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February 1, 2017
The Golden State Warriors are starting to look a little worn around the edges as January’s doldrums close.
Their record, of course, is still tops in the NBA by several games, but the nightly injury report has been more crowded than usual. Stephen Curry missed the Sunday night squeaker in Portland due to a stomach bug. Zaza Pachulia’s right shoulder is banged up. And David West continues to sit with a broken left thumb.
Now, James Michael McAdoo and rookie Patrick McCaw have become rotation regulars, and head coach Steve Kerr has had to be a tad more creative with how he shapes the second unit.
What the Warriors could use is a big who can stay healthy and eat up some crucial minutes, maybe even chuck up some threes and spread the floor. And it couldn’t hurt if he had a good locker room presence, a guy other players would actually like to be around.
Of course, Golden State already had that player for the last three seasons.
Marreese Speights, the 6’10” 2008 first-round draft pick, was signed in the summer of 2013 as a free agent cast-off from the Cleveland Cavaliers. His arrival was overshadowed by the acquisition of Andre Iguodala. Coming into camp overweight and out of shape also did him no favors.
“When I first got here, it was kinda my fault that I came here a little bigger than I usually am,” Speights said last Saturday before his first regular-season game at Oracle Arena with the Clippers.
“Coach Kerr gave me the opportunity—the next year I came in with better shape and a better mindset. That’s when things took off for me.”
Speights then bulked up his long-range prowess as well as his confidence. He won a championship two seasons ago and was a vital piece of the roster that won 73 regular-season games in 2016.
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All good things, of course, must run their course. Speights signed a two-year deal for the veteran’s minimum this past offseason to play for head coach Doc Rivers and the rival Los Angeles Clippers.
Now, the years of development under Kerr are paying off: Speights has raised his three-point efficiency from 38.7 to 40.2 percent even as his volume of shots has increased exponentially. Through Tuesday, his 169 three-point attempts are more than the total amount he shot (141) over the first eight years of his career.
That extra production has made him one of the league’s most valuable players from long range.
Especially during the 2015-16 season, Speights’ long threes and quarterback-like outlet passes would regularly send Oracle Arena into frenzies, and his status as a fan favorite—”Mo Buckets,” they called him—was firmly cemented.
“Mo’s one of my favorite people that I’ve ever been around,” said Kerr, who also referred to him before the season as a “happy-go-lucky, beautiful soul.”
Kerr doubled down on Speights as a coach’s dream—a player who could shift in and out of the rotation as matchups and game situations dictated. The scoring boost off the bench was merely a bonus.
“He’s just got a smile on his face all the time. He loves to play,” Kerr added.
“He hardly ever had a regular spot in the rotation, and yet he just came to work every day with a smile on his face and played with great joy and helped us win a ton of games. There were so many games where we were stuck in the water and then all of a sudden he makes five jumpers in a row, and it breaks the game open. We love Mo around here, and we’re happy for him that he’s having a really good year for the Clippers.”
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Rivers echoed Kerr’s sentiments before the game as well.
“Mo’s always been a great shooter, and it’s been natural for him. Threes are not a hard shot for Mo. It’s a natural shot,” Rivers said. “Telling Mo to shoot is not that hard to do.”
Rivers said the LAC coaching staff has a working theory that Speights will shoot anything made of leather. Getting him to move out from the mid-range and triple his attempts per game up to 3.5 this year wasn’t hard.
The foundation had already been laid.
“I always used to shoot it when I’m working out by myself but never in the game situation, because I thought it was really far,” he said.
Eventually, with Kerr’s assurances, Speights began to trust himself more. “Just shoot it” became his mantra. “Don’t think about coming out of the game if you miss.”
So far, Speights is relishing his burgeoning reputation as a stretch 4 who’s willing to make defenders pay for not coming out to defend him.
“It’s always fun when you’re shooting and the other team is like, ‘Run him off the line! Run him off the line!,'” he said. “That means you can really shoot it.”
His Clippers teammates have also quickly adapted to this amplified version of Mo Buckets.
“Mo is one of those guys that plays with a lot of energy and excitement. We sort of feed off that,” Chris Paul said earlier this month. “When he’s out there, it opens up the court so much. It opens up driving lanes and then the way he’s shooting the ball, it’s huge. It gets everybody going.”
“I think he keeps things light. We have a lot of funny discussions, me and him, before practices or even on the bench during games sometimes,” J.J. Redick said this week.
And even during the Warriors’ 144-98 drubbing of the Clippers last Saturday at Oracle, Speights found an opening to drop one in from deep, classic Mo Buckets style.
The relationship between Speights and the current Warriors might have soured a bit when he told ESPN The Magazine earlier this season about tensions that flared up last year between Draymond Green and Klay Thompson.
That seems to be old news, however. For the most part.
When asked about Speights last week, Thompson was magnanimous: “He had a great run with us. We miss him. He was a great presence in the locker room, too. Most importantly, he’s a really good player. He’s a near-seven footer playing like a 2-guard.”
After Saturday’s win, Curry was asked about crossing up Speights during the waning moments of the first quarter for a sweet reverse layup: “Can’t take it easy on him, even though we love Mo Buckets around here.”
Speights told Bleacher Report he still keeps in touch with various ex-Warriors via an ever-lively group chat. He also said it was fun returning to Oracle and getting to reconnect with his old teammates: “It’s like a brotherhood up there. Every time I see them, it’s always love.”
For now, Speights is loving his role with the Clippers.
“It’s a blessing man,” he said this week. “Usually when I’ve been playing, sometimes I have to look over my shoulder, not knowing if I’m going to play again. But Doc has given me an opportunity, and the players are welcoming and helping me out, on the court, off the court, just helping me out with my confidence.”
An injured Paul means Rivers will embrace any offensive contribution Speights can provide. And for the jovial sharpshooter who is rarely without a smile on his face, this multi-year, late-career renaissance shows no signs of abating any time soon.
WARRIORS INSIDER’S NOTEBOOK
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A Helping Hand
The Warriors easily remain the NBA’s best team in terms of generating offense off passes. Their average of 31 assists per game is more than five clear of the Houston Rockets, the next closest team, at 25.6 dimes a night.
If Golden State stays that mark, it would become only the third team in league history to average 31 assists per game. And if the Warriors can stretch that up to 31.5 assists a night by season’s end, they would break the all-time NBA record for assists, set by the 1984-85 “Showtime” Los Angeles Lakers.
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Kerr’s club is also chasing history in at least another counting-stat category. Golden State’s current 118 points per game average would make it the first team to reach that scoring level since the Warriors way back in 1991-92.
And if they were to finish the season with both the No. 1 offense and No. 1 defense, which they own now?
The last team to do that was the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls, who won 72 regular-season games and a championship.
The Warriors perhaps thought they were done hearing about that team after last season’s historic (yet ultimately underwhelming) run to 73-9, but maybe not.
Additional reporting from Los Angeles by Josh Martin.
Erik Malinowski is the Golden State Warriors lead writer for B/R. Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. You can follow him on Twitter at @erikmal. All stats via NBA.com/Stats and Basketball-Reference.com.