Listen Live Now:

Chriss’ first look, Smailagic return? How Warriors shake out without Cauley-Stein

D. Ross Cameron-USA TODAY Sports

Willie Cauley-Stein has become known for his quiet presence. He’s neither outspoken off the court nor on the court, a calming influence who does not put up gaudy numbers but still carries an unmistakable air about him. In general, he makes teams better, his long arms and strong body intimidating at the rim, his shadow as valuable as his person.

In the Warriors’ first game without their center, who’s headed to Dallas in a trade that is not yet official, his absence was reminiscent of his presence: not overwhelming but on everyone’s minds, a quiet but effective player quietly gone, making a bad team slightly worse.

Without Cauley-Stein, the Warriors fought but not enough, falling 129-118 to the Pacers at Chase Center on Friday, debuting their new starting center as a player waived two and a half weeks ago.

Marquese Chriss played his own game solidly but could not and probably cannot play Cauley-Stein’s game. He threw down a couple vicious dunks, his around-the-rim style resulting in 5-for-5 from the field for 13 points, including a rare 3. And while he mostly limited Indiana’s Domantas Sabonis (5-for-13 for 16 points with 10 rebounds), he couldn’t stop the onslaught down low.

The Pacers came away with 56 points in the paint, the Warriors just 28. Cauley-Stein was not around to alter shots, and while Chriss is long enough — he did block a pair of offerings — he is not the defensive enforcer that he’s replacing.

“Marquese and Omari [Spellman] will get some experience there and we’ll let Draymond [Green] play some center and then it’s a matter of helping with some help defense with all five guys on the screen,” Steve Kerr said after Spellman was a non-factor, going 3-for-14 for 11 points. “We have to communicate. Domantas Sabonis puts a lot of pressure on you. He’s a really good dive man off the pick-and-roll. He sets a good, hard screen and he rolls, and he’s got good hands in the paint. He’s a handful in there and did a good job tonight.”

With talent out the door, it’s possible there’s far-off talent getting closer. The Warriors are playing shorthanded, not just Cauley-Stein gone but Kevon Looney still missing with injury. Alen Smailagic, who’s shown flashes but also reminded that he’s all of 19 years old, hasn’t played in the NBA since Jan. 14, the Warriors preferring him playing major G League minutes over minor big-time minutes.

Kerr said it’s possible this will expedite Smiley’s return, but the team still would prefer he reside somewhere he can better improve his game.

“But for sure he’ll be up here for more games at some point the rest of the season,” Kerr said after the Warriors’ undermanned unit actually outrebounded the Pacers, 38-36.

Without the most veteran big man they have, though, the Warriors possess a crush of young, untested talent, of whom they are trying to test whether they’re pieces for next season. Kerr was happy with Chriss’ performance and praised his “work ethic and his character,” too, highlighting reasons the 22-year-old from Sacramento is not just with the team, but suddenly starting.

It was a strange day for the so-recently-unemployed Chriss. He found a promotion and lost a friend.

“It sucks man,” Chriss said of Cauley-Stein’s exit, which will net the Warriors a second-round pick. “It’s hard when you’re with somebody every day and you’re playing games with him and going to battle with him, then they’re gone in the snap of a finger.

“I wish the best for him. I think he’s in a hell of a situation for him. Sad that [Dallas’ Dwight] Powell got hurt, but he’s in a position where he can go in and play.”


More from KNBR