The Andrew Bogut Conundrum: What Will the Warriors Do With Their Center?

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Andrew Bogut’s impending free agency was going to be a secretly fascinating subplot to the coming NBA season, but Bogut, delightfully candid as always, yanked back the curtain by revealing the status of contract-extension talks with the Warriors in a chat with NBA.com’s Scott Howard-Cooper.

Seriously, Bogut went off about everything.

• That the two sides have exchanged salary proposals, and that while the Warriors’ offer was lower than Bogut’s desired mark, the numbers “weren’t insulting.”

• That Bogut will agree to an incentive-based contract that kicks up his annual salary if he plays in a certain number of games.

• That Bogut will not agree to an Andrew Bynum–style contract in which giant portions of the deal are entirely unguaranteed, allowing the team to cut bait at minimal cost.

• That California’s high state income taxes will factor into his decision.

• That other Western Conference teams have already expressed interest, presumably to Bogut’s agents, in signing him this summer as a free agent — even though he’s still very obviously under contract with Golden State.

• That the Warriors’ lusty pursuit of Dwight Howard will factor into how Bogut approaches free agency. The Warriors shoved loyalty aside to chase a superior talent, and Bogut warns he’ll do the same to chase superior money.

How great is Andrew Bogut? He’s so candid that even media members reading this story thought he might have behaved a tad recklessly in revealing so much. A bunch of my Twitter followers from Australia responded to a tweet about Bogut’s blunt truth-telling by saying, essentially, “This is how Aussies are, mate.” I have to visit Australia one day. You guys seem like the best people. What are you hiding, other than, like, the 50 most dangerous animal species on earth?

In any case, Bogut can sign an extension to his current contract at any date through June 30, but he and the team have apparently instituted a self-imposed deadline: If Bogut doesn’t sign an extension before the regular season starts, he’s hitting free agency harder than a true Croat (Bogut is part Croatian as well) hits rakia in the morning. Bogut’s extension could run a maximum of three seasons under the terms of the new collective bargaining deal, and the weird limits on extension lengths act against players signing them at all.

This is why there is a zero percent chance Carmelo Anthony would sign an extension with the Knicks right now. Such an extension could only tack two years onto Melo’s current deal, since Anthony has an option for 2014-15. He can secure two additional years of guaranteed megabucks by opting out, hitting free agency, and hoping the Knicks sign him to a five-year maximum contract. Other teams in free agency could only sign Melo to a four-year max contract, but even that shorter deal would provide an extra year of moolah for Melo compared with an extension signed now. Anthony drew headlines today by declaring in the New York Observer that he would opt out of his contract and test free agency, but this is basically a nonstory. He was never going to do anything else.

Bogut’s a different case. Given his recent injury history and general skill level (very high, but not max-contract high), he was never going to get a fully guaranteed four- or five-year deal in free agency. He can sign an extension without sacrificing anything; in fact, signing an extension now would provide Bogut insurance against another injury or some recurrence of the ankle issues that have sabotaged his last two seasons.

Two things make this a more interesting story than your garden-variety extension chatter:

1. How in the heck do you value a 28-year-old big man, a legit game-changing defender, who has logged just 44 games combined over his last two seasons — and more than 69 games just twice in eight seasons? You could tell me the Warriors had coaxed a fretful Bogut into a three-year, $24 million deal — a lower annual salary than Kendrick Perkins, DeAndre Jordan, and JaVale McGee, and way lower than superior defense-first centers — and I’d nod my head and say, “I guess that makes sense.” (Note: I can’t see Bogut actually accepting a deal at that salary level.)

You could tell me the Warriors had splurged on a three-year, $45 million deal, but with only $3 million of Bogut’s salary in the final season guaranteed, and I’d get it. That’s a high price point, but a three-year deal with limited money in the final year becomes a movable contract very quickly.

Finding the middle ground is tricky. Bogut is correct that his two career-altering injuries have been catastrophic falls that broke separate parts of his body — his right elbow and his left ankle — and not the recurrence of a single debilitating issue. Fans and experts throw around the phrase “injury-prone” with far too much certainty, without researching the nature of a player’s particular injuries or even bothering to ask whether such a thing as “injury-prone” exists. It probably does. It seems clear that large people are at higher risk for leg injuries. And genetic research has uncovered evidence that specific genetic mutations might make bones a bit more brittle or limit the amount of cushioning collagen some people produce — hard-to-detect quirks that might make them more vulnerable to knee and Achilles injuries, according to David Epstein’s wonderful new book, The Sports Gene.

Bogut has suffered a bunch of crazy injuries. Is he at risk for more? Is he injury-prone? What we don’t know outweighs what we know, by a lot.

2. Who’s playing center for the Warriors next season if it’s not Bogut?

Every team has roster uncertainties going forward — outgoing free agents leaving open positions behind. But there aren’t many teams in the sweet spot Golden State is in — a team on the upswing, concerned with winning now and in the near future, and with a pending vacancy at a position at which it can be hard to find unique upper-level talent.

About half a dozen teams are really in that pickle right now, preparing for looming roster holes and in search of cap space with hopes of inking multiple veteran free agents. Depending on how high the cap jumps for the 2014-15 season, the Warriors could in theory have about $8 million of cap space this summer, perhaps enough to lure a lesser light who doesn’t carry Bogut’s injury baggage — someone like Marcin Gortat, Emeka Okafor, Chris Kaman, Elton Brand, and old friends Ekpe Udoh (more of a power forward type) and Andris Biedrins (just kidding!). But free agency is no guarantee, even with Golden State’s new sex appeal. And getting to that cap space assumes lots of stuff that might not happen — the renunciation of cap holds tied to Bogut and Kent Bazemore, etc.

They could also, in theory, trade Bogut now for an established center under a swallowable long-term contract, using Klay Thompson as the sweetener. The signing of Andre Iguodala has turned Thompson into an interesting trade chip, though the Dubs, to be clear, haven’t shown interest in listening to Thompson-centric offers — which exist, by the way. No one is on hand to replicate Thompson’s wing shooting, but that wing is crowded, and the organization is super-duper high on Harrison Barnes.

Finding a workable trade for Bogut is very tough. He makes $14 million, and the Warriors cannot trade a first-round pick after dealing their 2014 and 2017 picks to Utah in the Biedrins–Richard Jefferson salary pooping. Some of the most natural trade partners are right around the tax line, and no one is leaping over the tax to get Bogut on an expiring deal. You could fit Houston into just about any deal, but teams are wary about taking on either Jeremy Lin or Omer Asik, since each will earn a whopping $15 million next season under the terms of their funky contracts.

The best solution for each side might be to find a middle ground, either now or after Bogut shows what he has this season. Bogut was stiff and immobile last season, but even the mummified version of Bogut was still an influential defender around the basket. The Warriors in the playoffs gave up eight fewer points per 100 possessions with Bogut on the floor, a monster number. And without him, their only legit rim protector was Festus Ezeli. Opponents shot more often from the restricted area when Bogut hit the bench, and they nailed 66 percent of those shots — compared to a paltry 53 percent when Bogut played, per NBA.com. Bogut had a similar deterrent effect on close shots in the regular season, though Golden State’s defense was basically the same with or without him.

Jermaine O’Neal is on hand after looking shockingly decent in Phoenix, but he’s 35, and the Suns’ warlock training staff isn’t around to help him now. Ezeli is recovering from a knee injury and may or may not have human hands.

When fully healthy, Bogut was one of the four best defensive players in the league. He has never been the quickest mover or most explosive leaper, but he works with an impeccable knowledge of angles, timing, and the opposing playbook. He doesn’t bite on pump fakes, and he doesn’t slide himself out of position. He is just always there, near the basket, either halting a point guard’s progress on the pick-and-roll just south of the foul line or altering shots at the rim.

That was still the case last season even though Bogut was not near peak form. His stance was more upright than usual, and he had a hard time making multiple hard cuts and jumps on the same possession. He was not going to rotate from the paint to an open outside shooter, even if the chain of rotations called for him to do so. If he scurried a bit farther outside the paint than usual to corral a point guard on the pick-and-roll, he was not going to scurry all the way back into the paint to find his man rolling near the basket. He was uncharacteristically late now and then helping from the weak side.

And his offense, sadly, has never been the same since the horrific right-elbow injury that nearly wrecked Bogut’s career and that frisky 2009-10 Milwaukee team. He has been a poor and unwilling free throw shooter since that bad break, and though he has slowly balanced things out, he still takes a disproportionate number of shots from the floor with his left (weak) hand. He shot only 19-of-66 on post-ups last season, per Synergy Sports, and most attempts were toughie jump hooks that rimmed out. A lot of those shots missed because Bogut didn’t have the lower-body oomph to push defenders back that crucial extra step, or to leap high enough to get a clear look at the basket. On a lot of jump hooks, Bogut was moving backward in the air more than he was moving upward — clearing space by falling away from the rim as his defender jumped straight up. That’s not good, and teams felt comfortable letting Bogut work one-on-one.

And he’s not as much of a threat as a pick-and-roll scorer these days. He attempted only 32 shots out of the pick-and-roll last season, per Synergy, less than 0.75 per game. He attempted about 1.4 such shots per game in 2009-10 and finished them at a much better clip.

Some of this might come back if his ankle is healthy and Bogut can move better. Some of those hooks will roll in, and perhaps he’ll be more comfortable leaping in traffic on the pick-and-roll. He’s still a destructive screener and a very, very good passer in space — he’s one of the few 7-footers capable of catching a pocket pass 25 feet from the rim, taking two hard dribbles into the lane, and bouncing a slick pass to a cutter along the baseline.

Golden State doesn’t need Bogut to be anything like a first option on offense. But it reaches a new danger level if he can work a little more pick-and-roll magic and draw some extra help to the low post.

And the Warriors need his defense, badly. They need it this season, and they need rim protection from someone next season and beyond to maintain their current progression. The urgency of that need, plus Bogut’s injury history, makes this a very thorny dance.

Filed Under: Golden State Warriors, NBA, Zach Lowe

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Zach Lowe is a staff writer for Grantland.

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