NBA Position Battles: Should JaVale McGee Be the Starting Center for the Golden State Warriors?

JaVale McGee has a reputation for making a lot of bonehead mistakes, but despite the occasional blunder, he's having an efficient season and might even be deserving of a starting role. What do the numbers have to say about that?

JaVale McGee has had one of the most enigmatic careers in the current NBA era, mixing brief flashes of basketball brilliance and raw, powerful athleticism with intermittent bonehead errors that make him a regular on Shaqtin' a Fool.

Despite the occasional blunder, however, McGee is having a career year with the Golden State Warriors. You can't really tell by looking at his raw averages of 5.9 points, 3.1 rebounds, and 0.9 blocks in only 9.3 minutes per game, but his per-36-minute and advanced stats are among the best of his eight-year NBA career.

Furthermore, the Dubs are playing some of their best basketball when he's on the floor, and that is perhaps the most interesting development of JaVale's mini-breakout year. McGee has played on some bad teams in the past and usually shouldered a fair bit of the blame for their lack of success. Now, he's joined a team that won an NBA record 73 games last year and has contributed to their continued success in a meaningful way this year. Who saw that coming?

The Warriors are locked into first place in the Western Conference and are set to get Kevin Durant back from injury in the near future. It would make a lot of sense for the team to stay on course and just keep doing what it's been doing, but it's interesting to consider what things would be like if they made McGee the regular starting center over Zaza Pachulia, since McGee has been so great in small bursts this year.

I'm not one to tell the the reigning Coach of the Year, Steve Kerr, what to do with his ball club, but why don't we compare the numbers for Pachulia and McGee just for fun? If it comes down to it in the playoffs, maybe the Warriors would consider a switch of this nature based on matchups or to provide a spark. If not, it's at least a fun thought exercise.

First, if you look at the per 36 numbers of McGee and Pachulia, JaVale seems like a much better option.

Player PTS/36 FG% FT% REB/36 AST/36 STL/36 BLK/36 TO/36
Pachulia 12.2 53.2% 77.0% 11.6 3.7 1.8 0.9 2.5
McGee 22.6 64.0% 51.4% 11.8 0.8 0.9 3.3 2.0

Pachulia has the edge in assists, steals, and free throw percentage, and the two are even in rebounding and turnovers, but McGee scores more and at a far better clip from the field, while providing a lot more rim protection with those blocked shots.

To that point, McGee also has a considerable advantage over Pachulia when it comes to their respective rim protection numbers.

Zaza Pachulia 2.9 5.3 56.0%
JaVale McGee 1.5 2.9 50.2%

The Warriors are third in the NBA in defensive field goal percentage allowed within five feet of the rim at 50.6%, and McGee has contributed to that with his mark of 50.2%. Pachulia, meanwhile, has one of the worst marks on the team and easily the worst among Golden State's big men at 56.0%.

And that difference in defensive impact is also reflected in their advanced stats.

Category Zaza Pachulia JaVale McGee
nERD 3.8 4.0
Offensive rating 117 119
Defensive rating 101 100
Player efficiency rating 16.1 24.6
Win shares 4.5 3.1
Win shares per 48 minutes .177 .218
Box plus/minus 2.7 0.6
Value over replacement player 1.4 0.5

Pachulia has McGee beat in some of the cumulative numbers like win shares and value over replacement player since his 1,209 minutes played nearly doubles McGee's 690, but McGee has a clear advantage in most of the per-possession advanced metrics like offensive rating, defensive rating, player efficiency rating, win shares per 48 minutes, and nERD -- our proprietary metric that measures the total contribution of a player throughout the course of a season, based on efficiency.

But what each player does on an individual basis is not nearly as important as how the team performs when one is on the court instead of the other. If you look at the difference in how the Warriors fare when each center option is combined with the other four entrenched starters -- Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green -- McGee's candidacy to move up to the top of the depth chart in the middle becomes even stronger.

5-Man Lineup MIN Off Rtg Def Rtg Net Rtg
Including Pachulia 532 120.3 97.1 23.1
Including McGee 126 124.4 92.2 32.1

The lineup with Pachulia is just fine, mind you, but the McGee version is still better on both sides of the ball. In fact, the McGee lineup has the highest net rating of any five-man combo in the entire NBA this season with a minimum of 100 minutes played, and that probably makes it deserving of more of a look.

The 2016-17 Golden State Warriors are one of the scariest NBA teams of all time when completely healthy, so they probably don't need a drastic change to a formula that clearly works. They are also one of the pioneers of the league's small-ball movement, so debating who should be their starting center is more or less a moot point, since that player will rarely close out games or be in at the most crucial moments.

Even so, if the Warriors ever want to kick things up another notch in the upcoming playoffs, they could consider starting JaVale McGee instead of Zaza Pachulia, since McGee has better numbers when it comes to his per 36 averages, rim protection stats, and advanced metrics, and the Warriors actually perform quite a bit better when he's on the floor with the team's other regular starters than they do when Pachulia is in his place.