Video Evidence That Javale McGee (and a Left Knee) Will Determine the NBA Finals
The largest question this NBA Playoffs lies in the bruised tibia of Kevin Durant’s left knee. Forced isolation through rehabilitation of Golden State’s X-Factor is unideal for the team’s final stage of metamorphosis ahead of meetings with the Rockets, the Spurs, and even the Jazz in their own conference. Less ideal if they reach LeBron James in the Finals. But, as both Durant’s knee and the competition’s chemistry strengthens, another bold question mark remains for the Warriors: 2x Shaqtin-a-Fool MVP, rat-tail wielder, and nine-year NBA v̶e̶t̶e̶r̶a̶n̶̶ legend Javale McGee. A man who claims to be focused for just the second time since 2007.
After eight years of blundering his way around the NBA and saving himself from becoming Chinese basketball’s Kareem through glimpses of potential — Javale was waived by Dallas, landed with the Warriors, and now holds the league’s highest plus/minus per minute (as noted by Ethan Strauss earlier this month) while playing center on the league's most effective lineup (as noted by Anthony Slater). If the Warriors, when healthy, want to win the NBA Finals this June, they will need Javale’s resurgence to last and, more hopefully, for his development to continue.
It's tempting to attribute Javale’s success to his “supporting” cast. It's true that most of his minutes are spent alongside Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, and Draymond Green. And it's true that Zaza Pachulia, the current starting center, is also handling business alongside that Big 4. But Zaza has always been a serviceable big in this league; his success was expected. Javale’s success is unprecedented; a greater testament to the work he has put in than to the stars that surround him. And there’s a reason that the Warriors lineup with him anchoring has the highest net rating in the league (a full nine points higher than the lineup with Zaza) and that reason is his ability to finish whatever lob is thrown his way and the length he throws around on defense. Praise is rare for a man whose career has been marked by Shaquille O’Neal roasts, but Steve Kerr understands how much is deserved: “Javale has been fantastic for us. As a player. As a teammate. Fantastic guy. He's funny, he's fun to be around, he does his job. He's a total pro.” A season of consistent offensive efficiency and defensive impact has rightfully wrested minutes from Zaza and could soon mean a starting spot. Mentally, Javale is the best he's ever been. Aside from a certain inbound miscue, the summer arrival has bought in and focused this year — averaging the least fouls and most assists per 36 minutes of his career. The good stuff he's known for is still there too. Big fella is blocking the life out of NBA stars like Blake Griffin while teaching young studs like Nikola Jokic to eat their wheaties. McGee’s gifts aren’t limited to the hardwood either. His generosity was felt through blankets for the entire team custom-fit with Draymond Green’s face and his positive approach has been a boon for team chemistry.
“There’s no negativity around me. And I don’t like hanging around negative people. And I don’t like putting negativity into people’s lives. I just like positivity.” As emphasized on the Warriors Plus/Minus Podcast, Javale typically pushes “fun” over “fundamentals,” but this year the good vibes have accompanied good basketball. Shooting 62% from the field and averaging the most buckets per 36 minutes of his career (by a full six points) is nice for a big man playing alongside four all-stars, but the impact plays and importance to team chemistry is what sets Javale apart and makes him so vital to a team currently struggling to get back in its groove. Weak takes are unsafe in Javale’s paint and timid defense is just asking for twitter’s attention. If the ceiling for a former seven-foot blooper magnate is bounce-pass dimes, Dirk-esque fadeaways, and the complete block, rebound, oop-on-the-other-end package then you can be sure that the Warriors are looking up. The rookies are looking up. The veterans are looking up. And even guys who are definitely not known for their passing… are looking up. And you’ll hear no complaints from Javale and his burdened knees, the big finisher was quick (on the Warriors Plus/Minus Podcast) to curtail any semblance of concern with the quality of his teammates’ passes: “I’m not going to tell them to start throwing better lobs. ‘Cause you start telling them to throw better lobs and then they get nervous and stop throwing ‘em. So I ain’t saying nothing.”
UC Berkeley’s psychology professor Dacher Keltner proved that high-fives are correlated with a basketball team’s on-court success. Javale McGee is therefore correlated with basketball success. Detractors may maintain their doubts and Shaquille O’Neal might lead their charge, but the Warriors are encouraged by more than a PR team to support Javale — they are encouraged by his focus and his play. He is in great mental and physical shape, playing strong and wilfully passing on the offensive end while patiently awaiting swats and fighting for boards on defense. When Kevin Durant returns the Warriors will need someone to help protect the paint and provide the offense with vertical spacing, things that Zaza’s limited mobility struggles to consistently provide. Javale has stepped up and shows no signs of descent. If the greatest team in the NBA since the 2013 Miami Heat is the occasion, it seems he may have suddenly risen to it.