him in shorter bursts behind Kosta and Timo (Mosgov).”
Warriors coach Steve Kerr similarly plays McGee to back up Zaza Pachulia in short increments because his frenetic, free-flowing style contrasts and complements, and is an undeniable crowd pleaser.
McGee is a fascinating sight, even in a league of giants. At 7 feet and 270 pounds, he has large hands, an enormous wingspan and the longest legs of any Warriors center since the late Manute Bol. Combined with his explosive, energetic movements, he resembles a pogo stick in shorts, sneakers and headband. Off the court, his personality is an unusual mix of playful, cerebral, reserved. He routinely does something goofy and refuses to apologize, but he also reads extensively and is deeply involved in charities, most notably providing access to clean water in Uganda and other parts of Africa.
“JaVale never loved me or trusted me,” Karl continued, “but I always enjoyed him. He was always the first guy in the locker room. He likes being a basketball player, and he has an eclectic, artistic sense of humor that I like. He is very intelligent and articulate, if at times a little silly and immature. If I had stayed at Denver, my intention was to start him the next year, increase his minutes from 22 to around 27. I still think you’re going to see more of him these playoffs. San Antonio is going to be different and bigger.”
McGee embraces his expanding role but isn’t interested in validation. He is the same player he was in Denver, he insists, an efficient contributor who runs the floor, blocks shots, dunks and scores around the rim. Rather, he suggests the viewing public has fixated on the bloopers and conveniently forgotten about his skills.
“I was injured for two years,” he added, “so it seemed that way, that everything I did was bad. Now coach (Kerr) puts me in the right situations. With Zaza, (David) West and me, it’s hard to match up. We’re all three completely different players. We’re like one all-around center, using all the minutes up.”