The Golden State Warriors didn't have to look far to find their biggest 2013 offseason prize.
It wasn't Swiss Army knife Andre Iguodala, although his perimeter defense and slashing ability were badly needed additions to this roster. And it wasn't the revamped reserve unit, a group littered with proven veteran talent and high-ceiling youngsters.
Even with the front office's best efforts not only to sustain last season's success—47 regular-season wins, second postseason series victory since 1991—but to actually improve on it, the man holding the key to Golden State's championship hopes isn't new to the Bay Area.
But the Warriors faithful might have a hard time recognizing him.
Andrew Bogut, who joined the team at the 2011 trade deadline, is the central figure in the Warriors' plan to transform this perennial lottery lock into a legitimate title contender. And for the first time in a long time, the former No. 1 overall pick will start the season with a clean bill of health.
"He looks good," Warriors general manager Bob Myers told Rusty Simmons of the San Francisco Chronicle. "I mean, this is the player we envisioned when we traded for him. This is the player you saw three or four years ago."
Three or four years ago, the Warriors were, well, let's just say not where they are today. As far as where they'll be tomorrow, though, that's a question Bogut will have to answer.
The defensive anchor of an offensive juggernaut, he'll have the strongest say in determining this team's fate.
Supersized Small Ball
When the Warriors lost All-Star forward David Lee to a torn hip flexor in their playoff opener, they seemed destined for a swift postseason exit.
That couldn't have been further from the truth.
Rookie Harrison Barnes shifted over to the power forward spot, and the Warriors were reborn as a small-ball power. Floor spacing improved. The athleticism shot through the roof.
Barnes' numbers spiked—16.1 points and 6.4 boards in the playoffs, up from 9.2 and 4.1 in the regular season. The Warriors rebounded from their loss in Game 1 and won five of their next seven games. They dispatched the third-seeded Denver Nuggets in six games, then challenged the eventual Western Conference champion San Antonio Spurs for another six in the second round.
Golden State found a winning formula. Its smaller, quicker lineups will play a pivotal role in this franchise taking the next step.
But make no mistake, these aren't Don Nelson's run-and-gun Warriors. They could still win NBA track meets, but won't do so at the expense of their team defense.
That's where Bogut comes in. He's a top-flight rim-protector (2.5 blocks per 36 minutes in 2012-13) with enough athleticism to thrive in an uptempo system.
Even through nagging ankle and back pain last season, Bogut helped orchestrate a defensive renaissance for the Warriors.
Golden State had the 13th-best defensive rating in 2012-13 (102.6). The Warriors had finished 26th or worse in the previous four seasons. They had the eighth-highest rebound percentage (51.3) after holding the 30th spot for each of the last three years.
But Bogut will need to be even better next season for this downsizing club.
Lee might have some sieve-like tendencies, but he's still a big body (6'9", 240 lbs) to throw at opposing bigs. Even with Barnes' added weight, Bogut will often be the only Warrior resembling a traditional post player.
He'll have to ward off dribble penetration and be a dominant presence on the glass.
He'll need to be, as Myers put it, the player he was a few seasons ago. The player who averaged at least 10.2 boards and 2.5 blocks from 2009-11.
If he sets the defensive tone, the Warriors' scorers can take it from there.
Defense to Offense
The Warriors aren't a bad half-court team, but they're lethal in the open floor.
Barnes and Iguodala can let their athleticism shine in transition. Ditto for sophomore Kent Bazemore and rookie Nemanja Nedovic, assuming either sneaks into Mark Jackson's rotation.
Bogut, when healthy, moves well for a man of his size (7'0", 260 lbs). The "Splash Brothers," Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, are ideal trailers needing just a sliver of space to take aim from distance.
While the Warriors' perimeter players can kick-start some of these chances, Bogut will be the one primarily responsible for pushing the tempo.
His passing skills are nearly unrivaled among post players. He'll need that court vision to spot his teammates streaking down the sideline off defensive rebounds.
He takes an intelligent approach to the hardwood. His natural instincts make him a constant threat to swipe the ball from opposing bigs.
But his rim protection takes center stage in this challenge.
If he's sending shots back like bad sushi, Golden State can catch defenses off-guard. Swatted shots become loose balls, loose balls become turnovers and the Warriors are out on the break before the opposition has time to recover.
And he won't be affecting only the shots he's credited with blocking.
If his body allows him to repair his defensive reputation—once as high as anyone's in the league—then dribble penetrations become hurried by him lurking under the basket.
Shots are rushed, leading to long rebounds. Driving lanes are suddenly closed. Players get caught in the air without any good decisions to make.
From there, it's just rinse and repeat for the Warriors.
For Bogut and the Warriors, the 2013-14 season is all about playing without restrictions.
No minutes limits for the big man. No lost opportunities from forced absences on the second leg of back-to-backs. A body free to do as the mind pleases, motivated by both championship thoughts and his expiring $14.2 million deal.
If Bogut looks as good on the big stage as he has in offseason workouts, Jackson doesn't know how good this team can be.
And that's a good thing.
"Let’s roll the dice, let’s go out and play, let’s compete," Jackson said, via Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News. "I'm not a guy that would sell to the guys let's put a number (of wins) up there and let's go get it. No, let's be the best that we could possibly be."
For Warriors fans, the team's best could be better than anything they'd ever imagined.
And it all starts with that familiar yet unfamiliar face manning the middle. A healthy Andrew Bogut.
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