The Golden State Warriors are looking awfully good these days—with Stephen Curry emerging as a franchise cornerstone, a crop of promising young players on the rise and a stable ownership group that genuinely wants to win—but if a few things break right, the Dubs could be even better at this time next season.
Room To Improve
Any discussion of how good the Warriors can eventually be must begin with the potential development of their young players. And yes, Curry, still just 25, is in that group.
Golden State's sharpshooter extraordinaire actually does have a few areas he could stand to shore up. As the league's best perimeter shooter, Curry forces defenders to body up to him even when he's 30 feet from the hoop. When so closely guarded, the moderately quick Curry has been able to get into the lane frequently, despite a first step that rates as average, at best.
But once he's found his way into the paint, the Warriors have seen his perimeter accuracy give way to a surprisingly low percentage of makes around the rim.
Curry has proved this season that he's already got a creative arsenal of floaters and flip shots; he's just got to get them to go down. An offseason of practice should remedy his only offensive weakness.
Klay Thompson is another young player the Warriors will need to experience some marked growth. Fortunately for Golden State, the second-year shooting guard has already shown flashes of what he's capable of becoming: an ideal next-generation "Three and D" wing.
Thompson is best known for his picture-perfect outside stroke. But in addition to hitting 40 percent of his threes, the 6'7" guard has turned out to be the team's most versatile perimeter defender. Longer and stronger than his slim frame belies, Thompson's build makes him a real weapon when matched up on bigger wings. Plus, he has excellent footwork and surprising lateral quickness that allows him to stick with some of the league's most dangerous smalls as well.
Against the Denver Nuggets in the two teams' first-round series, Mark Jackson has turned to Thompson to handle everyone from Andre Miller to Ty Lawson to Andre Iguodala.
Today's NBA requires its wing players to do two things well: hit threes and defend. Thompson can do both at a high level now, and at just 23, he's still got plenty of time to grow.
Finally, there's Harrison Barnes, the Warriors' ridiculously gifted small forward. Barnes spent a season trying to find his way, often looking unsure of where to be, when to attack and when to defer. As a pure athlete, Barnes is practically unlimited.
Channeling that athleticism in a way that translates into productive offense and capable defense has been a challenge. In flashes, though, Barnes has occasionally met that challenge.
But a year from now, it's possible that the talented Barnes will be a more consistent two-way force. The kid gloves will be off the rookie next year, and if he puts in a summer of work, his second campaign could be vastly more impactful than his first.
More than any other single factor, the development of Barnes will influence how much better the Warriors can ultimately be next season.
On a smaller scale, the (theoretically) improved health of Andrew Bogut and Brandon Rush should give Golden State a major defensive boost.
Bogut will be another year removed from ankle surgery, and Rush will be back after sitting out the season with a devastating knee injury he suffered during the second game of the season. The Warriors made great strides on D this year despite getting just 34 games combined from their two best defensive players.
Bigger contributions from Rush and Bogut, along with the projected growth of their young perimeter trio, should help the Warriors take a step forward next year. But remember, there are some other moving parts that could very well shift the team's momentum in the opposite direction.
A Dose of Reality
As tantalizing as the Warriors' potential improvement is, it's important to note that the rotation could look much different next year without Jarrett Jack and Carl Landry.
Jack has been a steadying force in the locker room as well as an extremely valuable crunch-time performer for the Warriors this year. The veteran point guard didn't start many games during the regular season, but he finished nearly all of them.
As an unrestricted free agent, Jack figures to command a salary much higher than the $5 million he made with the Warriors this year. Jack's averages of 12.9 points and 5.6 assists in only 29.7 minutes per game project to be very good numbers for a starting point guard.
You can bet that some team will offer to pay him like one this summer.
Although Landry finished a few spots behind Jack in the voting for Sixth Man of the Year (he was eighth, while Jack was third), his value to the Warriors might have been even greater in 2012-13. As the bruising interior scorer that the team has lacked for what seems like forever, Landry gave Golden State the ability to generate easy buckets and free throws.
Amazingly, Landry made only $4 million this season. With the ability to opt out of the second year of his deal this summer, Landry figures to be a hot commodity. I mean, who wouldn't want a hard worker who could average 10.8 points and six rebounds on 54 percent shooting in just 23 minutes per game?
The fact is that Warriors GM Bob Myers made two phenomenal moves when he acquired Jack and Landry last summer, but there's no way their future services will combine to cost anywhere close to the bargain-basement $9 million the Warriors paid this past season.
Assuming Landry opts out and Rush, Andris Biedrins and Richard Jefferson opt into the last years of their respective deals, Golden State will have just under $71 million in salary commitments heading into next season. That means there's no way for the team to retain both Landry and Jack without venturing deep into luxury-tax territory.
The Wild Cards
A couple of unique factors make the Warriors tricky to predict next year.
First, it's hard to know whether the front office is willing to venture into the luxury tax to retain Landry, Jack or both. Assuming they aren't keen on big financial penalties, the Warriors' brain trust is going to have to find replacements for its two most valuable bench players.
In order to maintain the team's high level of performance, that'll mean hitting another pair of home runs in the trade and free-agency departments. It's not impossible, but repeating the feat of landing two players as good as Jack and Landry for even less money is going to be a monumentally tough task.
On a more positive note, Golden State will head into next year with two of its worst contracts in expiring status. Jefferson and Biedrins will be in the final years of their comically inflated deals, which means they'll be somewhat sought-after among teams looking to create cap space for the 2014-15 season.
So, even though Golden State will almost certainly lose some of its valuable bench production, there's a chance that a deadline acquisition in a deal involving Biedrins or Jefferson could bring some late-stage reinforcements.
Ultimately, the Warriors are a tough team to gauge next season. Two of their most valuable pieces will probably be gone, and those minutes will be redistributed to players who may not even be on the current roster.
At the same time, the potential growth of the team's young core, along with the improved health of its best defensive players, could mean that the departure of Landry and/or Jack won't be felt quite so severely.
If the team decides to dip into the tax to keep its veterans, the Warriors could easily improve enough to win at least 50 games next season. But if the harsh financial realities of the NBA cost Golden State two of its leaders, it will be a struggle to repeat the success it's having this year.
*All stats via Basketball-Reference.com, NBA.com/stats and HoopsHype.com unless otherwise indicated.