The history of Kevon Looney’s switching defense in the playoffs: ‘Wrong guy!’
This was a favorite taunt of Warriors coaches and bored bench players a few seasons ago.
Here’s the scenario: Kevon Looney, finally past the two hip surgeries that stalled his early career, had nudged his way into the rotation. Opposing scorers viewed him as a target.
It made sense. Looney is a center without exceptional speed or rim-protection ability. He had no reputation. So guards would get him on a switch, clear the floor and begin their dribble attack, salivating at the matchup. That’s when you’d hear that familiar call bellowing from the warriors’ bench area.
Spencer Dinwiddie is one of the three guards currently attacking Looney in these 2022 conference finals. Here is Dinwiddie, back in 2018 for the Nets, getting Looney on a switch, getting into his dribble package and failing to get past his right or left hip. The possession ends in a turnover.
The Warriors essentially gave up on Looney before his third season. They added Damian Jones and Jordan Bell in back-to-back drafts and already employed Zaza Pachulia, JaVale McGee and David West. Looney was the team’s sixth center without any clear future with the franchise. They declined his fourth-year option, the clearest sign that a front office has pulled the plug on a young prospect.
“Didn’t see it (the first two seasons) because he wasn’t out there,” Kerr said. “He had two hip surgeries and we didn’t know what we had. Then his third year he has a great year and it’s like, ‘Uh oh, we might lose this guy.’”
But before they expected to lose Looney in unrestricted free agency — where they weren’t permitted to offer him anything more than the price of that declined fourth-year option — they found him as an essential rotation player in the 2018 conference finals against a matchup , the 2018 Houston Rockets, that they’ve repeatedly compared to the 2022 Dallas Mavericks in recent days.
The Rockets surrounded James Harden and Chris Paul with versatile defenders who could shoot. When the warriors deployed a switching attack, they targeted centers. By the middle of the series, McGee, Pachulia and West were deemed nearly unplayable. But the Warriors didn’t want to go with Draymond Green at center the entire game. So they needed Looney. He’d proven to be their most stable center in a switching environment.
Here is Harden — in his prime, much quicker on the drive — during a late-clock scenario in the first quarter of Game 1. Looney has already switched out onto him. Harden tries an array of dribble moves, but a patient Looney doesn’t bite on any of them. It’s part of his defensive effectiveness. Hey isn’t jumpy. He isn’t block- or steal-thirsty. He’ll stand there while you try to fake him out.
The possession leads to a late-clock pass out from Harden, a pass back to him and a stepback, well-contested 3.
Similar to the current Mavericks with Jalen Brunson, there was a second scorer who regularly went after Looney in that matchup. Here is a younger Chris Paul early in Game 5 only finding his way to a contested 19-foot baseline fadeaway over Looney’s long arm.
Looney, you’ll notice, is much skinnier then. He was considered a forward when he entered the draft. The league forced him to upsize into a center for survival. He’s bulked up in recent years to better handle the position. The Warriors drafted James Wiseman to take over the center spot, but Wiseman’s career has yet to take off.
So, ending his seventh season, entering another unrestricted free agency this summer, it’s still the stable Looney as the switchable backbone of the Warriors’ defense, still holding up against switches despite his bulked-up frame.
“I’m pretty much kind of the same,” Looney said. “I take kind of the same approach. I’m just a little bit more battle-tested. That was my first time playing on a big stage like this (in 2018). I don’t know if even my teammates had the most faith in me, but they put me out there and I handled it pretty well. Those experiences got me ready for things today and I feel a lot more confident being out there guarding guards.”
Looney is a film junkie. He studies tendencies and asks veterans like Andre Iguodala how best to guard each particular player.
“I’m just a little bit smarter and a little bit more physical now,” he said. “So I’m able to guard those guys a little bit better.”
Here is Looney against Dončić in Game 1. He gets him on a switch and shades him to go left. That’s part of the Warriors’ scouting report. Looney’s gameplan discipline, according to coaches, is probably the best on the team. He doesn’t mess up instructions.
Looney doesn’t go after a steal and leave himself vulnerable. Because of his wingspan — 7-foot-4 — he’s always in position to at least get a decent contest on a stepback 3. If a player drives, Looney pretty much always funnels him into help. On this possession, he shuts off Dončić’s stepback and Steph Curry is there for the strip.
Here is Looney against Brunson in Game 2. This is about as well as you’ll see a center track and contest a guard on a drive.
Stan Van Gundy, calling the game, spent much of the second half of Game 2 wondering aloud why the Mavericks kept going after Looney instead of Curry or Jordan Poole or others. Van Gundy probably should’ve just been screaming “Wrong guy!” from the sideline. But Looney doesn’t expect the Mavericks to adjust. Teams have always stayed on the attack against him. He expects it in Game 3.
“Luka, Brunson and Dinwiddie are all different type of players, different type of iso players,” Looney said. “Kind of tough having to guard those guys. I think (I’ve done) a good job. It’s going to be a long series, so I got to keep it up because those guys are going to keep coming.”
(Photo of Spencer Dinwiddie and Kevon Looney: Darren Yamashita / USA Today)